Origins of Classical Utilitarianism 
Origins of Classical Utilitarianism
by Yale / Ian Shapiro
Video Lecture 4 of 25
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Date Added: June 18, 2011

Lecture Description

Jeremy Bentham's formulation of classical utilitarianism is the first Enlightenment tradition that the course will cover in depth. In his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham outlines the principle of utility; that is, the principle that all men are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. Professor Shapiro presents the case that classical utilitarianism has five characteristics: (1) it is comprehensive and deterministic, (2) it is a pre-Darwinian naturalist doctrine, (3) it is egoistic but not subjectivist, (4) it is highly consequentialist, and (5) it is based on the idea that utility is quantifiable and that one can make interpersonal comparisons of utility. As for the role of government, Bentham believes that it is to "maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number." The class discusses the merits of utilitarianism through examination of Robert Nozick's hypothetical experience machines, the implication of public goods, and "the tragedy of the commons."

Reading assignment:
Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapters 1-3, 7

Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, chapters 5, 6 [optional]

Course Index

Course Description

This course explores main answers to the question, "When do governments deserve our allegiance?" It starts with a survey of major political theories of the Enlightenment—Utilitarianism, Marxism, and the social contract tradition—through classical formulations, historical context, and contemporary debates relating to politics today. It then turns to the rejection of Enlightenment political thinking. Lastly, it deals with the nature of, and justifications for, democratic politics, and their relations to Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment political thinking. Practical implications of these arguments are covered through discussion of a variety of concrete problems.

Course Structure:
This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 50 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Spring 2010.

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