Princeton's Gradgrind

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens gave us the most memorable, if not the most philosophically nuanced, picture of the moral and spiritual dead ends to which a thoroughgoing utilitarianism leads. "Thomas Gradgrind, sir," Dickens’s tragically deluded protagonist describes himself. "A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over....With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic."

Gradgrind’s rigidly logical efforts to impose his morality of "utility" and the "greatest good for the greatest number" on every aspect of the world, especially to inculcate his children with utilitarianism’s fierce denigration of ordinary human affections and moral intuitions, ends in predictable (if satisfying) disaster. In substituting mere rational calculation in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain for any more complex notion of human nature and moral agency, Gradgrind dooms his own children to emotional vacancy and ethical cynicism.

Gradgrind’s plight comes to mind in the midst of the controversy surrounding the appointment of Australian philosopher Peter Singer to the chair...

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