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Some Essays on Utilitarianism

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Foreword While we are deeply convinced of the necessity of the study of ethics, we can hardly ignore the significance and relevance of utilitarianism. Such thought inspired us to organize a two- day state- level seminar on “ Utilitarianism and Beyond” under UGC SAP DRS (Phase I) Programme of the Department of Philosophy, University of Calcutta, on 15th and 16th of March, 2011. We took this initiative under the able guidance and supervision of Prof. Uma Chattopadhyay, the DRS Acting Coordina...

While we are deeply convinced of the necessity of the study of ethics, we can hardly ignore the significance and relevance of utilitarianism. Such thought inspired us to organize a two- day state- level seminar on “ Utilitarianism and Beyond” under UGC SAP DRS (Phase I) Programme of the Department of Philosophy, University of Calcutta, on 15th and 16th of March, 2011. We took this initiative under the able guidance and supervision of Prof. Uma Chattopadhyay, the DRS Acting Coordinator, Department of Philosophy, University of Calcutta.

This anthology entitled Some Essays on Utilitarianism incorporates the papers presented in the seminar but it has found its place in this anthology because of its emphasis on the relation between the utilitarian approach and the question of economic allocation. Because of the variety of the issues we wanted to have as many papers as possible; unfortunately, we could not incorporate them within the stipulated time.

We are extremely thankful to the University Grants Commission for its Publication Grant under UGC SAP DRS (Phase-1)Programme for the Year, which made this publication possible.

We convey our gratitude to the Vice- Chancellor, University of Calcutta, for his constant co-operation.

We convey our gratitude to the Vice- Chancellor, University of Culcutta, for his constant co- operation.

We extend our thankful gratitude to the DRS co-ordinator, Prof. Uma Chattopadhyay, for her inspiration and guidance.

Our profound thanks goes to Dr. Manidipa Sanyal, Head, Department of Philosophy, University of Calcutta, for her active co-operation.

We are grateful to the learned scholars for their invaluable contributions.

We cannot but thank our senior teachers and colleagues, D.R.S. staffs (Smt. Tapati Mitra, Sri Himanshu Chakraborty), D.R.S. Project Fellow, Ms. Piyali Mitra, for their constant support and help.

Last but not the least, we express our sincere thanks to Maha Bodhi Agency, the publisher, for taking trouble in bringing out this anthology within a short span of time.


The title of this anthology, Some Essays on Utilitarianism, implies an attempt to discuss utilitarianism from various perspectives. We undertake this project with a view to broaden the horizon of our thought in dealing with the problems of utilitarianism, one of the most hotly contested subjects in moral and political theory. Over the past two hundred years, from Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century founder of utilitarianism, to the postmodern period, many issues have been raised either in favour of or against the utilitarian tradition. The central idea of utilitarianism is that morality (both individual and socio-political) is and should be concerned with the promotion of happiness. In many ways we can spell out this general claim. For Bentham, the utility principle tells legislators to produce laws that maximize happiness. For John Stuart Mill, "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." Henry Sidgwick claims that unless we can resolve the dualism between utilitarianism and egoism, ethics is incoherent. Mid-twentieth century utilitarians (such as R. M. Hare) seek "logically watertight proofs, based on the meanings of moral terms." Late twentieth-century utilitarians (following the method of John Rawls) look for a "reflective equilibrium where all our considered intuitions fit together."

However, utilitarians' approach to moral evaluation and moral decision making have been challenged and this, subequently, has led to different controversies. The thrust of this anthology is mostly critical and the papers centre around the following issues : utilitarianism and its different versions, utilitarianism as an ethical approach, utilitarianism and justice, utilitarianism versus virtue ethics, utilitarianism from the feminist perspective and utilitarianism from the postmodern perspective. Apala Chakraborty, in "Utilitarianism and Beyond" endeavours to reflect on utilitarinism from different standpoints. She begins with a very simple and unambiguous theory, offered by Bentham : we desire or act for some end expecting a benefit. She also focuses on the concepts of "cause", "reason" and "desire" in this context. The author, however, notes that Bentham himself was much influenced by the spirit of American liberation movement. She affirms that this is reflected in Bentham's utilitarian ideal. But, Mill, another utilitarian thinker, has his emphasis elsewhere; we should take note of Mill's emphasis on the task of reason in determining the character of human desires. The author presents different interpretations in this connection.

Smt. Chakraborty also explores utilitarianism as a form of consequentialism and tries to explain it taking note of Brandt's exposition of it.

