Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)


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A Utilitarian FAQ

The equal claim of everybody to happiness in the estimation of the moralist and the legislator involves an equal claim to all the means of happiness …. And hence all social inequalities which have ceased to be considered expedient, assume the character not of simple inexpediency, but of injustice.


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The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being supposed a primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex.

Here we see Mill identifying utilitarian impartiality with the demands of justice and morality itself also see Crisp 79— One might wonder if utilitarianism is the only or the best way to understand impartiality. Indeed, this is one way of understanding now familiar worries about the implications of utilitarianism for issues of distributive justice and individual rights. Mill recognizes a potential worry about the sanctions of utilitarianism that apparently has its source in prudence or self-interest.

He [an agent] says to himself, I feel that I am bound not to rob or murder, betray or deceive; but why am I bound to promote the general happiness? If my own happiness lies in something else, why may I not give that the preference? III 1. For this reason, Mill seems to think that it poses no special problem for utilitarianism III 1, 2, 3, 6.

Is Mill right that there is no special threat to utilitarianism here? One might wonder whether utilitarianism makes greater demands on agents than other moral theories. Contemporary writers have argued that utilitarianism seems to be potentially very demanding, much more so than commonsense morality. For instance, reformist utilitarians, such as Peter Singer , have argued that utilitarianism entails extensive duties of mutual aid that would call for significant changes in the lifestyles of all those who are even moderately well off.

And critics of utilitarianism have treated the demandingness of utilitarianism as one of its principal flaws. Rawls has argued that the sort of interpersonal sacrifice that utilitarianism requires violates the strains of commitment in a well-ordered society. And Bernard Williams has argued that the demandingness of utilitarianism threatens the sort of personal projects and partial relationships that help give our lives meaning.


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This worry about the demands of utilitarianism is not easy to assess. One might wonder how to interpret and whether to accept the psychological realist constraint. If the constraint is relative to possible or ideal psychology, then it is not clear that even a highly revisionary moral theory need flout the constraint. Then there is a question about how demanding or revisionary utilitarianism actually is. Mill and Sidgwick thought that our knowledge of others and our causal powers to do good were limited to those near and dear and other associates with whom we have regular contact, with the result that as individuals we do better overall by focusing our energies and actions on associates of one kind or another, rather than the world at large U II 19; Sidgwick, Methods — On this view, utilitarianism can accommodate the sort of special obligations and personal concerns to which the critics of utilitarianism appeal.

But it is arguable that even if this sort of utilitarian accommodation was tenable in nineteenth century Britain, technological development and globalization have rendered utilitarian demands more revisionary. Our information about others and our causal reach are not limited as they once were. So even if Mill was right to think that the motivational demands of utilitarianism were not so different from those of other moral theories at the time he wrote, that claim might need to be reassessed today.

He begins by distinguishing old and new threats to liberty. The old threat to liberty is found in traditional societies in which there is rule by one a monarchy or a few an aristocracy. Though one could be worried about restrictions on liberty by benevolent monarchs or aristocrats, the traditional worry is that when rulers are politically unaccountable to the governed they will rule in their own interests, rather than the interests of the governed.

In particular, they will restrict the liberties of their subjects in ways that benefit themselves, rather than the ruled. It was these traditional threats to liberty that the democratic reforms of the Philosophical Radicals were meant to address. But Mill thinks that these traditional threats to liberty are not the only ones to worry about. He makes clear that democracies contain their own threats to liberty—this is the tyranny, not of the one or the few, but of the majority OL I 1—5.

Mill sets out to articulate the principles that should regulate how governments and societies, whether democratic or not, can restrict individual liberties I 6. The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion.

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That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right.

These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else.

The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence, is, of right, absolute.

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Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. In this passage, Mill distinguishes paternalistic and moralistic restrictions of liberty from restrictions of liberty based upon the harm principle and claims that the harm prevention is the sole legitimate basis for restricting individual liberties. Later, Mill distinguishes between genuine harm and mere offense.

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In order to satisfy the harm principle, an action must violate or risk violation of those important interests of others in which they have a right I 12; III 1; IV 3, 10; IV 12; V 5. These distinctions allow Mill to defend a categorical approach to liberal rights. Mill seems to permit or forbid restrictions on liberty by category, claiming that the only restrictions that are permissible involve harm prevention. Of course, a given regulation might fall under more than one category. Many provisions of the criminal law, such as prohibitions on murder and assault, might be designed both to enforce fundamental moral provisions and to prevent harm to others.

