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J.S. Mill on utilitarianism and justice


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: J.S. Mill on utilitarianism and justice
Date: 5th January 2011 12:26

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 23 December with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics: Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'Does Mill's utilitarianism take adequate account of our ordinary intuitions about justice?'

This is the second essay I have received on this topic recently. The author of the first essay spent all his time expounding Mill's account of justice in Utilitarianism, and failed to address the key challenges, in particular the problem cases where our intuitions tell us that a utilitarian calculation gives the wrong (because unjust) answer. For a while, I thought your essay was going a similar way, but fortunately you do raise the main issue, albeit in the very last paragraph.

Mill's account of justice has considerable subtlety, and your exposition gives credit to this. Greater utility is achieved because we have a legal system which enforces justice, ensuring that criminals get their just deserts, and adjudicating claims which arise when debts are not paid, contracts not honoured etc. However, as you point out, Mill also recognizes that the very fact that we have a concept of justice, intuitive though it may be prior to philosophical analysis, and even more important the feelings and attitudes associated with that concept, itself promotes the maximum utility.

This gives rise to a pattern of argument and counter-argument which is quite common in discussions of utilitarianism. It is pointed out that, on the basis of the principle that the best action is the one which gives rise to maximum utility, it would be acceptable to hang an innocent man (e.g. to please a rampaging mob, the standard example). The utilitarian replies that recognition that this action was acceptable would itself be to the detriment of society, and to the achievement of maximum utility. Following through the implications of this response, it appears that, on the very basis of the principle of utility, it is for the best that ordinary citizens do not make moral decisions on the basis of utility, but rather consult their intuitive sentiments of morality and justice. (This is a point made by Bernard Williams in various places, including his introductory book 'Morality'.)

Is that a valid point against Mill? Mill launches his Utilitarianism with a stinging attack on 'Intuitionism', and the idea that we are each of us fully equipped to make moral decisions. A moral theory is needed, and the principle of utility provides that theory. However, it remains open to Mill to accept the point but argue for a 'two tier' conception of ethics according to which those in the know -- the moral philosophers -- grasp the true basis for morality and justice, while the ordinary populace necessarily (for good utilitarian reasons) remain blissfully ignorant. This is more or less the position advocated by R.M. Hare in his defence of preference utilitarianism. In other words, we should not confuse the actual process of ethical decision making, and the abilities and knowledge required to make ethical decisions with the philosophical grounds for ethics. Theories which serve to ground ethics are not constructed to meet an immediate practical need but rather seek to defend the very existence of our moral framework.

Unfortunately, this won't do as an answer to those who object on the basis of intuition. The reason it won't do is that our intuitions, about justice, say, and the conviction of an innocent man for the greater good are according to the two-tier theory ultimately an illusion, albeit a necessary illusion. It is for the best that we feel this way. But those in the know, the philosophers, must make decisions on the basis of theory. And theory dictates that if you really knew, for certain, that you could get away with it, then it would be right to frame an innocent man for murder, in order to save the lives of many innocent people.

Well, maybe it would. The problem with examples like these is that they can get cranked up ad infinitum. If you baulk at judicial murder for the sake of, say, a dozen lives, how do you feel about a hundred, or a thousand, or a million? Where do you draw the line? There is a science fiction novel (by a female author whose name I can't remember for the moment) whose key premise is that the entire world is kept blissfully happy, but this requires the perpetual torture of one innocent child. Our moral intuitions rebel. (Again, I can't remember the moral philosopher who quotes this, but you can search on Google.)

The plot of the final series of the BBC series Torchwood exploits a similar scenario. (Spoiler alert!) Nasty aliens want one tenth of the world's children to exploit as a form of heroin (they get high feeding on the imprisoned child's emotions). The aliens are finally defeated, but this requires the deliberate and knowing sacrifice of one child who dies in the most horrible way.

Given these examples, one reaction would be to say that 'ordinary moral intuitions' are not the final court of appeal. Yes, they are important to some extent, but we can't rely on them, for the reasons that Mill gave. They lead us ultimately to inconsistency and incoherence. Only an adequate moral theory can save our ethical beliefs from crumbling in the face of an intransigent reality, and Mill's utilitarianism provides that theory. (I don't agree, but that's another story.)

All the best,