Bart Schultz on The Happiness Philosophers

SchultzIn The Happiness Philosophers, Bart Schultz tells the colorful story of the lives and legacies of the founders of utilitarianism—one of the most profoundly influential yet misunderstood and maligned philosophies of the past two centuries. Best known for arguing that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong,” utilitarianism was developed by the radical philosophers, critics, and social reformers William Godwin (the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley), Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Schultz recently took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

What do you hope to achieve with this book?

Well, I suppose it represents one of the ways in which I try to “do good better,” as the saying goes.  Among other things, I would like to see it help spark a more critical approach to the so-called “happiness industry,” that vast literature (both popular and academic) on the subject of happiness that far too often lends itself to questionable political (or apolitical) agendas.  The great nineteenth-century utilitarians—Godwin and Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick—developed and deployed their notions of happiness as part of their tireless efforts to advance social reform, e.g. seeking to promote happiness by securing political and social equality for women.  They had their failings, but their energetic reformism was often admirable and their example remains relevant to our political situation today.  Were they around today, they would all be participating in the Women’s Marches, fighting global poverty, and sounding the alarm about global warming.

Many people might not think of utilitarianism in that way, or of academic philosophy as holding that potential.

Yes, but those are views that I am out to challenge.  I hope that my book will inspire people in many different walks of life, academic or not, both to revisit the classical utilitarians and to engage with the wonderful utilitarian philosophizing at work in the world today, as evidenced by the journal Utilitas.  Curiously, although there is a laudable and widespread interest in the work of Peter Singer, particularly the animal liberation and effective altruism movements that he did so much to advance, that interest often fails to extend to the philosophical roots of his utilitarian perspective in the work of Henry Sidgwick, the greatest of the nineteenth century utilitarians.  But if the philosophizing and activism of Singer can so engage people, the work of Sidgwick and the other great utilitarians should be able to inspire them as well.  True, the old, malicious caricatures of the classical utilitarians are still far too common.  In my own experience teaching at the University of Chicago for thirty years, even many of the brightest young students of philosophy harbor views of classical utilitarianism that owe more to the hostile depictions of it by critics than to the classical utilitarian writings themselves.  They have read Michel Foucault on Bentham, but not Bentham; John Rawls on Sidgwick, but not Sidgwick, and so on.

How will your book change that?

By providing fuller portraits of the lives and works of the classical utilitarians taken together.  The philosophizing and the activist life of, say, William Godwin (but the others as well) were genuinely inseparable, and one gets a much better sense of what his philosophy actually meant by looking at how it was realized in his life—for example, in his relationships with the amazing Mary Wollstonecraft and the daughter they had, Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.  When students meet classical utilitarianism only through one or another stylized argument (often not one that was actually made by the great utilitarians), as in the popular “Trolley cases,” they do not gain a good sense of the resources of the utilitarian perspective, of its potential as a change agent.  Thus, much of what people today champion as a many-sided liberal education—the kind of education that Martha Nussbaum has done so much to articulate and defend—was in fact defended by such figures as Mill and Sidgwick, on utilitarian grounds.  They loved and promoted the humanities, and often criticized the universities for failing to support philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as for failing to open up educational opportunities for all.  On these topics and others, we still have much to learn from them.

What is your biggest worry or regret about your book?

Naturally, I wish that I could have spent another ten years on it—there is still so much research to do, especially on Bentham.  Also, it breaks my heart that Derek Parfit, who died on January 1st, will not around to read the final published version.  He read various drafts, especially of the chapter on Sidgwick, and was very, very supportive and helpful, as he always has been.  My first major publication was an article contributed to the 1986 Ethics symposium on Reasons and Persons, an article to which he wrote a Reply, and I think that from that time to this I have never published anything without wondering what he would think of it—and fortunately, very often finding out, since he was so generous in his comments.  Some of my more recent work was devoted to On What Matters.  And I was profoundly honored to include him in the book symposium that I edited on Kasia de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer’s recent book, The Point of View of the Universe.  Readers familiar with Derek’s work will see how parts of my Sidgwick chapter, relating to personal identity and other issues, are addressed to some of the points that he made about Sidgwick.  I once remarked to him that I thought his work was ultimately more about reasons, and mine more about persons, in the full biographical sense.  But really, he was the one who, with J. B. Schneewind, gave me the confidence and courage to pursue my Sidgwick studies, which in turn led to this book.  I am glad to have this opportunity to explain just how much I owe to both of them.

Bart Schultz is senior lecturer in the humanities and director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Happiness Philosophers: The Lives and Works of the Great Utilitarians.

Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.