Utilitarianism | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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Utilitarianism | Chapter 5 : On the Connection Between Justice and Utility | Summary



Defining Justice

Just as happiness has been thought of as disconnected from morality, it's also been considered separate from justice. Where justice is thought to be natural, it is divorced from utility or "expediency." Consequently, this thinking has contributed one of the most difficult obstacles to accepting utilitarianism. Mill's analysis of justice's characteristics is intended to show that, in fact, utility and justice are not mutually exclusive.

Mill asks whether justice is a feeling, a sentiment, or a product of our experience. He outlines the characteristics of justice to examine what they have in common and thus determine how they are derived. These six characteristics are as follows:

  1. It is unjust to deprive people of that to which they have a legal right, such as liberty or property.
  2. It is unjust to force people to obey bad laws.
  3. It is just for people to receive what they deserve.
  4. It is unjust to break faith with another person.
  5. It is just to be impartial with all people.
  6. Equality is just.

Mill's analysis of justice includes an exploration of the history of the word itself, whose "primitive element ... was conformity to law." The concept of justice has since been extended to include some conduct not regulated by law. Thinking in terms of justice includes evaluating action in terms of what is obligatory, as well as what is punishable. The violation of liberty or a legal right is unjust when the right in question is one a person should have. A bad law, on the other hand, can grant an erroneous right. So since laws can be unjust, they can't be the final or ultimate standard of justice.

Depriving one of a moral right is unjust, as is obtaining something one does not deserve. People generally believe that undeserved rewards somehow violate a proper order of things, just as it is wrong to be denied what one deserves or has a moral right to.

Justice and Rights

A right is defined as a legitimate or valid claim one has on society. Moral rights are restricted to those one can legitimately claim. And "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." Justice is distinct from other elements of morality because it entails a particular "wrong done, and some assignable person who is wronged," rather than an obligation "which we are bound to practice, but not toward any definite person, nor at any prescribed time." So "wherever there is right, the case is one of justice," but not all questions of morality are questions of justice.

Mill's analysis of justice shows specifically how it is bound up with morality, which he has already demonstrated is integral to utility. For example, the previous discussions of sanctions, which were introduced in the analysis of utility, apply also to justice. Social condemnation, legal punishment, and a guilty conscience all relate to the belief that one is obligated to do or not do certain things, and a failure to satisfy that obligation should warrant some sort of punishment.

Origin of the Sentiment of Justice

The idea of justice is accompanied by a feeling. Mill claims that the feeling emerges as a desire for vengeance on sympathetic behalf of one who is the victim of an injustice. This essentially primitive desire is a combination of self-defense and the feeling of sympathy for one who has been wronged. Mill thinks this feeling is natural, and as such not moral. Harm is a pain to be avoided, and defended against. Indeed, all animals have such feelings, but humans differ in their capacity to extending this feeling to others, not just themselves. Hence, it is a feeling that, properly cultivated, can become moral; it can serve the good and ultimate happiness of the whole.

The desire for vengeance becomes moral upon becoming "a rule which all rational beings might adopt with benefit to their collective interest." The idea of justice, then, includes both a rule for acting and a feeling that motivates obeying and promoting it. The rule is thought to be a common good, and the feeling, "an animal desire to repel or retaliate a hurt or damage." That feeling is "widened so as to include all persons, by the human capacity of enlarged sympathy, and the human conception of intelligent self-interest."

Justice and Punishment

Mill thinks the expediency or utility of justice is found in the fundamental human need for "security." Nevertheless, he points out, disagreements over what justice is are as common as disagreements over what benefits society. Nations disagree, for example, over what justice is, and even for individuals, "justice is not some one rule, principle, or maxim, but many, which do not always coincide in their dictates, and in choosing between which, he is guided either by some extraneous standard, or by his own personal predilections."

Implementing the idea of justice in the form of punishment is also a source of disagreement. Mill points out that people disagree over whether or not punishment should be used as a deterrent or exclusively "when intended for the good of the sufferer himself." Still others think any punishment is unjust. These disagreements, Mill thinks, show that justice is not independent of utility, and also that it's not "a standard per se." In other words, the competing positions on justice and punishment are "extremely plausible." "Without going down to the principles which lie under justice and are the source of its authority," Mill writes, refuting any one of them is impossible.

