Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2005
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

11. Morality and justice

When we turn to Mill’s conception of the relationship between the utility principle and the fabric of principles which regulate everyday social life, we find him again at his most impressive. He stresses that a utilitarian standard of value cannot itself tell what practical rules, aims or ideals we should live by. In his autobiography he dates this conviction to the period of his mental crisis. He now ‘gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual’ (1873: 145–7). The prime task for human beings was to attend to that internal culture - to develop whatever was best in themselves. The indirect role in which he now cast the utility principle became a fundamental structural feature of his moral and political philosophy. For example, he accuses Auguste Comte of committing:

the error which is often, but falsely, charged against the whole class of utilitarian moralists; he required that the test of conduct should also be the exclusive motive of it.... M. Comte is a morality-intoxicated man. Every question with him is one of morality, and no motive but that of morality is permitted.

(1865b: 335–6)

Mill gives a succinct statement of his own doctrine at the end of the System of Logic. As always, he affirms ‘that the promotion of happiness is the ultimate principle of Teleology’. But, he continues,

I do not mean to suggest that the promotion of happiness should be itself the end of all actions, or even of all rules of action. It is the justification, and ought to be the controller, of all ends, but is not itself the sole end.... I fully admit that...the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct, should be to individual human beings an end, for which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict, give way. But I hold that the very question, what constitutes this elevation of character, is itself to be decided by a reference to happiness as the standard.

(1843: 952)

The happiness of all is ‘the test of all rules of conduct’ - and not only rules of conduct but also of cultivation of feelings. How is the test applied? Here Mill learned more from Coleridge (§2) than from Bentham; that is, from historical criticism directed at the abstract social visionaries of the enlightenment. They did not see that moral sentiments can only grow in a stable tradition and social setting. They did not grasp the conditions necessary for such a tradition and setting - education of personal impulses to a restraining discipline, shared allegiance to some enduring and unquestioned values, ‘a strong and active principle of cohesion’ among ‘members of the same community or state’. Hence

They threw away the shell without preserving the kernel; and attempting to new- model society without the binding forces which hold society together, met with such success as might have been anticipated.

(1840: 138)

This feeling for the historicity of social formations and genealogies of morals gives Mill’s ethical vision a penetration which is absent from Bentham (and also from the excessively abstract discussions of utilitarianism in twentieth-century philosophy). On the other hand the analysis of morality, rights and justice which Mill fits into this ethical vision owes much to Bentham.

Mill examines the concept of justice in chapter 5 of Utilitarianism. Having observed that the idea of something which one may be constrained or compelled to do, on pain of penalty, is central to the idea of an obligation of justice, he notes that it nevertheless ‘contains, as yet, nothing to distinguish that obligation from moral obligation in general’:

The idea of penal sanction, which is the essence of law, enters not only into the conception of injustice, but into that of any kind of wrong. We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience.

(1865b: 246)

This is a normative, not a positive, account of morality: the morally wrong is that which ought to be punished, by law, social opinion or conscience. It would be a circular account if the ‘ought’ in question were itself a moral ‘ought’. But the utility principle is the ultimate principle of ‘Teleology’. Teleology is the ‘Doctrine of Ends’; ‘borrowing the language of the German metaphysicians’, Mill also describes it as ‘the principles of Practical Reason’ (1843: 949–50). So the ‘ought’ is the ‘ought’ of Practical Reason - which, making appropriate use of ‘laws of nature’, produces the ‘Art of Life’. Morality itself is only one department of this art. Moral concepts and judgments issue from the moral sentiments, the sentiments involved in guilt and blame; but are corrigible by a rational doctrine of ends. And that doctrine, in Mill’s view, is the utility principle.

From this account of morality Mill moves to an account of rights and justice. A person has a moral right to a thing if there is a moral obligation on society to protect them in their possession of that thing. Obligations of justice are distinguished from moral obligations in general by the existence of corresponding rights:

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.... Whenever there is a right, the case is one of justice.

(1865b: 247)

Upholding rights is one of society’s vital tasks. For on it depends our security - which is ‘to every one’s feelings the most vital of interests’:

This most indispensable of all necessaries, after physical nutriment, cannot be had, unless the machinery for providing it is kept unintermittedly in active play. Our notion, therefore, of the claim we have on our fellow-creatures to join in making safe for us the very groundwork of our existence, gathers feelings around it so much more intense than those concerned in any of the more common cases of utility, that the difference in degree (as is often the case in psychology) becomes a real difference in kind.

(1865b: 251)

In this way the claim of justice comes to be felt as a claim of a higher kind than any claim of utility. Justice, Mill concludes,

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.

(1865b: 255)

Mill spells out in detail what these moral rules should be in his writings on various social questions. In Utilitarianism, he is concerned with the more abstract task of showing how justice-rights take priority over the direct pursuit of general utility by individuals or the state, just as they take priority over the private pursuit of personal ends. His position is thus more complex than that of philosophers in a Kantian tradition who assume, in John Rawls’ phrase, that the right (or just) is prior to the good. For Mill, good is philosophically prior to right - but politically and socially right constrains the pursuit of good (see Justice §3).

Citing this article:
Skorupski, John. Morality and justice. Mill, John Stuart (1806–73), 2005, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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