How successful is Mill in reconciling justice
with the principle of utility?

Within the confines of his understanding of Utilitarianism, Mill is completely successful in reconciling justice with his principle of utility.

While Mill argues that his principle of utility (or principle of aggregate happiness) is the proper criterion of right action, he is not a single-level act-utilitarian.  Using utilitarianism as a single-level decision procedure for determining the morally right thing to do requires both that one be entirely impartial between people at all times, and be constantly calculating the best course of action.  In chapter 3 of Utilitarianism, Mill clearly acknowledges that relying on act utilitarianism as a moral theory does not require the adoption of act utilitarianism as a single-level decision procedure.  Mill recognizes that what he calls "customary morality" consists of rules that have been learned over time through trial and error.  He writes:

"There has been ample time, namely, the whole past duration of the human species.  During all that time, mankind have been learning by experience the tendencies of actions; on which experience all the prudence, as well as all the morality of life is dependent . . ."
                                Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter II.

These rules of customary morality can be shown, in most cases, to have a suitable foundation in utility when analyzed according to the utilitarian moral theory.  Only where the rules of customary morality conflict, or where those rules are clearly not appropriate to the circumstances, or when one has the luxury of being able to engage in abstract and disinterested philosophical reflection, does Mill recommend conscious resort to the principle of utility and the resulting calculations of aggregate happiness.  Hence it is clear that Mill is setting up the principle of utility as a criterion, but only occasionally as a decision procedure, for right action.  In most practical cases of moral decision making, Mill recommends reference to the rules of customary morality as a guide.  And it is within this multi-levelled conception of how the principle of utility is to be applied in the usual circumstances, that Mill positions his Utilitarian analysis of justice.

In chapter 5 of Utilitarianism, Mill recognizes that on first impressions, justice would seem to conflict with the principle of utility.  The principle of utility is concerned with the aggregation of happiness (utility or welfare), and is blind to the distribution amongst persons.  Justice, on the other hand, is concerned with relative distributions of happiness (utility or welfare) and is blind to the aggregate across all persons.  Mill begins his analysis by listing six different variations on the common usage of "justice" (legal rights, moral rights, desert, contracts, impartiality, and equality).  All of them, he acknowledges, demand some attention to the interests of particular individuals.  The principle of utility, in contrast, demands a specific disinterest in the welfare of particular individuals.

"I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned.  As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator."
                              Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter II

Within his analysis of how the personalized demands of justice can be reconciled with depersonalized demands of the principle of utility, one of the first things he does is separate the emotional reactions (what he calls "sentiments") associated with issues of justice from the analysis of the utilitarian foundations of justice.

Mill's analysis positions justice clearly amongst the rules of customary morality.  His rgument is that the six different aspects of justice that he identifies are in fact consistent with the principle of utility when they are viewed as social rules integral to customary morality.  Mill sees justice as an application of the principle of utility by individuals within a social setting.  His argument is that there is a high degree of utility that accrues to each individual within a social setting when each individual is guaranteed personal security.  When the rules of customary morality are established so that each individual is assured of his/her own security the aggregate of happiness is greater than when these rules are absent.  There may be unusual circumstances where the principle of utility may recommend these rules of justice be violated.  But because we are not normally blessed with the luxury of sufficient time and an infallible knowledge of consequences to undertake a detailed analysis from first principles, the rules of justice (like other rules of customary morality) form a good basis for a decision procedure in most situations.

Mill argues for the utility of the rules of justice by way of his conception of justice in terms of duties, obligations, and rights.  For Mill, a duty is an obligation imposed by the rules of customary morality.  He starts by dividing all the rules of customary morality into those which impose a "perfect obligation" and those which impose an "imperfect obligation".  A perfect obligation is a duty imposed by customary morality to do (or refrain from doing) something to or for some specific individual.  An imperfect obligation is a duty imposed by customary morality to do (or refrain from doing) something without a specific person in mind.

