2.3 – Utilitarianism on Justice

Utilitarianism condones actions that benefit everyone the most. Specifically, “the greatest possible benefit, for the greatest possible number”. So therefore any act or law is just if it maximizes utility or happiness. Simple. It was a useful theory in its time as it justified the changing of laws to make them work for the good of the people. Laws stopped existing only to serve the elite (or even existing entirely arbitrarily) and started becoming helpful to the people. It was popular too because you could sell to to people by offering them a good outcome. Kant on the other hand had to sell for selling people a duty, not very enticing. Utilitarianism has a major setback in that it also justified sacrificing an innocent man so that others, not necessarily innocent men themselves, could benefit in great numbers. Obviously, this had its evils and is completely unjust.

Take for an example a car accident in which 5 people, all A+ in blood type, drove their car into a tree because they were all sky larking foolishly and all needed a blood transfusion in the next 5 minutes or they’ll die. If they receive the blood transfusion, they’ll live. Utilitarianism allows that we should take a healthy bystander that is A+, drain all his blood out (murdering him in the process) and give the 5 dying people transfusions. One innocent man dies, 5 foolish people live. Happiness is maximized in the greatest possible number. Somehow, Utilitarianism see this as justice.

I know, you are horrified right now. That just means you’re sane.

There is a part of the book on Utilitarianism (somewhere towards the back) that gets us out of this bind, and its pretty awesome. Mill points out that at all times in history, justice has impeded upon happiness. Now if Utilitarianism is all about happiness, justice is clearly going to be a significant impediment to the theory. Mill deals with justice in the following way.

Mill acknowledges that justice is hard to define and starts by making a cursory survey of what people find just. He believes it is just to respect legal rights, respect moral rights, give people what they deserve, keep promises and always be impartial. Simple things like that. Like Aristotle, he does not believe equality is important to justice. So if I give someone their legal and moral rights, let them get what they deserve, honor any promises I’ve made with them and treat them with impartiality, is this not giving them equal opportunity and letting them succeed or fail on the back of their own choices? Mill is not advocating affirmative action nor is he saying that we should build equality, just that we give everyone a fair go and treat them with basic respect. So we would not murder the bystander with A+ blood nor would be keep slaves as both acts would deny moral rights to people.

It is on the concept of impartiality that Mill dwells a little longer. He writes that it is just to treat a person impartially. That if they are tall, short, straight or gay we should treat them like any other and we come to learn that Mill is getting to is what we would call basic human rights. “When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by force of law, or by that of education and opinion. If he has sufficient claim to have something guaranteed to him by society, we say that he has a right to it.” At last we are getting to the point that all people have unalienable rights that must be defended by society. In today’s society, we seem to believe that a basic human right is to exist above the poverty line, to be educated and receive medical benefits (ie, welfare). There is nothing explicit in Mill’s writing to suggest he believes in basic human rights other than to be given equal opportunity to succeed.

Now it is true that many people were pioneering human rights around this time (Rousseau, Locke, Wollstonecraft) but I like Mill’s version because he is the only thinker that goes further and justifies human rights with a tangible reason for their existence. “To have a right is to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask why, I can give him no other reason than general utility.” To Mill, human rights, and indeed justice, are just useful. They make people happy. He doesn’t appeal to the laws of nature like Locke nor the laws of God like the Christians. He simply states that we are all happier with human rights than without. Why justice? General utility of course. Now, general utility is a bit of a weak justification at this point so Mill goes further and drives home the point about the usefulness of justice by invoking the most powerful of human needs, security. “If that expression (general utility) does not seem to convey a sufficient feeling of the strength of the obligation, nor to account for the peculiar energy of the feeling, it is because there goes to the composition of the sentiment, not a rational only, but also an animal element, the thirst for retaliation; and this thirst derives its intensity, as well as its moral justification, from the extraordinarily important and impressive kind of utility which is concerned. The interest involved is that of security, to every one’s feelings the most vital of all interests. All other earthly benefits are needed by one person, not needed by another; and many of them can, if necessary, be cheerfully foregone, or replaced by something else; but security no human being can possibly do without. On it we depend for all our immunity from evil, and for the whole value of all and every good, beyond the passing moment; since nothing but the gratification of the instant could be of any worth to us, if we could be deprived of anything the next instant by whoever was momentarily stronger than ourselves.”

I find that last quote so powerful. Without justice, we lack security and can never be happy. Without it we can be “deprived of anything the next instant by whoever was momentarily stronger than ourselves.” So what is Mill’s justice? At it’s most basic it is that which makes us safe in society, and that safety is Heisenberg 99% pure crystal blue happiness. If you’ve forgotten that, might I suggest a vacation to your nearest war torn hell hole.

However, we might remember that Mill said in On Liberty that a person’s freedom to do whatever they want, so long as they don’t hurt anyone, is all important in life. But what if what I want to do in life does not make the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number? This can go two ways. Either you will see that there is a huge contradiction here. That Mill simultaneously wants us to do what we want for our own reasons (so long as we don’t hurt anyone) AND do what makes the most people most happy. But, you might also see that each person doing whatever they want (so long as they don’t hurt anyone) for their own reasons IS the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number. Mill states this himself in Utilitarianism “Thus the moralities which protect every individual from being harmed by others, either directly or by being hindered in his freedom of pursuing his own good, are at once those which he himself has most at heart, and those which he has the strongest interest in publishing and enforcing by word and deed. It is by a person’s observance of these that his fitness to exist as one of the fellowship of human beings is tested and decided; for on that depends his being a nuisance or not to those with whom he is in contact. Now it is these moralities primarily which compose the obligations of justice. The most marked cases of injustice, and those which give the tone to the feeling of repugnance which characterizes the sentiment, are acts of wrongful aggression, or wrongful exercise of power over someone; the next are those which consist in wrongfully withholding from him something which is his due; in both cases, inflicting on him a positive hurt, either in the form of direct suffering, or of the privation of some good which he had reasonable ground, either of a physical or of a social kind, for counting upon.”

Really importantly, Mill writes “wrongfully withholding from his something which is his due.” This does not necessarily mean that someone gets wealth simply because they are alive.

It is common to fall in love with Mill’s theories right about now. We are living during a time when we have abandoned the idea that God’s will is justice, Aristotle’s ideas are just so heartless and too elitist to consider and Kant is just to impossible to understand. Utilitarianism is surely a very palatable concept if we keep Mill’s idea of justice in mind. If we’re honest with ourselves, we are living during a time when Utilitarianism is still the prevailing theory of justice. But some cracks are starting to appear. Feminism promotes femininity into power, not because it serves everyone (even though that might be true and they could possibly sell it if they thought about it) and not because it has a grand plan for everyone’s happiness, only to empower women for their own sake regardless of reference to the greater good. Affirmative action is not the greater good, it is designed to serve a minority for the sake of a social justice that rights certain historical wrongs but does not necessarily increase the greater good. In short, we are entering a time where we fear the term “the greater good” because of the evils it perhaps justifies. So let’s explore a theory that can support this development.

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