J.S. Mill – Utilitarianism, Ch. 5

John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism, Chapter 5, “On the Connection between Justice & Utility”

  • One of the strongest obstacles to winning people over to the idea of accepting happiness & utility as the best basis of right & wrong comes from the idea of justice.
    • Justice, to most people, evokes the idea that the “Just” must exist in an absolute, which is distinct from the “Expedient”. But there’s no necessary connection between Justice’s origin & its binding force. We may have an instinct for it but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be controlled or influenced by higher reasoning.
    • Our problem is to see if the feeling of justice needs any special revelation, & to see if justice & injustice have anything distinct to them. & if so, what are their distinguishing characteristics?
  • Common attributes:
    • 1 – It’s considered unjust to deprive anyone of his personal liberty property or anything that belongs to him by law. It’s unjust to violate the legal rights of anyone – with minor exceptions.
    • 2 – The law giving him these rights may be a bad law. Some say however bad the law may be, it may not be disobeyed by an individual citizen. He should get it changed by the government through legitimate means. Others say any bad law may be disobeyed without blame – even if it’s not unjust but merely inexpedient. Some say disobedience is fine for all unjust laws. Some say all inexpedient laws are unjust. But it’s universally accepted that while there may be unjust law & legality isn’t the ultimate criterion of justice, it’s unjust to take or withhold from a person anything he has a moral right to.
    • 3 – It’s universally considered just that each person should get what he deserves & unjust that he get what he doesn’t deserve. It makes you ask what “desert” is. He deserves good if he does right & deserve evil if he does wrong.
    • 4 – It’s unjust to break faith with anyone or to violate an engagement (express or implied) or disappoint expectations raised by our own conduct (at least if done knowingly & voluntarily). This isn’t absolute & may be overruled by a stronger obligation of justice.
    • 5 – It’s inconsistent with justice to be partial. Impartiality isn’t a duty itself but it’s instrumental to some other duty. We don’t expect people to be impartial to family or friends. But we expect law & courts to be impartial in administrating reward & punishment.
      • With all these, we consider the idea of impartiality to equality. But the notion of justice varies from person to person. But each person maintains equality is the dictate of justice except when he thinks expediency is better.
      • So far, “Justice” hasn’t been an ambiguous term, but it certainly isn’t straight forward.
      • In language, our view of “Justice” may come from its root, being of French origin, perhaps alluding to a Hebrew meaning (via Christianity & Judaism) of a law of direct emanation from the Supreme Being. But as law was written, it may derive meaning not from what’s been written but what ought to have been written (whether it currently exists or not).
      • That breach of what ought to be law seems to be key in our idea of injustice. We like breaches of this to be punished & conformity to it to be rewarded. But it doesn’t distinguish obligation of injustice & any kind of wrong. We only call something wrong when implying that a person ought to be punished for doing – if not by law then by opinions of others – if not by that, then by one’s own conscience.
        • This comes from the idea of duty which is a thing which can be exacted from a person like a debt. Only moral obligation can exact this duty & its violation deserves punishment.
    • Ethicists divide moral duties into 2 classes:
      • 1 – Imperfect obligation – the act is obligatory but the particular occasions of performing it are left to our choice.
      • 2 – Perfect obligation – duties are particular to people at particular times.
    • Injustice may also be done by treating a person better than others. Justice implies something not only right to do & wrong not to do but what some individual can claim from us as his moral right. No one has a moral right to our generosity or beneficence because we’re not morally bound to practice those virtues towards any given individual.
  • Does the feeling associated with justice come from a dispensation of nature or could it have come from any laws? Be it out of general expediency or otherwise? Probably out of expediency.
    • 2 essential ingredients:
      • 1 – Desire to punish those who do harm, out of:
        • A – impulse of self-defense – natural to resent, repel or retaliate any harm done. It could be from intelligence common to all animal nature.
        • B – Feeling of sympathy, not only with offspring but with some superior animal who’s kind to them. Superior intelligence leads to a wider community (tribe, country, species) that any act hurtful to it rouses a man’s sympathy.
      • 2 – Knowledge or belief that someone has done harm.
    • Desire to punish is applied to those who harm society. It’s not a normal feeling as such but the social aspect is. The natural feeling makes us resent what’s disagreeable to us. When mixed with the moral & social feeling, it conforms to the general good of society & its maintenance.
  • The idea of justice supposes:
    • 1 – Rule of Conduct which must be supposed common to all mankind.
    • 2 – A sentiment of justice is an animal desire to repel or retaliate a hurt or damage to oneself or one you sympathize with, which is widened to all people.
    • Mill treats the idea of “right” residing in the injured & violated not as separate but as how the idea & sentiment are in reality. This hurt is assignable to a person & a demand of punishment for the violation of a right.
      • A right – valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of a thing, by force of law or opinion. If the claim is sufficient or guaranteed, he has a right to it – may need to be proved.
      • To have a right is something society ought to defend me in the possession of. If general utility doesn’t work as an answer, we can point to animal need for retaliation derived from self-defense.
      • When the legitimacy of inflicting punishment is admitted, how many conflicting & competing conceptions of justice when discussing appropriate punishment?
    • Is the difference between the Just & the Expedient imaginary? Have we been deluded into believing Justice is more sacred than being just some policy?
      • No. When we discuss the nature & origin of the feeling, there was a real distinction. Mill’s version of justice based on utility is the same with all forms of morality, according to him.
      • Justice is a name for the class of moral rules which concern the essentials of human well-being & are of more absolute obligation than any other rules guiding life.
    • The moral rules forbidding mankind to hurt one another are more vital to well-being than any maxim. They are the main determinants of mankind’s social feelings.
      • Their observance alone preserves peace among humans. If obedience to them weren’t the rule & disobedience weren’t the exception, everyone would see everyone else as a likely enemy.
      • Reciprocation is the primary way people live this out: returning good for good & evil for evil – as a moral obligation.

Author: knowit68

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