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J.S. Mill on Justice and Utility

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In ch. 5 of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill argues to ground justice in utility. For Mill, the essence of justice is a “right residing in an individual” (59.) To possess a right is to have a valid claim on society to protect one’s possession of it (54.)

The idea of justice emerges from the desire to punish someone who has done wrong, and in the knowledge or belief that particular persons were harmed in violation of their rights; the desire to punish originates in self-defense—as an intensely felt need for security—and sympathy (51.) The greatest injustice is in “wrongful aggression or wrongful exercise of power over someone,” and next is “wrongfully withholding … something which is his due,” either in direct suffering or in depriving one of a good to which she had “reasonable ground … for counting upon” (60.) “Good for good is also one of the dictates of justice,” and one who receives benefits without returning them “inflicts a real hurt by disappointing one of the most natural and reasonable of expectations” (60.)

Two “highly immoral acts [are] a breach of friendship and a breach of promise” (61.) One has a right to expect that another keep the commitments of friendship and promises made; violating those rights constitutes injustice. However, justice is not absolute; it “bends to every person’s ideas of social expediency” (63,) and one may “break faith” when “overruled by a stronger obligation of justice” (45) or when “some recognized social expediency requires the reverse” (63.)

Narrowly considering an economic perspective, such expediency in justice introduces social risk. Two 18th century political economists, Adam Smith and Antonio Genovesi, though differing on the nature of trust, recognized that trusting one’s trading partners to keep their commitments is necessary for commerce (Bruni, 82-83, 87.) Moreover, Nobel economist Vernon Smith notes that “utilities can serve as intermediate placeholders for reciprocal trust” but “fail to account for the observed importance of instructions and procedures,” concluding that “utility theory runs out of fuel quickly” (Smith, 28n2.) Though cogent, Millian utilitarianism seems an incomplete theory for justice in economic relationships.

Mill, J.S. (2001.)  Utilitarianism.  Second Edition, ed. George Sher.  Indianapolis: Hackett.

Bruni, Luigino. (2006.) Civil Happiness: Economics and human flourishing in historical perspective. NY: Routledge.

Smith, Vernon. (2008.) Rationality in Economics. NY: Cambridge University Press.

This is adapted from a series of responses I wrote for an independent study in analytic ethics of partiality and consequentialism.

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