Classical Utilitarianism Revisited: A Selected Bibliography

October 14th, 2017

"Classical Utilitarianism," which is best known for arguing that "it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong," was developed by the radical philosophers, critics, and social reformers William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Together, they had a profound influence on nineteenth-century reforms, in areas ranging from law, politics, and economics to morals, education, and women's rights, and key elements of their views are today being revived by some of the world's leading philosophers and economists, notably Peter Singer. Schultz' Humanities Day talk, based on his recent book, will highlight a number of the reasons why the views of the classical utilitarians are being revisited and redeployed to address some of the world's most pressing ethical problems. The discussion features The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians, and will take place as part of Humanities Day on Saturday 10/21, 9:30am at Kent Hall, Room 120.

The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians, by Bart Schultz - This is my most recent book, themes from which will figure in my Humanities Day talk. My aim was to revisit and repurpose the lives and works of the great classical utilitarians--William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. The caricatures of classical utilitarianism that are afloat today, in both academic philosophy and with the general educated public, are truly perverse and largely the result of hostile, ill-informed treatments in introductory ethics courses and popular literature. The richness of the classical utilitarian efforts to make the world go as well and as happily as possible, evidenced in their feminism, educational reformism, opposition to slavery, socialism, animal liberationism, etc.--should still inspire people today.

The Methods of Ethics, by Henry Sidgwick - Probably the greatest philosophical work to emerge from classical utilitarianism, and one that has frequently been lauded as the best book on ethics ever. Sidgwick's argument is subtle and complex, developing through a critical comparison of utilitarianism with the rival approaches of rational egoism and commonsense or intuitional morality (like the usual Kantian duties). Sidgwick argues that utilitarianism can assimilate what is best in commonsense morality, but is in sharp conflict with rational egoism--hence, there is a "dualism of practical reason." He was profoundly worried about this, since he hoped to see the future growth of rational benevolence rather than an increase in egoism or self-interest.

Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit - The late Derek Parfit was profoundly indebted to Sidgwick, and in this work and his more recent multivolume On What Matters, he returns to Sidgwickian themes again and again, brilliantly pursuing various strategies for dealing with the dualism of practical reason, the problem of justice for future generations, the relevance of issues of personal identity for ethics, the nature of ethical truth, and much more.

The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer - This is a very ambitious work that, informed by Sidgwick's and Parfit's metaethical views, defends many of the leading claims of The Methods of Ethics, while trying to overcome the dualism of practical reason in a way that goes beyond Parfit in vindicating classical utilitarianism. The same authors have recently published a splendid little book, Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, that in many ways complements my Happiness Philosophers in demonstrating the current relevance of classical utilitarianism. Singer, a founder of the animal liberation and effective altruism movements, is one of the world's most influential philosophers, and it is telling that he has in recent years moved ever closer to Sidgwick's views on ethical truth and a hedonistic theory of the good.

Reason in a Dark Time, by Dale Jamieson - Jamieson has for many years been a leading environmental philosopher working within a sophisticated consequentialist/utilitarian framework. His seminal article, "When Utilitarians Should Be Virtue Theorists," is an excellent corrective to many of the going misconceptions of utilitarianism. In Reason in a Dark Time, he does a wonderful job of demonstrating how woefully inadequate the rival ethical approaches are when it comes to environmental issues, particularly climate change. There is such a thing as green utilitarian virtue, and it will probably be better for purposes of coping with the future than anything coming from Aristotle or Kant or their current defenders.

About Bart Schultz: Bart Schultz is a philosopher with wide interests in philosophy and social justice. As Exectuive Director of the Civic Knowledge Project, he has developed an array of public ethics programs for building community connections on Chicago’s South Side, including the award-winning Winning Words Precollegiate Philosophy Program. He is the author of several books, including the recently published The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians (2017). Schultz is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

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