Mill does not object to moralistic or paternalistic legislation that can also be defended by appeal to the harm principle.

A Utilitarian FAQ

Rather, the objection is to restrictions that can only be justified in these ways and cannot be justified by appeal to harm prevention. Harm prevention is a necessary but not sufficient ground for restricting individual liberties. Harm prevention is sufficient to establish a pro tanto case for regulation I 11 , but whether regulation is all things considered appropriate depends on a utilitarian calculation of whether the benefits of regulation exceed its costs.

But even if harm prevention is not sufficient to justify restricting liberty, Mill does appear to claim that it is necessary. Sometimes Mill suggests that the harm principle is equivalent to letting society restrict other-regarding conduct I 11; IV 2. On this view, conduct can be divided into self-regarding and other-regarding conduct. Regulation of the former is paternalistic, and regulation of the latter is an application of the harm principle. So on this view it is never permissible to regulate purely self-regarding conduct and always permissible to regulate other-regarding conflict.

But, as Mill himself concedes, very little conduct is purely self-regarding IV 8. Some other-regarding conduct causes mere offense, not genuine harm IV 3; IV So Mill cannot equate harmful behavior and other-regarding behavior and cannot think that all other-regarding behavior may be regulated. It is generally thought that by applying this categorical approach to liberty and its permissible restrictions Mill is led to offer a fairly extensive defense of individual liberties against interference by the state and society.

In particular, it is sometimes thought that Mill recognizes a large sphere of conduct which it is impermissible for the state to regulate. On this reading, Mill is deriving his conception of liberal rights from a prior commitment to the categorical approach and, in particular, to the harm principle see Jacobson for an alternative reading. Utilitarianism treats the good as prior to and independent of the right or duty—defining duty as the promotion of good consequences. Perhaps certain kinds of actions tend to be good or bad, but, according to direct utilitarianism, the moral quality of a particular action depends on its own consequences.

By contrast, the deontological and natural rights traditions treat duty or the right as prior to and independent of the good. Sometimes one has a duty to do an act that is suboptimal, and sometimes it is wrong to do the optimal act. Deontologists recognize moral constraints on pursuing the good. These constraints usually take the form of categorical rules to perform or refrain from certain sorts of actions e.

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The Challenge of Utilitarianism and Relativism to Human Rights

A special case of this perceived conflict between categorical rules and utility is the perceived tension between utility and rights. For, on a common view, individual rights just are a special case of categorical rules. The apparent conflict between utility and rights poses an interesting test for Mill, because he wants to defend liberal rights that have utilitarian foundations. We need to ask if Mill is able to reconcile his defense of utility and liberty without compromising either his utilitarianism or his defense of a right to liberties.

Mill begins his defense of basic liberties with a discussion of freedom of expression. He thinks that there is general agreement on the importance of free speech and that, once the grounds for free speech are understood, this agreement can be exploited to support a more general defense of individual liberties I 16; III 1.

So his defense of expressive liberties is important not only in its own right but also insofar as it lays the foundation of his liberal principles.

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He mentions four reasons for maintaining free speech and opposing censorship. It is natural to group these four considerations into two main kinds: the first two invoke a truth-tracking defense of expressive liberties, while the second two appeal to a distinctive kind of value that free discussion is supposed to have. The first two claims represent freedom of expression as instrumentally valuable; it is valuable, not in itself, but as the most reliable means of producing something else that Mill assumes is valuable either extrinsically or intrinsically , namely, true belief.

It is not hard to see how true beliefs would possess at least instrumental value, if only because our actions, plans, and reasoning are likely to be more successful when based on true beliefs. Of course, the most reliable means of promoting true belief would be to believe everything.

But that would bring a great deal of false belief along too. A more plausible goal to promote would be something like the ratio of true belief to false belief. Freedom of expression might then be defended as a more reliable policy for promoting the ratio of true belief to false belief than a policy of censorship. This rationale for freedom of expression is echoed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States when he claims that the best test of truth is free trade in the marketplace of ideas.

Notice that this instrumental defense of freedom of expression does not require the mistaken assumption that the censor must assume his own infallibility OL II 3. The censor can recognize that he might be mistaken, but insist that he must act on the best available evidence about what is true.

Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context) Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)
Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism (Ideas in Context)

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