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About this Course

About the Course

Utilitarianism is the belief that the right action is the one that maximises happiness. The philosophy theory has its origins in the hedonism of Aristippus and Epicurus, though reached its most well-known form in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The more sophisticated account was that of Mill, who introduced the ideas of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures, as well as offering a ‘proof’ of the principle of utility. This course examines the history of utilitarianism, its criticisms and potential defences, and contemporary versions of utilitarianism that have emerged and found supporters in more recent times.

About the Lecturer

Dr. Claire Benn received her PhD in July 2014 from the University of Cambridge. She received her MPhil in 2010 and her BA in 2009 also from the University of Cambridge. Her area of specialization is in ethics, and she is also interested in philosophy of technology, political philosophy and logic.

In her doctoral thesis, The Nature and Value of the Supererogatory, she gives a substantive account of what it is for an action to go above and beyond the call of duty. She also shows why ethical theories and individuals need to make room for such actions, theoretically and practically. Her thesis helps to grant us insight into a wonderfully positive side of our moral lives. Often overlooked in the traditional ethical discussions of liars, murderers, promise-breakers and thieves, Dr. Benn’s analysis of the realm of the supererogatory instead encourages us to take more seriously those modest gift-givers, blood-donors, saints and heroes who similarly populate our moral world. Dr. Benn’s work as a Polonsky Postdoctoral Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute concerns the ethics of technology. Much of the current debate in the ethics of technology has focused on the ways in which innovations in technology provide opportunities for us to act in wrong and impermissible ways. Dr. Benn’s research project, “Artificial Goodness: Being and Doing Good in the Digital Age,” will assess whether innovations in the rapidly developing technologies of artificiality can also lead to changes in the opportunities, means and nature of what it is to be and to do good. She will begin by exploring three areas—virtual realities, robotic agents, and responsibility to, as well as for, technological artefacts—asking in each whether there really is a distinction to be drawn between doing good and ‘merely’ seeming to be good.