Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill

Summary of Lecture 4 of Justice by Harvard (edX)

Unlike Bentham, Mill believed that it was possible to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures, through the following test: by experiencing and determinig which of two pleasures were more pleasurable. Sandel examined this test by asking his students to consider three forms of entertainment: Shakepeare, Fear Factor, and The Simpsons. Among the three, the students found The Simpsons to be most pleasurable, but Shakespeare to be the ‘highest’ experience. Even Mill conceded that people may succumb to ‘higher’ pleasures for ‘lower’ ones. However, he claimed that people would prefer a ‘higher’ existence due to “the love of liberty and personal independence”. Unfortunately, by invoking this claim, he strayed from the utilitarian premise.


Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham

Summary of Lecture 3 of Justice by Harvard (edX)

Bentham’s version of utilitarianism is that the highest principle of morality is to maximise general welfare, or the collective happiness, or the overall balance of pleasure over pain. Sandel examines this view through a number of real-life cases: Philip Morris’s cost-benefit analysis which showed that the premature deaths of smokers had economic benefits (link), the Ford Pinto decision not to upgrade the fuel system based on a cost-benefit analysis (link); and the Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘Senior Death Discount’ (link).

The discussion raises two key objections to the utilitarian approach:

  • That it fails to respect individual or minority rights
  • That it is not possible to translate all values into monetary terms

Lifeboat Case

Summary of Lecture 2 of Justice by Harvard (edX)

Sandel uses the case of R v Dudley and Stephens to examine the arguments for utilitarianism. Bentham, the e18th century English political philosopher, gave the first clear systematic expression to the utilitarian moral theory, which can be summed up with the slogan “the greatest good for the greatest number”.

The arguments over whether it was moral for the three crew members to kill the cabin boy to save the others raised three questions:

  1. Do we have certain fundamental rights?
  2. Does a fair procedure justify any result?
  3. What is the moral work of consent?

The following lectures would examine the utilitarian philosophers Bentham and John Stuart Mill in detail.

Doing the right thing

Summary of Lecture 1 of Justice by Harvard (edX)

An introduction to moral and political philosophy, this course explores classical and contemporary theories of justice and applies these theories to contemporary legal and political controversies.

Sandel begins the lecture by presenting different cases of the trolley car problem. Two key moral principles emerge from students debating what they would do:

  • Consequentialist moral reasoning locates morality in the results of the act.
  • Categorical moral reasoning locates morality in certain duties and rights regardless of the consequences.

The coming lectures will explore the contrast between consequentialist and categorical moral principles.

Sandel warns of the risk of this course, as philosophy unsettles us by confronting us with a new way of seeing familiar questions. People might say that there is no way of reasoning, that it is just a matter of each person having their own principles (i.e. skepticism), but Sandel offers the argument that these arguments are inescapable because we live some answer to these questions every day.

A short history of economic development

Summary of Week 3 of The Age of Sustainable Development by Columbia University (Coursera). Click here for Week 2.

There used to be nearly complete equality of poverty throughout the world. But the Industrial Revolution in the 1750s, which began in England, ushered in a period modern economic growth. Societies moved from economies based on agriculture, to economies based on technologies.

Countries grew, and can grow, through two mechanisms. It is important to understand the differences between the two mechanisms, because different institutions are needed to enable them.

Endogenous growth is based on continuing innovation that increase productivity. And throughout history, there have been waves of technological breakthroughs.

Kondratiev wave (Wikipedia)

Countries who are not at the technological forefront can catch up by taking on technologies used by advanced countries. But, whether these advances diffuse to other places are affected factors such as proximity to markets, agricultural potential, energy resources, a healthy environment, and politics.

World War I halted economic growth. And after World War II, the world could be said to be divided into three parts. In the first world (USA, Europe, Japan) recovered quickly from World War II and endogenous growth took hold. Countries who adopted communist systems (Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China) initially experienced industrialisation, but economic development subsequently slowed, and the countries eventually opened up. The so-called third world (and sometimes, fourth world), comprising former colonial powers who went through decolonisation, had a mix of economic histories and strategies. Many countries caught up or are catching up, while others remain under-developed.


