Rational Radicals: The Rise of the Utilitarians

Led by Professor Daniel DeNicola
Gettysburg College Department of Philosophy

In the midst of Victorian England, there arose a radical way of thinking that rejected traditional authorities and instead championed the use of reason, the value of liberty and happiness, and a focus on the actual outcomes of our actions.  This movement “for the greater good” was to alter social thought and practice, shaping ethical theory, public policy, the field of economics, and women’s rights, among its legacies—and it remains a powerful mode of thought today.  Known as Utilitarianism, it was centered in London, and its breathtaking ideas were articulated by four brilliant and eccentric intellectuals: Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Harriet Taylor. 

The seminar explores the lives and works of these four figures, with special attention to the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.  Among the four intertwined biographies we encounter vast wealth, the East India Company, forceful homeschooling, psychological crisis, mysterious events, scandal, advocacy for social reform—and the writing of classic works of philosophy.  We will focus on four brief but canonical works by John Stuart Mill: his Autobiography, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and The Subjection of Women.

London is a wonderfully rich site for an interdisciplinary seminar on the Utilitarians: relevant historical sites, archives of their papers and artifacts, portraits, scholarly experts—all are found here and in places nearby.  We will traverse the London of today to make vivid its nineteenth century and the thought and character of these rational radicals.