The same can be said of any other application of justice. Determining the nature of economic justice is as susceptible to disagreement as determining the social justice of punishment. There are disagreements over how, for example, societal goods should be distributed. Is the standard of that distribution merit or need? What sort of taxation does justice dictate? Some think those with more financial means should pay more in taxes than those with less, while others advocate taxes "in numerical proportion to pecuniary means."

Justice and Utility

Disagreements over the idea and application of justice reveal something important about the relationship between justice and utility. It is commonly accepted that injustice occurs when someone's right has been violated. Mill has already articulated someone having a right as having "a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education and opinion." The difficulty is in determining who has the "valid claim" when people on opposite sides stake that claim.

According to Mill, only utility can decide the issue. The valid claim is the one that protects and promotes the general happiness. Justice and utility are not distinct from each other. Instead, Mill thinks "the justice which is grounded on utility to be the chief part, and incomparably the most sacred and binding part, of all morality." More specifically, Mill thinks "justice is a name for certain classes of moral rules, which concern the essentials of human well-being more nearly, and are therefore of more absolute obligation, than any other rules for the guidance of life." Justice demands, on behalf of utility, that people refrain from harming each other or interfering with each other's liberty without grounds. Punishment is reserved for those who violate the social norms that promote the general happiness. The only exceptions to the rules of justice are those which serve the end of general happiness.

Justice's core is equality: "We should treat all equally well (when no higher duty forbids) who have deserved equally well of us, and that society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely." This core is, however, based on "a still deeper foundation," namely "the very meaning of Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle." For Mill, each person's happiness is equal to every other person's. Consequently, any just social policy must reflect this equality, and this equality engenders impartiality in the individual.


It is worth distinguishing at the outset Mill's use of "expediency" in Chapter 5 from his previous use of the term. In Chapter 2, it means self-interested or temporarily beneficial. In Chapter 5, "expediency" means utility, or that which is good. It is, Mill argues, that upon which justice is founded: "I account the justice which is grounded on utility to be the chief part, and incomparably the most sacred and binding part, of all morality." Consequently, justice is a part of utility.

Mill's main aim in this final chapter of Utilitarianism is to show that justice and utility are not, in fact, incompatible. Critics of utilitarianism often claim that, at its core, the doctrine allows for people to be treated unfairly. More specifically, critics claim utilitarianism does not protect people's rights. The main argument is that individual rights can be violated as a means to promoting general happiness. In the utilitarian view, the critic holds, achieving the greater good may demand the sacrifice of individual happiness and even individual justice.

This conflict between justice and utility is based on the feelings associated with each. The feeling associated with justice—desire for vengeance—is thought to be more morally authoritative than the feeling that attaches to utility—benevolence. Moreover, the idea of justice is more restrictive than is utility. In other words, the demand of justice is obligatory in a way that the demand of utility is not. A right against harm is thought to be absolute, whereas there are multiple ways in which one can fulfill the obligation to promote others' happiness.

Mill walks the reader through the six characteristics of justice to demonstrate that none of the characteristics in and of itself is derived from a feeling, a moral right, or a natural law. Instead, each of the six characteristics has the good of an individual, and ultimately society, at its root. As he traces the etymology of justice, he distills its definition into a manmade law with penal sanctions, further associating justice with expediency rather than intuition. Ultimately, he defines justice as the desire to identify people who have been harmed and punish the people who harmed them.

Perhaps most interestingly, Mill explores the motives for such actions, and discovers multiple conflicts therein. He cites the need for punishment, for example, and says that it could be viewed as rehabilitative for the transgressor or demonstrative for the general public or simply vengeful for those who were wronged. He then shows how those opinions conflict with one another and actually result in different outcomes, but punishment's utility is undisputed. Thus, Mill demonstrates that humanity's system of justice has no rational basis that can be intuited from our moral or instinctual selves but is instead a matter of utility.

For Mill, this is a good thing, because the social motivation to protect rights is the general happiness. A person who has a right has a legitimate claim on society to the protection of that right. Society's obligation to follow through on that protection is determined by the promotion of social utility. If, as Mill has it, everyone's individual happiness is of equal value, then no one's happiness can be sacrificed without cause. The sort of rights society is obliged to protect are those involving an interest in security: security from harm, and security that one's happiness cannot be taken away. These are rights that contribute to the long-lasting happiness of all. Individual rights, then, turn out to be what the greatest happiness demands. A system of rights that generates the greatest happiness, Mill holds, is one that should be established and defended, for then individual rights are thereby permanently protected. Happiness is a social value achieved in part through the protection of rights.

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