Mill – Justice as Utility (Utilitarianism)

When we read Foucault we talked about the panopticon, a brilliant conceptual design intended to keep prisoners under control by making them aware of the fact that the prison guard, which they could never see, might be watching them at any moment. This was considered a great humanitarian move because it did not rely on cruelty as the means of control. The idea of the panopticon came from Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was also the first to popularize utilitarianism. Utilitarianism became a radical, liberal political movement in 19th century in England.

J.S. Mill’s father was close friends with Jeremy Bentham.  Mill was raised a utilitarian, and even studied under Bentham. Like Bentham, Mill remained politically active his whole life, taking controversial stands. Mill fought for equal rights for women, and fought against racism. It is interesting that the same person that committed his life to justice, argues in this reading that justice is not a real thing. It is just a convenient name for our innate sense that our moral obligations to each other are higher than social utility, recognizing that there are particular exceptions. In other words, justice in another name for utilitarianism (I’m being a bit sarcastic).

Justice has many different faces in actuality, and no real consistency between the different instances. Everyone admits that there are exceptions. The best explanation for this is Hume’s (and Mill’s) explanation: justice is nothing more than a convenient word to describe the thing we believe ought to happen in a situation. And what we believe ought to happen is that people ought to get what they deserve, whether that is good or bad. Our animal nature imparts in us this belief, and even causes us to presuppose that justice is an independent, universal truth. Mill calls for us to hold this belief to the scrutiny of a higher reason.

Mill points out that we find cracks in the idea that justice is a universal truth when we look at the specific examples of justice. There is no clear definitions of justice that capture each of the nuanced manifestations of justice. Mill recognizes the special role equality plays in justice, and points out the cracks within the concept of equality. Everyone believes in fairness and equality, and to oppose equality would be unjust. First of all, no one agrees upon what is equal and fair. Secondly, everyone agrees that there are instances in which it is impractical to enforce equality, so exceptions must be made. But again, no one can agree in which situations, and to how much, should exclusions be made for the sake of pragmatism. There is general agreement that laws may be unjust, but little agreement about which laws are unjust.

In order to effectively argue for equality and fairness in our theory of justice, and actually mean something consistent in one’s argument, Mill says that one must import a moral duty from the happiness principle, the theory that says the right is determined by the greatest happiness for the greatest number, which insists that everyone’s happiness is of equal value. Through this theory we can derive an intelligible conception of justice, with equality at its center, in spite of the exceptions in particular situations and in the history of moral development.


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