Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Utilitarianism and Justice


Mill thinks that the most significant objection to utilitarianism is that it is inconsistent with justice.

Since there is no direct proof of utilitarianism, the best reason for adopting it is that it is the best way of making sense of our ordinary beliefs about morality. That is clearly how Bentham supports utilitarianism. But, obviously, this will not work if our ordinary moral beliefs are flatly inconsistent with utilitarianism. Mill is worried that our beliefs about justice pose the greatest threat.

Mill’s strategy for defending utilitarianism is basically the same as Bentham’s: the utilitarian two step. When confronted with a divergence between utilitarianism and ordinary morality, first deny that there would be any significant difference. Utilitarians have very good reasons for keeping their promises and not punishing the innocent, for example, even though they do not view the rules “always keep your promises” and “never punish the innocent” as, strictly speaking, true.

If that fails, and there really is a conflict, the second step is to insist that the utilitarian answer is the correct one and ordinary moral thought is confused.

Mill’s arguments

Mill has three arguments.

The first argument analyzes the ordinary idea of justice into two components: the belief in rights that others have duties to respect and the desire for punishment when rights are violated.

Mill argues that punishment makes sense only when it serves the common good. That’s a fine thing for a utilitarian to say, but it does not refute those who disagree. As Camille and Kenny pointed out, most of us think that those who do wrong deserve to be punished, regardless of whether that yields good outcomes. Mill calls this an animalistic thought but that’s just calling his opponents names rather than showing they are wrong.

The second argument works by showing that ordinary ideas of justice are contradictory. His suggestion is that there is no way of resolving the conflicts so long as we restrict ourselves to the terms used in ordinary moral thought. Utilitarianism, by contrast, can give us answers. Fair enough, but, as Chris observed, the fact that utilitarianism can give an answer is not the same thing as showing that it can give the correct answer.

Mill’s third argument is that utilitarianism is compatible with the most important parts of our ordinary thinking about justice. The ordinary idea of justice is that some interests have the greatest weight: we say they are protected by rights. Since utilitarianism involves weighing different goals accurately, it will give the greatest weight to the interests protected by rights.

Notoriously, however, seeking the greatest social good can come at the expense of protecting individual rights. When that happens, the utilitarian has to ultimately say that society comes first.

For example, one ordinary rule of justice is that it is wrong to punish the innocent. Generally speaking, utilitarians will agree. Among other things, if the state punishes the innocent, that will destroy the deterrent effect of the law: if I will be punished even if I do not violate the law, I might as well get the benefits of breaking the law! Needless to say, the breakdown of law and order would not produce the greatest overall good.

However, there can be cases where punishing the innocent does produce the greatest overall good. For example, suppose there will be riots unless the state is seen to have caught a criminal; it might make sense to frame an innocent person. Or suppose the only way to deter suicide bombings is to punish the bomber’s innocent family members. Again, that may produce the best overall results even though it hurts the innocent. In these cases, utilitarians will have to say that promoting the overall good is more important than not punishing the innocent.

In class, I said that Mill made these points about punishing the innocent in chapter 4, paragraphs 34–35. That was a mistake on my part; I misread my notes. Mill does discuss punishment in those paragraphs, but he does not discuss these specific examples involving the innocent.

Key Points

These are the points from today’s class that you should know or have an opinion about.

  1. Why justice seems to be a problem for utilitarianism.
  2. How utilitarians deal with conflicts between utilitarianism and ordinary moral thought.


Mill, John Stuart. (1861) 2000. Utilitarianism. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.