With that bifurcation in hand, Mill then examines the "perfect obligation" from the perspective of the recipient and calls that obligation a "right" from the recipient's perspective.  Every perfect obligation imposed on an agent entails a right due to the recipient.  The recipient has a right to demand that you fulfill the perfect obligations to which for which he is the recipient.  For example, paying a debt is a perfect obligation because there is a specific benefactor (the lender) who is the recipient.  The recipient has a corresponding right to demand the fulfillment of the duty.  But being charitable is an imperfect obligation because there is no one in particular that is the recipient.  There is no one who has a corresponding right to demand the fulfillment of the duty.

Seen now as an asset of the recipient, perfect obligations can be seen as obvious utilities for the recipient.  And it becomes obviously to the benefit of the recipient to establish systems of formal and informal rewards (social commendations) and penalties (social punishments) to reinforce the fulfillment of these perfect obligations.  When then aggregated over the entire population, it becomes clear that the net aggregate utility is greater when these obligations are generally fulfilled than when they are not.  Mill then argues that by analogy with the analysis of perfect obligations, the net aggregate utility is greater when the imperfect obligations are generally fulfilled than when they are not.  Our intellectual capabilities allow us to appreciate that the net aggregate utility is enhanced when imperfect obligations are generally fulfilled, and this motivates similar systems of formal and informal reward and penalties to reinforce their fulfillment.  This, in turn, enhances the net aggregate utility of their general fulfillment.  (Mill retains his "exceptional case" escape clause under which, in special circumstances, an appeal to the principle of utility might over-ride a specific application of the rules of customary morality and justice.)

The emotional attachment that we have formed for the rules of justice, Mill attaches to our instinct for self-defence.  To update his argument somewhat -- evolution has equipped us with a strong emotional reaction when our welfare is threatened.  Through the avenue of sympathy with our family and friends, we extend that string emotional reaction to situations when the welfare of our family and friends is threatened.  And through the avenue of our intellectual appreciation of the benefits of being a part of a social group, we extend that emotional reaction to situations where the welfare of our social group is threatened.  Having evolved as a social species for several million years, we have become well equipped with instinctive emotional responses to repay "evil for evil" and "good for good".  The former encourages us to penalize those who would harm us (or our social environment), while the later encourages us to engage in reciprocal altruism.  Thus we arrive at the strong emotional attachments we experience to our notions of what is just.

"It has always been evident that all cases of justice are also cases of expediency: the difference is in the peculiar sentiment which attaches to the former, as contradistinguished from the latter. If this characteristic sentiment has been sufficiently accounted for; if there is no necessity to assume for it any peculiarity of origin; if it is simply the natural feeling of resentment, moralised by being made coextensive with the demands of social good; and if this feeling not only does but ought to exist in all the classes of cases to which the idea of justice corresponds; that idea no longer presents itself as a stumbling-block to the utilitarian ethics."
                               Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter V)

On balance then, given Mill's conception of the principle of utility as the basis for a multi-level act-utilitarian decision procedure, and his conception of justice as a set of rules-of-thumb within customary morality, he is successful at demonstrating that there is no conflict between the distributory nature of justice and the aggregate nature of principle of utility.  General obedience to the rules of justice is clearly to the greater net aggregate benefit (happiness, utility, or welfare) of all.

"Justice remains the appropriate name foe certain social utilities which are vastly more important, and therefore more absolute and imperative, than any others as a class. . . . and which, therefore, ought to be, as well as naturally are, guarded by a sentiment not only different in degree but also in kind., . . ."
                               Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter V

 

Notes & References

Ashford, Elizabeth: "Utilitarianism, Integrity, and Partiality" in The Journal of Philosophy, VOl 97, No. 8 (Aug 2000), pp 421-439

Crisp, Roger; Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism, Routledge, London, England. 1997. ISBN 0-415-10978-7

Mill, John Stuart; The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, Random House, New York, New York, 2002. ISBN 0-375-75918-2

West, Henry R.; Mill's Utilitarianism, Continuum Books, London, England. 2007. ISBN 0-826-49302-5

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