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POLSC302: Contemporary Political Thought

Unit 3: Utilitarianism and Civil Disobedience   In this unit, we will examine the philosophy of utilitarianism, or the belief that governments should undertake actions that maximize benefits to the greatest number of people.  The primary theorists of early utilitarianism were the British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and his student, John Stuart Mill. Henry David Thoreau, a leading figure in another contemporary movement— transcendentalism—found great inspiration in utilitarian thought, particularly in its criticism of the morally compromised nature of society.The writings of Bentham, Mill, and Thoreau heavily influenced later leaders of civil rights, civil disobedience, and modern liberation movements, including Dr. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi.

Unit 3 Time Advisory
This unit will take approximately 10 hours to complete.

☐    Subunit 3.1: 4 hours

☐    Subunit 3.2: 3 hours

☐    Subunit 3.3: 3 hours

Unit3 Learning Outcomes
Upon successful completion of this unit, the student will be able to:

  • Summarize the primary principles of utilitarianism.
  • Identify the major political theorists of utilitarianism.
  • Discuss utilitarianism in the context of historical events.
  • Assess the impact that utilitarianism has had on law, economics, international relations, and society.
  • Analyze the primary sources of utilitarian political theory and understand how these theories can be applied to solve problems in society.

3.1 Ideals of Utilitarian Life   - Reading: Wofford College: Charles D. Kay’s “Notes on Utilitarianism” Link: Wofford College: Charles D. Kay’s “Notes on Utilitarianism” (PDF)
 
Instructions: Read this article for an overview of utilitarian principles and their application to government.
 
Terms of Use: This material has been hosted with the kind permission of Charles D. Kay.

  • Reading: J.H. Burns’ “Happiness and Utility: Jeremy Bentham’s Equation” Link: J.H. Burns’ “Happiness and Utility: Jeremy Bentham's Equation” (PDF)
     
    Instructions: Scroll to the very bottom of the linked page, look for “Jeremy Bentham's Greatest Happiness Principle (PDF),” and click to go to Burns’ article.  Please read this documentin its entirety.  This writing forms the cornerstone of all Bentham’s philosophical thought, which emphasized the pursuit of happiness and freedom. He also offered a radical critique of all English institutions: moral, religious, educational, political, economic and legal.  Bentham’s writings are still at the center of academic debate, especially in regards to social policy and welfare economics.
     
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  • Reading: The Constitution Society: Jeremy Bentham’s “Principles of Morals and Legislation” Link: The Constitution Society: Jeremy Bentham’s “Principles of Morals and Legislation” (HTML)
     
    Also available in:

    Kindle ($0.99)
    Google Books
     
    Instructions: Please read this document.  It sets forth a framework for legislation, criminal justice, and law enforcement under utilitarian ideals.
     
    Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use displayed on the webpage above.

  • Reading: Project Gutenberg’s version of John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism” Links: Project Gutenberg’s version of John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism” (HTML)
     
    Also available in:
    Google Books

    Kindle ($0.99)
     
    Instructions: Please read this document. Mill's major contribution to utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. While Jeremy Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. He also distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter. “Utilitarianism”is Mill’s greatest work, in which he explains the underlying principles of utilitarianism and gives examples for its application in government and individual lives.
     
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3.2 Application of Utilitarian Principles to Law and Government   - Reading: The Constitution Society’s verson of Jeremy Bentham’s “Principles of Morals and Legislation” Link: The Constitution Society’s verson of Jeremy Bentham’s “Principles of Morals and Legislation” (HTML)
 
Also available in:

[Kindle](http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Principles-Morals-Legislation-ebook/dp/B003JTHQJC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1299164857&sr=1-1)
($0.99)  
 [Google
Books](http://books.google.com/books?id=EfQJAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=bentham+principles+of+morals&hl=en&ei=Cq9vTZ7CEcnOgAfajJ1S&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false)  
    
 Instructions: Please read this document.  It sets forth a framework
for legislation, criminal justice, and law enforcement under
utilitarian ideals.  
    
 Terms of Use: Please respect the copyright and terms of use
displayed on the webpage above.
  • Reading: Project Gutenberg’s version of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” Link: Project Gutenberg’s version of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (HTML)
     
    Also available in:
    Google Books

    Kindle ($0.99)
     
    Instructions: Please read this document.  It is a lengthy essay in which Mill explains the virtues of individual liberty and advocateslimited government intrusion into the lives of citizens.  At the time, “On Liberty” was considered a radical work in Victorian-era England because it supported individuals' moral and economic freedom from the state.
     
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  • Lecture: iTunesU: Harvard University: Professor Michael Sandel’s “Episode 2: Putting a Price Tag on Life” Link: Harvard University: Professor Michael Sandel’s “Episode 2: Putting a Price Tag on Life” (YouTube)
     
    Also available in:
    iTunes U
     
    Instructions: Please watch this lecture (55 minutes).  The first part of the lecture examines Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian logic under the name of cost-benefit analysis.  Sandel presents some contemporary cases in which cost-benefit analysis was used to put a dollar value on human life, giving rise to several objections to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number.  In the second part, Sandel tests Mill’s pleasure theory by applying it to different forms of entertainment.
     
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3.3 Civil Disobedience   - Reading: The Constitution Society’s verson of Henry David Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” Link: The Constitution Society’s verson of Henry David Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (HTML)
 
Instructions: Please read this document.  Thoreau was not a utilitarian, but a key figure in the transcendentalist movement—whose core belief was faith in the inherent goodness of man and the corruptive nature of society and its institutions on an individual’s purity.  Nonetheless, his argument for resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state was reflective of utilitarian philosophy. At the time it was written and for many years after, Civil Disobedienceinspired leaders throughout the world to rise up in a peaceful manner to bring about regime change.  
 
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  • Reading: Earlham College: Peter Suber’s “Civil Disobedience” Link: Earlham College: Peter Suber’s “Civil Disobedience” (HTML)
     
    Instructions: Please read this document.  Suber focuses on the moral arguments for and against the use of civil disobedience in a democracy.
     
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  • Assessment: The Saylor Foundation’s “Civil Disobedience and Civil Rights” Link: The Saylor Foundation’s “Civil Disobedience and Civil Rights” (PDF)
     
    Instructions: Please complete the entire assessment.  You can check your answers against the “Guide to Responding” (PDF).