John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism rests upon happiness as the ultimate end of making moral decisions. An action is considered right if it maximises pleasure and minimises pain, resulting in a net effect of overall happiness. If you are faced with multiple possible actions, the best action is the one that provides the greatest level of happiness.
One of the major criticism of Mill’s theory is its reliance on happiness as the ultimate end. In particular, many critics argue that moral decision-making is based on justice not happiness. Our sense of right and wrong is based entirely on notions of what is just and what isn’t, which has no relation to happiness. Relying on happiness alone could result in some morally questionable decisions, such as killing an innocent person because the public are baying for the police to solve a particularly horrific case. Only the death of the supposed criminal will calm people down. This will indeed increase overall happiness, but the action would be most unjust.
In chapter 5 of ‘Utilitarianism’ book, Mill attempts to respond to the criticisms, hoping to find a way to reconcile the notions of utilitarianism and justice.
Mill starts his analysis by a closer examination of what we mean by the word ‘justice’. He tentatively suggests two possible ways of looking at justice. Firstly, justice involves some sort of obligation to act according to law. However, Mill realises that such a definition is too limiting. He considers the case of a government passing a bad law and whether citizens still need to abide by the law. Because opinions are divided on the subject, Mill believes this proves that legal obligation alone cannot constitute the full meaning of justice.
The second way to interpret justice is based on the protection of rights. This could be the protection of individual from harm, or protecting someone’s property or some right granted under law. Mill will return to the question of rights later.
Nothing Mill has offered so far is greatly contentious. We can agree that justice involves some form of ‘right’, along with some form of obligation under law. We can also agree with Mill in that legal obligation alone is insufficient. A more accurate definition of justice would involve obligation under law, as well as an obligation that ought to be captured by law.
To get a better sense of justice, Mill believes it’s worthwhile to consider the nature of some acts and why they are considered just or unjust. Mill considers a number of examples of unjust acts – failing to act on a promise made to another, unfairly discriminating against someone when it has no bearing on the decision being made, and failing to act in an equitable manner. In all cases, Mill believes that when we speak of an act being unjust, we are saying that the moral agent ought to be punished for performing an unjust act. This doesn’t have to mean punishment by law. It could also involve a loss of reputation in front of others, or an internal sanction, such as feeling shame of what one has done. Mill is confident that punishment has to form a major part of justice.
Although ‘punishment’ might be considered too harsh in some circumstances – such as exchange between family members – perhaps the word ‘sanction’ would be more appropriate. We react with sympathy towards those who have been unjustly treated, and we do feel that the moral agent ought to be sanctioned for acting inappropriately. If a supposedly unjust act failed to include an element of sanction, we would have to question whether it was really unjust in the first place. Perhaps it was the cause of an accident or an unavoidable set of circumstances. If the moral agent cannot be blamed, then justice would seem to be irrelevant.
With justice now better defined, Mill returns to one of the main questions: how do we distinguish justice from morality? In both cases, we might claim that the moral agent ought to be punished, so there must be some other way to distinguish the two. Mill decides to offer an analogy based on perfect and imperfect duties. The term ‘perfect duty’ refers to a specific obligation to act in a certain way (for example, ‘do not tell lies’). An ‘imperfect duty’ cannot specify the exact nature of the act, but only offer general guidance on what should be done (for example, ‘act in a benevolent way towards other people’). Mill thinks that justice is the perfect duty while morality is the imperfect duty.
We could ask Mill if he is being too simplistic here. Not all acts of justice can be reduced to simple rules or statements. Similarly, acts of morality aren’t always so vague and ill-defined. ‘Do not lie’ for instance is fairly specific, and does relate to acts of morality.
Furthermore, is there really any distinction to be made between justice and morality? Don’t all acts of justice imply some element of morality? Even if the individual case seems unfair and morally wrong towards one of the parties (eg a poor man forced to pay compensation to a rich man), we usually state that because of the big picture – of encouraging society at large to act justly – we must still favour the just act, even if the end result of any one particular case isn’t always just. It seems difficult to abstract morality away from questions of justice.
Mill returns to a subject he discussed previously, that of justice involving the protection of rights. He asks us to consider what exactly a ‘right’ is. He concludes it must be something required under principles of general utility. So here is the crucial connection that Mill has been seeking between justice and utility. Any right worth protecting has utility as its foundation. He indicates that people ought to keep their promises or fulfil their side of the contract since society would collapse if nobody could trust anybody else. These are based on principles of utility. The greatest happiness only results from people respecting the rights of others, as unhappiness would result if people took advantage of these rights. So not only does justice have a connection to utilitarianism, it can ONLY function due to the nature of utility.
One criticism we could make of Mill here is that people do not completely agree as to what rights are worth protecting. In modern society, one topical example is how we treat asylum seekers. Since people cannot agree on what justice is, utilitarianism hasn’t helped us at all in reaching a correct moral decision. While Mill accepts that utilitarianism doesn’t have all the answers, he would respond by saying that other aspects of society are similarly conflicted. People vary considerably in their opinions towards the free market or the taxation system so utilitarianism is not alone in lacking a common approach that everyone agrees upon.
Another angle of criticism relates to an example mentioned earlier. What if a poor man scratches the car of a rich man, and the rich man demands a sum of compensation that simply can’t be met by the poor man? The rules of justice applied strictly would require the poor man to compensate for the loss of the rich man. However, it is difficult to see how happiness as a whole is increased by this act. The poor man may no longer be able to provide for his family if forced to pay as much as he can. He may then have to turn to the state for assistance. Other people are likely to feel angry and upset that the rich man has exploited the circumstances for his own benefit alone. An argument that ‘it’s better for the common good if everyone acts justly’ is unlikely to make people feel any happier. Can we really say that every act of justice would result in more pleasure than pain?
Mill would not necessarily disagree. He maintains a pragmatic approach throughout utilitarianism, and regularly accepts that the theory can’t solve every single problem. On balance though, he believes the theory of utility to be most reliable form of ‘first principle’ in the field of ethics. He is correct in stating that in the majority of cases, decisions involving justice do have a utilitarian foundation, even if this doesn’t seem directly related to the case in question. Utilitarianism is always there in the background, defending the rights of all people in the community as only this will result in the greatest amount of happiness.