Mill and Sidgwick on utilitarianism Notes for March 24

Main points

This class was devoted to some sophisticated additions that Mill and Sidgwick made to Bentham’s version of utilitarianism.

Mill on justice

Mill was worried about one objection to utilitarianism in particular: that it would conflict with justice. This chapter of his book Utilitarianism was devoted to answering that charge.

In it, Mill goes through an extensive review of the various ways that the concept of justice is used. He claimed that the central idea of justice involves two things: rules of conduct that assign specific duties as being owed to specific people and a desire for revenge against those who violate the rules.

This leads him to an analysis of rights that is broadly compatible with utilitarianism. Rights, according to Mill, are given by the rules that assign specific duties as being owed to specific people; people experience the desire for revenge when their rights are violated. So the thoughts “people have these rights” or “that would be unjust” amount to the thought that society ought to enforce these rights or prevent that injustice. Why should a society do such a thing? The common sense answer is that rights and justice are important, period. But Mill had a different answer.

“To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask why it ought, I can give him no other reason than general utility.”** Mill, Utilitarianism ch. 5, par. 25.

He said that the primary things we think society ought to defend are our most important interests: security. He claimed this means we have an implicitly utilitarian rationale for thinking that society ought to defend our access to those things.

Why should we prefer this answer to the common one that I gave earlier? Mill said two things. First, he said that the common one rests on an psychological mistake. We slide from the fact that we must have security to the thought that society must provide it. Of course, defenders of the common answer would, presumably, disagree that there is a mistake here.

The other thing Mill said is that our common ideas of justice are too indeterminate. For many practical questions, there are equally good but incompatible answers about what the just thing to do would be. The only way of resolving those conflicts, according to Mill, is to use utilitarianism.

Rawls’s theory of justice is an answer to the second charge. He will try to show that ordinary ideas of justice can be arranged systematically, such that they yield definite answers.


We noted three interesting things about Sidgwick. His discussion of population policy, his remarks about equality, and his claim that utilitarianism is an esoteric doctrine. Since it will come up again when we talk about Rawls, let me say a bit more about the last point.

The idea is that utilitarianism is a view that only an elite can safely know. If the unwashed masses came to believe that utilitarianism is true, they would act in ways that are worse than if they continued with their false beliefs about morality. Therefore, good utilitarians will encourage them to believe what they know to be false, all in the name of promoting utilitarian ends.

Sidgwick reasons that this makes perfect sense on utilitarian grounds. The right thing to do is whatever will bring about the greatest overall happiness. There is no reason why anyone has to know or believe this. If false beliefs produce more happiness, a utilitarian should spread those false beliefs.

There’s some irony in this. In many ways, utilitarianism is an anti-elitist view. Its hedonistic account of the good counts the pleasures and pains of everyone equally. There’s no saying that the refined tastes of the rich and powerful are any better than the coarse ones of the uneducated and poor. The project of rationalizing common sense morality deflates the pretensions of sophisticated moralists: there’s nothing terribly complicated about morality and those who claim to have special insight into a “moral sense” or what have you are just fooling themselves.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 1, 2010.
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