There is something known as “The Trolley Problem” that is utilized as a hypothetical situation in the study of ethics and morality. There are multiple scenarios of the trolley problem, but here is just one: you are driving a trolley and on the track ahead of you, there are five men working who will be killed unless you pull a lever to divert the train to the other track. However, on the other track there is one man working who will be killed if you choose to divert the train. What would you do? Most people say that they would divert the train in order to save more lives.
This response aligns with the theory of Utilitarianism, which is a principle influenced heavily by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Essentially, Utilitarianism, which has been dubbed “The Greatest Happiness Principle,” is a consequentialist belief that actions should be based on maximizing the amount of happiness for the whole of society. John Stuart Mill wrote in Utilitarianism, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.” Therefore, the action of diverting the train follows utilitarian beliefs, as diverting the train will kill one person instead of five, which by simple reasoning, minimizes the amount of pain suffered by society as a whole.
Now let’s complicate the situation. Let’s say that the five men on the track are workers and the single person on the track is a pregnant woman or the President of the United States. Does this change anything? For many people, it probably does. I think a problem with Mill’s theory of Utilitarianism is that it frames the world and the decisions that people have to make in too simple of a nature. In a purely quantitative sense, killing the pregnant women or the President would still be killing less people than the five workers. However, Mill asserts in his argument that there are different levels of happiness and pleasure. Does saving the President fall into a higher order of happiness for the whole than the happiness that would result from saving the five workers? Questions such as these suggest that the principle of Utilitarianism is flawed in guiding our actions.
As a history junkie, I jumped on the opportunity to explore one of our class’s big thinkers more in-depth. As a double major in history, my interest is more narrowly focused on the women’s rights movement, more specifically during the 1960s. Nevertheless, the evolution of women’s roles in society, the formation of gender expectations and the origins of feminism has always absorbed me, and I was fascinated to learn that John Stuart Mill was one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights. Although we often associate Mill with the philosophical ideology of utilitarianism, his 1869 essay entitle The Subjection of Women, advocates for perfect equality between men and women and that subjugating women was the greatest form of oppression that plagued Great Britain. He stressed that women had the intellectual abilities to be exposed to higher education and should have equal access, while also possessing the capability to occupy roles in the political and professional domains. Additionally, Mill commented on the status and sanctity of marriage, emphasizing that the union between a man and a woman should be equal and that parity should be recognized both within the home and within a social setting.
In regards to the education of women, he believed that the people of Britain ultimately perpetuated certain gender roles within society because the education system was designed to bind women to a sphere of domesticity. By only enlightening and informing women about their responsibilities as mothers, wives and caretakers, men ultimately forced women to become reliant on the dominant paternal figures in their lives. What I found particularly interesting about Mill’s support for women’s liberation was not only did he put his thoughts into writing, but he also put his words into action. As a member of Parliament, he supported the Reform Bill of 1867, while also pushed for an amendment to the bill that would have secured women’s suffrage in Britain. It was no surprised that the amendment to grant a woman’s right to vote failed (Britain would grant temporary voting rights to women in 1918 and full suffrage in 1928).
Mill’s support of women’s rights ultimately correlated with his ideas of utilitarianism, which preach that, “the best actions and policies are defined as those that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” (ABC-CLIO, 2012). By securing their right to vote, escaping tyranny and patriarchy, and recognizing that their self-interests were different from their male counter-parts, women would be able to secure and redefine their meaning of happiness. At the same time however, despite the fact that Mill’s believed in gender equality, he could not escape the ubiquity of prejudices that existed at the time and the importance of conformity to gender roles. For example, Mill wrote that, “Like a man when he chooses a profession, so when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes a choice of the management of a household, it may in general be understood that she makes a choice of the management of a household, and the brining up of a family, as the first calls upon he exertions” (Subjection of Women, Chapter 2). This assertion contradicted his belief that women should break from gender stereotypes, and that men and women should maintain equality within the home. This statement underlined women’s inferiority to men, which challenges Mill’s support of women’s liberation and suffrage. Despite the fact that Mill succumbed to societal pressures, made evident by some of his statements, his ideas as a man were ultimately radical for his time in regards to women’s progress within society, and her desire to break from the shackles of domesticity and have equal opportunity in the public sphere.
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