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Sunday December 5th

Scottish professor lectures on Utilitarianism

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By Lucas Snarksi


Elizabeth Ashford visited the College from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland to discuss her take on the philosophy of utilitarianism. On Monday, April 22, Ashford addressed an audience in the Library Auditorium. Following her talk, Professor Winston of the College’s Philosophy Department commented on her points and discussed some of Ashford’s arguments with her. This was followed by a short question and answer period with audience involvement.

The talk focused on individualistic utilitarianism, a variety of the philosophy Ashford is covering in an upcoming book she is currently working on. Ashford specializes in the structure of moral law and philosophy regarding freedom from poverty.

Utilitarianism encourages actions and policies that maximize the welfare of the greatest number of people. Ashford gave an in-depth explanation of her interpretation of individualistic utilitarianism and outlined its core tenets.

Actions are judged by their outcome, not the intention behind them, according to Ashford. Human welfare is the only value of ultimate moral significance, and “each person’s well-being has equal moral weight,” Ashford said.

According to Ashford, certain rights are inherent and cannot be violated even to promote greater general welfare. She dismissed the idea that utilitarianism does not support justice, morals or rights, and said that it actually requires support of human rights. These rights include the right to subsistence, the right not to be tortured, the right to painkilling medication and others — the loss of which would be considered an “unacceptable trade-off.”

Ashford also briefly covered the views of historical utilitarians, such as Jeremy Benthem and Jan Narveson, and said where individualistic utilitarianism differs from their views.

Winston explained to the audience the three general approaches of philosophical thought and discussed various criticisms of utilitarianism. After several of his comments, a dialogue began between the two professors and they debated various points raised in the discussion.

After about one hour, the audience began asking Ashford and Winston questions. Audience members wondered how Ashford’s personal beliefs went with the philosophy she was discussing, how philosophers can set minimum levels for welfare and how relative concepts like pain can be quantified into units.

“I find a dialogue on ethics to be important because it raises significant questions on human rights,” freshman history and philosophy double major Steven Rodriguez said after the seminar. The discussion did raise significant questions to the audience on various matters of philosophy and Ashford adequately explained her interpretation of those questions.


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