How to Teach Utilitarianism

Posted on Posted in Consequentialism, teaching philosophy, Uncategorized, Utilitarianism

The biggest mistake, which every textbook that I’ve ever seen uses, is to make the focus of instruction regarding utilitarianism an excerpt from Mill’s Utilitarianism. Pretty much everybody uses the section that has Mill’s argument on higher and lower pleasures, Mill’s desirability argument, and some other stuff that is not usually given as much importance. I think that is an important and interesting reading however it is best reserved for non-intro classes. For intro classes it is best to stick to the basics and not get sidetracked by esoteric arguments that are not crucial to understanding how the theory functions on its most basic level.

The context of the argument for higher and lower pleasures is that it is a  response to certain criticism leveled against utilitarians. So, to understand Mill’s response you need to understand utilitarianism, the criticism against utilitariansim and then be able to asses whether Mill’s argument works as a response to that criticism, which is all much too much for the purposes of most introductory level classes. (This is probably more applicable to those that teach at community colleges and larger public universities.)

The other problem, albeit a less important one, with the whole argument is that the criticism just doesn’t seem that problematic to most students these days. The original criticism that Mill’s argument is a response to is outdated. The issue is still an important one in value theory but the criticism itself doesn’t resonate with students.

So, all  you have to do is use a reading from Bentham instead of Mill and ignore Mill’s argument from higher and lower pleasures. So students don’t miss out on Mill I like to teach a section on political philosophy and include an excerpt from On Liberty.

There is another thing that I think helps a great deal in understanding normative ethics as a whole. This next suggestion might be more controversial and is definitely a bit more unorthodox but the I promise it really does make sense and help students to understand normative ethics. So here it goes.

Rather than teach Mill’s desirability argument teach Sidgewick’s argument based on his axiom of rational benevolence. If your students can handle it you can teach both as they go nicely together but Sidgewick’s argument is the important one and for most intro courses it can and should be taught alone.  What is the payoff you may be wondering. First, you get an argument that doesn’t totally fall on its face that provides some justification for the principle of utility. How much sense does it make to say “here’s a theory but the argument for it is terrible,” which is basically what you are doing by just teaching Mill. But the real payoff lies elsewhere. By teaching Sidegwick’s argument you get to teach utilitarianism and KE ethics as similar theories of ethics.

Essentially they are both rationalist theory that base their fundamental moral command as a command of reason but they merely differ in their understanding of what reason commands. KE sees the fundamental command of morality to respect the dignity of persons and treat them as ends in themselves whereas the utilitarian sees the fundamental command of ethics to maximize utility. Sidgewick’s argument and Kant’s argument for the formula of humanity work well together and help students see the similarities and differences between the two theories.

Tying it all together I teach contractualism (Kantian ethics) and utilitarianism as theories of ethics grounded in a universal conception of reason and I teach contractarianism as a theory of ethics grounded in a prudential conception of reason.

I know it is a bit unorthodox but I promise it works. (if you want to try this out feel free to email  me and I can give you some actual content/handouts etc.)


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