Mill and Sidgwick Notes for October 31

Main points

We spent most of our time on Mill’s discussion of the relationship between justice and utilitarianism. Then we talked about what Sidgwick said about a few different varieties of utilitarianism.

Mill on the psychology of justice

Mill’s account of the psychology underlying our ideas about justice was aimed at debunking justice. The psychological driver of justice is the desire to punish. This desire is only imperfectly related to what makes sense. According to Mill, it is reliable when governed by a sympathy with society as a whole and unreliable when it concerns revenge for injuries we think we have suffered ourselves.

The animating idea is that if we can give a psychological explanation of the commitment to justice, we can see that justice is important in the way we thought it was. We thought it was important on its own, but now we realize it’s a product of psychological drives that we do not regard as wholly trustworthy.

Mill on justice

Another strain of Mill’s argument concentrates on common sense ideas of justice. He pointed out that there are many equally good yet mutually incompatible accounts of justice in various areas: punishment, wages, taxes, and so on. Mill asserted that there is no way of putting these in systematic order. Since that is so, our common sense ideas about justice are inferior to the utilitarian system, he reasoned.

One way of defending a non-utilitarian account of morality would be to resist the call for systematization. Maybe morality is just messy.

The way John Rawls chose was to accept the importance of a systematic account. He tried to provide such a thing with his famous theory of justice as fairness. More on that later.


OK, Sidgwick is tough sledding. Having composed an outline, I concede: that was a lot to swallow. I’ll cut it down next time. Thanks for the feedback.

I wanted to read Sidgwick for three reasons. First, it’s Sidgwick: he’s one of the greatest utilitarians. Beyond that, there are two other things I wanted to get out of him.

First, I wanted to discuss the difference between maximizing total utility and maximizing average utility. This appears on p. 5. It will also come up in Rawls: he’s going to choose the latter as his target.

Second, I wanted to discuss Sidgwick’s view that utilitarianism is an esoteric doctrine. Very roughly, Sidgwick thought it was likely that it was for the best if the general public not believe that utilitarianism is true. This is also going to be an important point for Rawls so I think I’ll have to return to it in our next session. In the meantime, the relevant argument is on pp. 19-22 in the text and, of course, summarized in the outline.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 1, 2012.
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