Term Paper: John Stuart Mill's Utilitarian View

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Utilitarianism: John Stuart Mill's Concept Of Justice

John Stuart Mill was one of the leading liberal thinkers of the 20th century. His philosophy of Utilitarianism attempted to improve upon Jeremy Bentham's concept that achieving the moral outcome of the 'greatest good for the greatest number' of people was the highest aspiration a government could achieve. For utilitarian thinkers like Bentham and Mill, the ultimate purpose of government was to promote pleasure and to minimize pain. Extracting pain from lawful citizens was only justified when the amount of pleasure the painful action generated was greater than the pain needed to achieve that pleasure. This was a highly scientific view of moral calculation, and one of the criticisms of the utilitarian philosophy was that it offered no abstract view of justice that was applicable in all situations, but merely moral 'bean counting.'

Mill acknowledged that the concept of justice was an old one. However, simply because many human beings believed in a transcendent concept of justice that was greater that the needs of the majority did not mean that such a sentiment was necessarily valid: "It is one thing to believe that we have natural feelings of justice, and another to acknowledge them as an ultimate criterion of conduct" (Mill 1). Mill is inclined to suggest that the internal moral compass of justice we feel exists is based more in natural emotions and inclinations, given the wide variety of definitions of justice and injustice extant in the world today. On one hand, it is considered unjust to deprive someone of his or her liberty by law -- but on the other hand, it is also considered unjust to condemn or free someone because of an unjust law. And other concepts of injustice include giving someone what they deserve; the violation of an oath; or to show bias and not to dispense justice equally (Mill 2-3).

Social sentiment rather than logic links these concepts together, according to Mill and there are also different concepts of justice, like the justice of law and the justice of customs (where social rather than legal censure is the punishment). Ultimately, true "justice implies something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do, but which some individual person can claim from us as his moral right. No one has a moral right to our generosity or beneficence, because we are not morally bound to practice those virtues towards any given individual" (Mill 6). Mill makes a rights-derived argument, and suggests that most of the repulsion to the idea of 'the greatest good for the greatest number' comes from conventional moralizing rather than a logical argument. Rights do exist and there is a higher ideal of justice -- but these rights are narrow, and when they do not apply utilitarianism must step in.

Similarly, according to Mill the demand for punishment derives from a moral compulsion to either punish someone who has committed an outrage against a fellow human being, or in self-defense. This impulse, Mill suggests, may once again be natural and even sympathetic, but it is not a concept of justice that is superior in its moral nature than utilitarianism. In fact, it can be seen in the calls for justice against someone who has been accused of a horrible crime today, even when the defendant in question has not been convicted of the crime by the justice system. These impulses are why Mill calls upon the reader to be suspicious of colloquial uses of the word 'justice.'

What is true justice is in fact a form of social utility: "justice remains the appropriate name for certain social utilities which are vastly more important, and therefore more absolute and imperative, than any others are as a class (though not more so than others may be in particular cases); and which, therefore, ought to be, as well as naturally are, guarded by a sentiment not only different in degree, but also in kind; distinguished from the milder feeling which attaches to the mere idea of promoting human pleasure or convenience, at once by the more definite nature of its commands, and by the sterner character of its sanctions" (Mill 15). Justice is inviolate but policy must be left up to utilitarianism and practicality.

For Mill, justice was an expedient process to create a more hospitable community to promote the happiness of others. Some rights could not be sacrificed under any circumstances, but when a decision was necessitated which did not involve such basic rights, then the will of the majority and the interests of the majority should prevail. The spirit of utilitarianism was then wholly compatible with democracy and human rights, as it did not allow for the individual's basic rights to be transgressed upon. There were rules, but rule-based justice was not applicable in all circumstances, versus what was implied in the writings of Immanuel Kant.

Mill does agree with Bentham's basic argument: "one person's happiness, supposed equal in degree…is counted for exactly as much as another's…'everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one'" (Mill 14). But unlike Bentham, in answer to objections regarding utilitarianism, Mill states that the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number does not mean that the majority can deprive an individual of his or her basic rights simply because it maximizes the majority's sense of pleasure.

Part II: Analysis: Is a philosophy of utilitarianism compatible with a notion of justice?

The emotional basis of common morality can be seen in the public's reaction to philosopher Peter Singer's philosophy of utilitarianism. Singer has drawn a great deal of criticism because of his eviscerating critiques of the extremes of economic inequality that exist within society today, and his advocacy of individuals taking only what they need, to truly realize a world where the greatest good for the greatest number is enjoyed. Mill believed that emotions drove the demand for retaliation in justice -- Singer believes that emotional distance from our moral obligations of compassion is possible because people in dire need are located far away from us, in our context of contemporary, modern society. Both utilitarian thinkers are suspicious of emotions -- Mill because it makes us overly emotional; Singer because the wrong emotions are provoked.

Unlike Mill, Singer is less willing to tolerate certain inequalities to uphold basic rights, such as the right to the pursuit of happiness and property rights. Singer places the right to life above all else, and the right of people to live in freedom from hunger and disease. "Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts -- so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need" (Singer 60).

Unlike Mill's argument, Singer's utilitarianism is not rights-based at all, but rather based upon a notion that all human beings, regardless of where they live, have the same rights to life. To do nothing to help the sick and hungry as unjust as to actively deny someone his or her rights to liberty without due process. What Mill might call benevolence, what Mill calls desirable and laudable, Singer calls justice. Viewing the two men's arguments side-by-side shows the flexible nature of the concept of utilitarianism. Mill advocates a moderate form of utilitarianism, which still allows for some individual rights. Bentham, Mill's predecessor, was willing to violate minority rights so long as the pleasure of the majority was maximized and the pain of the minority was minimized. For Singer, there are rights, but those rights are far more broad-sweeping in nature than as conceptualized by Mill, and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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