Utilitarianism and Justice

Class notes for 20 April

Main points

Mill tries to show that customary moral rules, especially those concerning justice, are either implicitly utilitarian or wrong.

He does this through a very interesting psychological analysis of what we believe about justice and why. For instance, he maintains that our sense of justice rests on sentiments of vengeance and retaliation. These make sense when they serve the public good, but either noxious or unclear on their own.

Finally, we discussed rule utilitarianism. While I’m not certain that this was Mill’s official view, there are definitely parts of the text that suggest it. It seemed worth exploring because it is an interesting alternative way of answering these questions about utilitarianism and customary morality.

Conflicts between utilitarianism and customary morality

Utilitarianism seeks to displace customary morality. The utilitarian principle is said to be the true principle of morality and, if so, the rules (another word for ‘principle’) that you learn and obey are not.

So it isn’t surprising that there can be conflicts between the rules of customary morality and utilitarianism. But how often do these conflicts occur? Utilitarians tend to portray the conflicts as occurring only in rare, artificially contrived cases. This supports their case for saying that customary morality is implicitly utilitarian, since the two generally agree.

Sometimes, the two will come apart, as with the arctic explorer and the innocent man. Critics of utilitarianism will say that the willingness to break the rules shows there’s something fundamentally wrong with utilitarianism. Supporters will say that there isn’t anything supporting the customary rules in these cases. Why keep a promise that will only benefit a dissolute son at the expense of the orphans? Why sacrifice fifty innocent lives just to avoid taking one?

Rule utilitarianism

Rule utilitarianism is the view that one should follow the rule that would promote the greatest utility overall rather than trying to promote the greatest good overall in each action.

Was this Mill’s view? Maybe. Here’s the passage from my page 19 that I promised.

Those alone the influence of whose actions extends to society in general need concern themselves habitually about so large an object. In the case of abstinences indeed — of things which people forbear to do from moral considerations, though the consequences in the particular case might be beneficial — it would be unworthy of an intelligent agent not to be consciously aware that the action is of a class which , if practiced generally, would be generally injurious, and that this is the ground of the obligation to abstain from it. (Mill Utilitarianism, ch. 2, par. 19)

Some of the descriptions about loving virtue for its own sake in chapter four seem relevant to Mill’s ideas about how a person would behave as a utilitarian, namely, by treating these subordinate rules as valuable in themselves. See ch. 4, paragraph four, for instance.

There are two kinds of question about rule utilitarianism.

  1. What rules should we follow? One’s that others might follow or one’s that others do follow?
  2. Why would a utilitarian act in compliance with any rule when breaking the rule would produce more utility?