Unit Overview

In the 1800s a new political and moral theory takes shape: utilitarianism. Together with Kantian ethics utilitarianism would come to dominate the discourse of moral philosophy.  Utilitarianism begins primarily as a political theory, despite its later influence in moral philosophy. As a political theory the basic claim is simple: we should reform our legal and political system to produce the most good. This was far from a foreign idea. Everyone in the enlightenment was arguing that the government exists for the common good. Utilitarians were repeating this message for a new generation and in the face of new forms of oppression. In the 1800s as the industrial revolution is in full swing with factories and coal mines employing large numbers of people including children, many of whom die young. The various enlightenment revolutions had been attempts to reduce poverty and change the social dynamic in which the ruling classes own all the wealth in society but even after the monarchical revolutions there is still rampant poverty and suffering for those at the bottom.

Charles Dickens’ novels are great window into this period of time.A Tale of Two Cities for example is the story of people living in London but living in very different cities. The poor characters live a life of destitution while the rich live a life of luxury.

During this period of history the modern welfare state begins with the political changes set in motion in this time period. Child labor, something that we would find absolutely immoral, was commonplace but eventually there would be laws outlawing child labor, more laws protecting workers, limiting the hours they can work, creating the weekend, overtime, universal education, eventually, social security, medicare and Medicaid (in the US), free health care in the rest of the developed world. Roughly over 100 years, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, society transforms into what we would recognize as the modern world. One hundred fifty years ago children, if they were poor, were either working in a coal mine, a factory, or on a farm. They were not going to school. If you were born poor you stayed poor. There was no government provide health care. No public services. No social security. Poor people died young and if they lived long enough they died in abject poverty. There was no free medical care for anyone, no libraries government assistance of any kind to help the poor. We’ve come a long way!



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