An Interview with Bart Schultz, author of The Happiness Philosophers.
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.
Return to Book Description
File created: 6/15/17