PHIL 464: Utilitarianism
PHIL 464: Utilitarianism
The Generic Catalog Description
This course will examine a selection of classic texts in the utilitarian tradition, as well as the work of recent theorists, considering utilitarianism as an option in moral philosophy. Applications to contemporary issues will also be studied.
PHIL 464: Utilitarianism and Its Critics
The term "utilitarianism" is used in a number of different ways by moral theorists and the term "utilitarian" is used even more broadly in ordinary speech. The principal focus of this course will be on utilitarianism in the sense of those accounts of moral reflection that hold that our best moral judgments have this structure (also called consequentialist or, in my own terminology, value-maximizing moral reflection): they determine what ought to be done by identifying which of the available courses of action (or which policy, social rule, etc., if the alternatives for choice are of that sort) is likely to yield the greatest experience of what-is-of-value for those affected. (The "greatest experience" refers to the greatest net experience because all actions, policies, etc., produce both positive and negative experiences, and both must be taken into account.)
As for any of the consequentialist or value-maximizing moral theories, there are two fundamental questions to ask about utilitarianism: What Is of Value ? (i.e. valuable for its own sake, not solely as a means to something else) and For Whom ? (i.e. for whose well-being are these values to be maximized) ? Regarding the second question, utilitarianism's answer is well known and, in fact, utilitarianism is sometimes called "universalist consequentialism" because its answer to the second question is: For everyone affected. The first question, "What is of value?" has been answered in a number of ways by various thinkers in the utilitarian tradition. After examining the basic structure of consequentialist moral thinking, the course will then focus on different ways of answering this first question, as well as issues of the evidence available to support such answers, different readings of Mill and subsequent commentators in relation to this question, and the implications of the different answers for moral philosophy.
To these ends, the first part of the course will examine some key texts first from Jeremy Bentham and then several important works John Stuart Mill in their entirety -- Utilitarianism; On Liberty; and The Subjection of Women, as well as other selections from these authors and twentieth century commentators.
The second part of the course will focus on a number of objections to utilitarianism. It has been argued, for example, that utilitarianism fails to adequately account for the moral claims of social rules, and there is a literature on "rule-utilitarianism" which attempts to meet this objection. Similarly, utilitarianism is claimed to fail to handle the problem of "the interpersonal comparison of utilities," and the proposal of "preference utilitarianism" has been developed as a response. Utilitarianism is also criticized for failing to adequately address the moral claims of justice, rights, basic needs, the purported priority of liberty over other values, and the integrity of the agent. Readings will include examples of positions critical of utilitarianism in these ways as well as replies from within the utilitarian position. We will also study Henry Shue's Basic Rights and probably one other book-length study of these or related issues (still to be named).