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Power, Prose, and PurseLaw, Literature, and Economic Transformations$
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Alison LaCroix, Saul Levmore, and Martha C. Nussbaum

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190873455

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190873455.001.0001

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Love from the Point of View of the Universe

Love from the Point of View of the Universe

Walt Whitman and the Utilitarian Imagination

(p.221) 9 Love from the Point of View of the Universe
Power, Prose, and Purse

Martha C. Nussbaum

Oxford University Press

A surprising connection was recently discovered between the proper Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick, great Utilitarian theorist, and Walt Whitman. I explore the deep affinity between Utilitarianism, often mischaracterized as cold, obtuse, and economistic, and Whitman’s radical poetic humanism. The Utilitarian vision of the founders also sought a radical equality, aiming to increase the average utility of each individual, regardless of social status. Like Whitman’s poetry, its vision of human desire resisted the hypocritical hierarchies of conventional morality. Jeremy Bentham, Utilitarianism’s founder, criticized conventional morality by arguing that pleasures differed only in quantity rather than quality. He rejected the distinction between “higher” and “lower” pleasures as a screen behind which to condemn the behavior of others while validating one’s own desires. Yet where Utilitarian critique may seem obtuse or fail to provide a positive vision for human endeavor, it benefits from Whitman’s poetic vision of cosmic unity and democratic equality. Whitman’s poetry could recognize qualitative differences in political values without a return to hierarchy. Considering the affinity between these figures and their ideas may lead us to an economics informed by both utilitarian critical reason and a passionate, qualitative assessment of political values.

Keywords:   Utilitarianism, Sidgwick, Bentham, Whitman, economics, desire, pleasure, critical reason, utility, equality

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