The author, finally, focuses on two important observations in relation to the claims of the utilitarian theory - (i) the true object of morality has to be so conceived that can never be inconsistent to desire it and (ii) it offers an obvious justification for an act. To understand the point she intends to draw our attention to the distinction between “preferential” and “basic needs”, offered by Mclosky.

The paper comes to an end with this conclusive remark that the doctrine offered by the different utilitarian thinkers remains both with utilitarianism and also goes beyond it. In fact, Apala Chakraborty, in her paper, presents persuasive arguments and different interpretations to show the increasing relevance of utilitarianism. We need to rethink taking different considerations into account.

In "Mill's Principle of Utility: Some Observations", Tirthanath Bandopadhyay presents the priniciple of utility as propounded by Mill. Sri Bandopadhyay describes the principle of utility and shows many concerns in this connection. He begins with the basic assumption of Mill's principle of utility, i.e., pleasure or happiness is the only thing which is intrinsically good and we all desire pleasure or happiness for its own sake. By utility Mill actually means the maximization of human happiness. The author thinks that Mill's utilitarianism seems to aim at the welfare of people as a whole.

Sri Bandopadhyay introduces Mill as a moral monist since Mill acknowledges only one ultimate moral principle, viz, the principle of utility. He also discusses Mill's distinction between the quantitative excellence of pleasure and the qualitative excellence of pleasure. He raises an important question, on what exact grounds the qualitative distinction of pleasures is to be vindicated? The author, finally, delves into Mill's utilitarian moral theory as a variety of consequentialism. He records a rather nagging difficulty of consequentialism as a moral theory and argues that this difficulty renders Mill's moral theory questionable.

In her paper "Self-respect, Personal Projects and Utilitarianism" Aparna Banerjee examines whether self-respect is an important ingredient of happiness. At the outset the author claims that utilitarianism fails to draw sufficiently strong protective barriers around individuals because of its insistence on sum-ranking of all relevant pleasures and pains. Some utilitarians have accepted that self-respect is an important ingredient of happiness. This is the route through which they have tried to eliminate from utilitarian calculation pleasures that are cruel and sadistic and have tried to establish the inviolability of persons.

The author, however, points out that their arguments are far from satisfactory. The individual's personal projects in life enter into utilitarian calculations only in so far as they contribute to overall happiness. She insists that it does not allow the agent to give special weight to his/her own projects in life.

The author concludes that while ignoring the individual and concentrating only on results is morally unconvincing, to appose utilitarianism with an essentially individualistic morality has its own problems.

In "Utilitarinism and the Motive for Morality" Atashee Chatterjeee Sinha intends to offer an exposition of the utilitarian morality with special reference to John Stuart Mill. Mill is a consequentialist and he thinks that the morality of an action depends on its foreseen consequences. The author argues that the utilitarian morality, for Mill, recognizes in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. She reminds us that the greatest happiness, as Mill proposes, involves not just contentment but also a sense of dignity. However, Smt. Chatterjee Sinha raises some objections against the utilitarian morality. In this connection, she discusses direct consequentialism as the major ethical element in most contemporary utilitarianism. She also incorporates David Hume's view on moral sentiments. The author, finally, contends that in order to judge the moral value or worth of our actions we need to focus on our motives and dispositions along with the predicted consequences.

In the paper entitled "Utilitarainism and Distributive Justice" Roma Chakraborty explores the utilitarian approach and considers the implications it has on the question of the distribution of the socio-economic benefits and burdens. She points out that from the utilitarian perspective the goal of maximising "well-being" ultimately determines what is just and unjust. However, she compares this approach with the two other rival contemporary theories of distributive justice- the libertarianism of Robert Nozick and the social-contract egalitarianism of John Rawls who presents his theory as an alternative to utilitarianism. The author finally comes up with her defence of the utilitarian approach to distributive justice and concludes that there seems to be no conflict between distributive justice and the rationality of maximization.


1Utilitarianism and Beyond19
2Mill's Principles of Utility: Some Observation35
3Self- respect, Personal Projects and Utilitarianism49
4Utilitarianism and the Motive and Morality65
5Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice81
6Reading John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism in the Light of His on Liberty97
7Beyond Utilitarianism- A Virtue Approach103
8Redefining Utilitarianism from Feminist Perspective119
9Bentham's Utilitarianism Ethics: A Postmodern Review133

Sample Pages

Item Code: NAM689 Author: Mahjabeen Jahan and Pralayankar Bhattacharyya Cover: Hardcover Edition: 2012 Publisher: University of Calcutta ISBN: 9789380336558 Language: English Size: 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch Pages: 180 Other Details: Weight of the Book: 345 gms
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