For the Greatest Good

March 1, 1997

Suzanne Johnson

George is in a quandary. CEO of a small corporation in a tight market, George is beginning to lose talented employees to competing firms. In order to increase salaries and keep the majority of his employees happy, he must let a small percentage of employees go. He considers all of his employees a part of his "family."

It won't be an easy decision. Boiled down to their most basic philosophical level, George's choices could be pragmatic (what's best for business); moralistic (employer loyalty); or utilitarian (the best solution for the majority). If he chooses to be a utilitarian, George will fire the few employees in order to improve the lives and careers of the majority. Utilitarianism, which developed in the late-18th century with the writings of Jeremy Bentham and was refined in the 19th century with the writings of John Stuart Mill, is a belief system whose creed is "the greatest good for the greatest number."

While never tremendously popular in the United States, where religious idealism and German pragmatism combined to form the American mindset, utilitarianism always has been very popular in Europe, Canada and Japan. So it is not surprising that the London School of Economics, Kobe University of Japan and the universities of Copenhagen, Glasgow and Toronto are among the many centers of learning being represented as the International Society for Utilitarian Studies (ISUS) plans a March 22-23 meeting in New Orleans.

Host of the meeting, and the current ISUS chairman, is Jonathan Riley, associate professor of political science in Tulane's Murphy Institute of Political Economy. ISUS, which is based at the University of London, is an international organization of scholars from all disciplines-from philosophy to economics, political science to law--with an interest in utilitarianism. According to Riley, the group's meeting, which is held about every three years, is being located in the United States for the first time, partly because of his role as chairman and partly because utilitarianism is of growing interest in this country.

"Utilitarianism has been attacked for a generation here, but recently there has been some interest in reconsidering utilitarianism as a philosophy," Riley says. "People are reconsidering the notion that social institutions should be organized in a way that promotes the general welfare of society."

All aspects of social institutions are on the agenda for the ISUS meeting, with topics from capital punishment to the environment to population policy. Among the large cast of noted scholars speaking at the conference are David Lyons, Boston Univer-sity School of Law; Richard Arneson, University of California-San Diego; C.L. Ten, Monash University, Australia; Russell Hardin, New York University; Peter Hammond, Stanford University; James Griffin, Keble College, Oxford University, England; and Brian Barry, London School of Economics.

With a doctorate in economics and politics from Oxford University and an interest in what he calls "broadly liberal political theory," Riley has been on the Tulane campus for a decade. His first book, published in 1988, dealt with Liberal Utilitarianism; On Liberty, a book discussing J.S. Mill's doctrine, will be published later this year.

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