A Modest Proposal Utilitarianism

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A Modest Proposal is a satirical work by Jonathan Swift aimed at skewering English reactions to the then-contemporary issues of poverty and famine in Ireland. It revolves around a detailed argument that the problems of poverty, famine, overpopulation and many other social issues could be solved by selling one year old Irish children to be cooked and eaten dressed “hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs” at English dinner tables (Swift, p.386). It was written in the early 18th century when Ireland was effectively an English colony and had been ruled as such for centuries. Colonialism is never benevolent, and under the English yoke poverty and its attendant social evils ran rampant among the Irish, especially Irish Catholics. Jonathan Swift…show more content…
The theme is one of sarcasm and parody, most prominently against the practice of writing political pamphlets and the concept of economic utilitarianism. Utilitarianism had begun to take off as an ethical philosophy in England at that time. Utilitarianism is the idea that an ethical action is one that creates the most happiness or pleasure for the most number of people. It is obvious implications for social and economic policy, which was of course bad for the English self-image since England was an Industrial Revolution era colonial state and colonialism is by its very nature an act and system of violence by which one country forcibly imposes its will on another. Coercion is intrinsically harmful, either on the personal scale or the societal scale, meaning that accepting utilitarianism as a concept meant that English people had to construct theories and rationalizations for why their country was not an actively harmful force in…show more content…
It is hard not to see the parallels between contemporary debates and commentators on poverty and someone who advocates infant cannibalism as a remedy to “prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children” that are all too common amongst the poorer segments of society (Swift, p.384). But that is only the surface level. The real lesson comes from how it utterly failed to influence the attitudes of the people Swift was satirizing. Furthermore, on a meta level, it is relevant because of the tendency of satirical works to be appropriated by the people they were intended to satirize. Witness the popularity of the utterly loathsome protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street among a generation of would-be stockbrokers and other financial services people who aspire to be like him, or the fact that studies have shown Stephen Colbert has a non-negligible conservative fanbase that believes, or believed, he is not
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