Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Utilitarianism

In class on Tuesday, Nancy mentioned that many of us did not seem very receptive to John Stuart Mills' ethical concept of Utilitarianism even though Mills ideas are what many of the founding fathers drew upon when they established our democratic government system. You know, that whole idea of the majority rule, with the caveat that sometimes the voice of the minority is overlooked. I suppose it's understandable that, for many of us, the idea of "the greatest good for the greatest number" could be given such a negative connotation because, let's face it, some of the most horrific atrocities ever committed have been under the guise and justification of "for the greater good." I think that negative association of utilitarianism has permeated our culture to such a degree that many of our popular culture's most iconic and in some way, most complex, villains seem to be strong practitioners of this type of ethical philosophy (Something I would like to go into greater depth in other posts sometime, 'cause I'm a huge nerd). But the truth is, there are many schools of thought under the umbrella of Mills original, more broad, conception of the idea. Not only that but the idea of what constitutes "the greater good" and what "sacrifices" would be necessary to bring happiness to this majority are all pretty subjective ideas.


  1. The founding fathers may have based our governmental system on utilitarianism, but we have drifted far from it in the last 50 years. Now it is almost unacceptable to be part of the whole, and more permissable to be one of a minority goup. This is ironic, as it is clustering more and more people into these smaller groups, making them large, and no longer the small groups these people wanted to be a part of in the first place. I also think this grouping in society is making us less and less unified as a whole.

  2. I think Mack really nailed that one on the head. Our American history really puts Mill's philosophy to the test. Minorities in our country including Native Americans, African Americans and women at some times have really suffered under the 'majority' rule. I would argue however, that the greatest good was not achieved for the greatest number of people. Ida B. Wells, a black women's advocate said something to the affect of that unless black women can vote and are free, than all women are not free. Wouldn't the majority be all women, not just white women? I think this is a good example of how this philosophy can be distorted. Alice Paul, while a great white women's activist, did not want to really include black women in her endeavors because it would theoretically undermine the effort. People in the South thought that if women got the vote, so would black women. I agree with Mack that the greater good and sacrifices are a very subjective and unfair way to decide someone's fate.