Inequality around the world

Summary of Week 2 of The Age of Sustainable Development by Columbia University (Coursera). Click here for Week 1.

Gross domestic product (GDP) per person provides a sense of the economic development of a country. Based on the World Bank’s classification of countries, out of 7 billion people on the planet, approximately 1 billion live in high-income countries, 5 billion live in middle-income countries, and 1 billion live in low-income countries. 48 countries are also classified as least developed by the United Nations. Low-income countries are heavily concentrated in tropical Africa and in South Asia, and tend to be land-locked or small islands, as well as face instability.

The Gini coefficient is a commonly used measure of inequality within societies. As the map below shows, getting rich doesn’t necessarily mean becoming more equal. The causes of inequality are complex, ranging from history, geography, policy, land holdings, education, discrimination, and so on.

World Economic Forum

e.g. Urban/rural inequality: People in urban versus rural areas tend to live very different lives, in terms of levels of income, economic activity, geographic location (affected by access to trade and conditions for agriculture), quality of public services, demographics (including fertility rates), etc. It is important to understand these differences because rapid urbanisation is changing lives and increasing inequality.

Although GDP is a relevant indicator, well-being goes beyond level of income. The United Nation’s Human Development Index includes indicators on life expectancy and education, and there are countries that are ranked quite differently when health and knowledge are taken into account with income (e.g. Equatorial Guinea, South Korea).

There have also been studies assessing well-being through affective and evaluative happiness. These studies demonstrate that besides income, determinants of happiness include social capital, physical and mental health, and values (materialism versus generosity).

Convergence or divergence?

Since the 1950s, with the economic development of many former colonies, that has been  a tendency towards convergence, during which low-income countries have joined the ranks of middle-income countries, and middle-income countries the ranks of high-income countries. However, parts of the world are stuck in poverty.

We need to understand the underlying factors of convergence and divergence, so that countries will be able to get on a trajectory of convergence.

What is sustainable development?

Summary of Week 1 of The Age of Sustainable Development by Columbia University (Coursera)

This is a MOOC fronted by Jeffrey Sachs. It provides an introduction to sustainable development, describing the complex interactions between the world economy and the earth’s physical environment. It is intended to provide an overview of the key challenges and potential solutions to achieve development in the 21st century.

I could not find the course reading  -‘The Age of Sustainable Development’ by Jeffrey Sachs – in the library so I will be relying on the videos for content.

What is sustainable development?

According to Sachs, sustainable development is about understanding how economic, social, environmental, political and cultural factors fit together in this interconnected and complicated world, and how to make the world prosperous and fair while being environmentally sustainable.

Besides thinking of sustainable development as an analytical approach, we can also think of it through a normative (or ethical) approach of having a holistic vision of what a good society should be. Sachs defines a good society as wealthy with social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Economic growth and progress: On average, there have been great gains in material well-being, including in health. The basic pattern of economic growth sees a transition from agriculture, to manufacturing, to services. But these gains have not been enjoyed by everybody.

Breakthroughs in technology and economic expansion enabled rapid population growth, which increased economic activity some more, and correspondingly, humanity’s impact on the planet.

While economic development can improve lives, it should not leave millions of people behind, nor undermine natural life support systems.

Continuing poverty: More than one billion people continue to live in extreme poverty. Poverty is a multi-dimensional concept including income, access to basic health services, and access to basic amenities. Often, countries where poverty rates are high succumb to violence, epidemics, environmental disasters, and mass migration. Even in countries with high economic progress, there can be significant pockets of poverty. Geography plays a role in shaping these differences.

Environmental threats: Human activities and use of natural resources are leading to an environmental crisis, so much so that some scientists have called this period the Anthropocene (‘age of the human’). Natural disasters are rising, and a disaster in one part of the world can disrupt the world’s economy. We must determine what we can do to stay within planetary boundaries that are safe for humanity.


Business as usual poses an enormous threat to the environment. In addition, if economic great is not perceived to be fair, there may be more unrest and instability. A global effort over the next decades will be needed to move to a path of sustainable development.