Introductory Lecture on Utilitarianism
There are a few points I’d like to make in order to put Utilitarianism in context.
course thus far, we have examined different theories on how to understand the nature of
With Utilitarianism, we move up to something much more ambitious.
only do we have a theory of human nature and the nature of morality, we have an entire
that ultimately can give us a procedure for figuring out the right course of action
in any situation.
In other words, utilitarianism gives us a
at the right thing to do.
This goes much farther than ethical egoism, subjectivism,
absolutism, ethical relativism, etc.
They make claims on how we should understand the
nature of morality, but they don’t give us substantive guidance on what we should do as a
In contrast, Utilitarianism gives us a simple formula that anyone can use, to
enable us to evaluate a moral question and know what to do.
Kantian ethics (which we
will study next) also does this.
In a sense, developing an entire system is akin to the holy
grail in academic (secular) ethics.
Both Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics have been profoundly influential.
They are still
endlessly discussed, criticized, defended, refined, and applied in not only the ethics
literature, but also the other branches of philosophy, as well as politics, economics,
medicine, law, sociology, criminal justice, psychology, etc.
Interestingly, despite their
profound influence and importance, there are actually very few adherents to these
For each, there are probably a few hundred true believers in the world, as
compared to hundreds of millions of devout Christians who follow their understanding of
Christianity to guide them in ethical decisions.
So what makes utilitarianism so
influential and important?
To answer this, much more explanation is necessary.
Historical Development of Utilitarianism
Although the particular elements of Utilitarianism [henceforth abbreviated as U] have
many precursors, the founding father of U is the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham
Bentham was a social activist with a forward looking agenda.
many of the best minds in Britain to his causes.
His followers were known as the
, and they were dedicated to reforming the entire gamut of British
They sought dramatic changes in the legal, religious, economic, educational,
political, and moral institutions.
They were products of the
, who saw
better ways to arrange things, along secular, rational, objective, and scientific lines.
Bentham hated the aristocracy, which set up British institution to favor their own