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Mill on justice and the principle of utility


To: Craig S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mill on justice and the principle of utility
Date: 16th March 2011 12:52

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your email of 4 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Ethics Historical Perspectives module, in response to the question, 'How successful is Mill in reconciling justice with the principle of utility?'

I didn't get why you concluded that 'Mill's account of justice is stimulating and coherent'. My impression from what you wrote was that you'd knocked it into a cocked hat. I don't recall finding it particularly stimulating except, perhaps, insofar as it is (and intends to be) provocative.

Thank goodness, you get to the point of the essay right away. Why do my other students taking this module labour so much to get there? 'It doesn't matter who bears the pain and who gets the gain, as long as the overall balance is gain.' I liked that.

I don't disagree with any of the points you make. However, I felt by the end that there was something notable by its absence, an appreciation of the dialectic that utilitarianism gets into, which Mill's account so nicely illustrates, whereby what at first seem to be overwhelming objections to utilitarianism get absorbed into the theory, apparently without remainder.

Mill's case, to put it succinctly, is that justice has utility. (You quickly dismiss the half-baked notion that utility is itself somehow 'just' on a cosmic scale.)

There are two parts to this case: the first part could be called an 'error theory' of justice, in that it seeks to account for our belief that justice, or our natural sense of justice, is the ultimate arbiter of moral right and wrong, a belief which the utilitarian claims to be false. (Belief that justice, not utility, is paramount is an example of the kind of thing that Mill deprecatingly refers to at the beginning of 'Utilitarianism' as a moral 'intuition' or 'intuitionism', the idea that we have God-given insight into moral right and wrong, as certain as the axioms of geometry.) Yes, it is very understandable that we place very great emphasis on justice, and Mill seeks to explain why that is. It is inconceivable that a society could arise lacking any idea of justice. That which is always there, we take to be a perception of something 'real', that exists outside us. What we fail to appreciate is the historical/ philosophical explanation of why it is there.

The second part of Mill's case, however, is what I referred to as the strategy of 'absorption'. The strategy is well illustrated in the work of a contemporary utilitarian R.M. Hare (whose work you will be studying for Ethics Contemporary Perspectives). According to Hare's preference utilitarianism, we need to see society as separated into two strata: the philosophers who know the truth of preference utilitarianism (as Hare argues, the only rigorously 'non-fanatical' ethics, and therefore the only one that can be true) and the rest of society, the ordinary plebs, who believe in things like, e.g., 'justice'. In order that preference satisfaction be maximized it is vitally important that the plebs do not think of themselves as seeking to maximize it in the actions they judge to be 'right' or 'wrong', 'just' or 'unjust'.

Bernard Williams in Smart and Williams 'Utilitarianism For and Against' makes much of this point, but it does seem that the utilitarian cannot be accused of inconsistency here. Hare's vision is noxious, but not inconsistent.

What about the philosophers? They know the whole story. So (to be consistent) they have to strive with every fibre of their being to overcome ingrained feelings about what is 'just' or 'unjust'. 'Frame an innocent man to prevent a riot? I do that every day.' Yes, of course, this is objectionable. But the canny utilitarian has one final finesse. Once the philosophers have done their job, and set up society along the right lines we can kill them off. God sees (or would see if He existed) that preference satisfaction/ happiness is in fact maximized.

The position which we reach is unfortunately in an unacceptable degree of tension with Mill's version of utilitarianism. What we have done, in effect, is sharply separate the truth conditions for claims about morality and justice, from the means by which human beings determine whether an action is moral or just. The whole point of Mill's essay was to outline a method for making such decisions. (Not a 'decision procedure' as such, in the strict logical sense, more like guidelines which point us in the right direction.)

I guess the sticking point for Mill, and his best argument, is that with the best will in the world we can't always reach a satisfactory decision by consulting our intuitions about justice. There are hard cases, situations where whatever you do will be 'wrong' in some way. In that case, Mill would say, what else is there to appeal to but utility? The underlying assumption here is that there is no such thing, ultimately, as an irresolvable moral dilemma: an assumption which philosophers like Williams would call into question.

All the best,