Util Intro - Introductory Lecture on Utilitarianism...

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Introductory Lecture on Utilitarianism Background/Context There are a few points I’d like to make in order to put Utilitarianism in context. In our course thus far, we have examined different theories on how to understand the nature of morality. With Utilitarianism, we move up to something much more ambitious. Not only do we have a theory of human nature and the nature of morality, we have an entire system 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 decision procedure for arriving 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 general rule. 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 systems. 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 (1748-1832). Bentham was a social activist with a forward looking agenda. He attracted many of the best minds in Britain to his causes. His followers were known as the Philosophic Radicals , and they were dedicated to reforming the entire gamut of British institutions. They sought dramatic changes in the legal, religious, economic, educational, political, and moral institutions. They were products of the enlightenment , who saw better ways to arrange things, along secular, rational, objective, and scientific lines.
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