1. The Almanac. An objection to
Mill is that we don’t know the future well enough to figure out what is “expedient”,
i.e., what in the long run maximizes utility.
Moreover, we don’t always have the time to figure it out. Mill responds in chapter 2 with his “nautical
almanac” story. For navigation, we need
to know positions of celestial objects by date.
True, one could calculate them oneself using Newton’s laws, but that
would take a long time. A nautical
almanac contains pre-calculated positions of stars and planets. That one uses an almanac does not put into
question the basic nature of Newton’s laws.
Likewise, we have an ethical almanac: the consensus of humankind. People over the centuries have worked out
what maximizes utility, and have devised ethical rules that are useful “rules
of thumb”, such as “Thou shalt not give false witness”.
- Of course Mill thinks there are exceptions to at
least some of these rules, namely cases where following the rule does not
maximize utility. Thus, if one is
hiding Jews in one’s basement, one does not maximize utility by telling
the truth to the Gestapo officer.
In such an exceptional case, telling a lie is the morally right
thing to do according to utilitarianism.
But a utilitarian like Mill would insist that we have to be very
cautious in going against the rules humankind has worked out. There is a good chance we’re wrong,
2. Justice. People tend to
believe that over and beyond expediency,
there is justice. The rules of justice outweigh those of
expediency. Mill argues that justice is actually
grounded in utility-maximization. Here’s
- There are six different notions about justice/injustice
that commonsense has:
- It is an injustice to violate the legal rights of
- It is an injustice to violating the moral rights of
someone. There are many views on when
one can disobey state law. Most of
them say that when state law is unjust, we can disobey. The one exceptional view is that we
should obey the law always because not doing so produces chaos. Note that the people who hold this
exceptional view are making a utilitarian argument.
- It is just to give people what they deserve. Reward and punishment.
- It is unjust to go against a commitment.
- It is unjust to be partial.
- We should be equal.
- Mill is going to show that these six notions can be
made sense of within a unified utilitarian framework. He thinks that all of these notions have
common to them the idea of a law, either a law that exists or that should
exist. Thus, he considers the idea
that injustice is doing of something that should be punished, the
violation of a law that ought to exist.
However, all morality has
- To make a further distinction, Mill brings up the
distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. He thinks that violation of a perfect
duty is injustice, and this is when one has gone against the right of a specific
(“assignable”) person. What is a
right? One has a right to a good (or
to the absence of something bad) provided that society ought to defend one
in the possession of the good.
- Thus, all immorality is something society should be
defended from. But not all moral
considerations involve some assignable person’s rights. Thus, it is immoral on utilitarian
grounds to be lazy and to fail to develop one’s talents. But no assignable person’s rights are
violated here. (Maybe God’s? But Mill’s ethics leaves God out.) While punishment is appropriate, there
is no specific person whom punishment would defend in such a case.
- On the other hand, if I give false testimony, there
is an assignable person whose rights I have violated: the person against
whom I give false testimony, and the court to which I give it. If more generally I lie, in most cases I
have violated your right not to be deceived. Society ought to defend such
rights. (Of course in most cases of
private lying the defense should not be through “the law”, but through rebuke,
social ostracism, cold looks, etc.)
- [Objection to the idea that injustice involves an
assignable person. Suppose that I deliberately
release a rabid dog in a city so that it would bite someone. Clearly this is unjust—I should be
thrown in jail for assault. But
suppose I do not care whom it bites.
Suppose in fact the dog bites no one. Whose
rights have I violated? There does
not seem a single victim—I’ve equally endangered everyone around
there. Maybe then the “assignable victim”
is everyone around there. But if so, then likewise, if I do not
develop my talents, somebody is harmed by it, someone who could have
benefited from my development of my talents. It is not clear who this person is, but everyone
is harmed in seemingly the same sense as in the case of the dog—there isn’t
a clear person whom my talents would have benefited, so we reify the people
harmed into an “everyone”.]
- But [even if the above objection is answered] there
is something left undefined so far.
How do we tell what society ought to defend one in the possession
of? Easy! This is utilitarianism. Thus, what anybody—including society, it
seems—ought to do is to maximize utility.
Hence, x is one’s right if
and only if societal defense of one’s possession of x maximizes utility.
- What makes lying in most cases wrong is that it
decreases human happiness, e.g., by decreasing the trust between people that
is needed for a harmonious society.
What makes it not just wrong but unjust is that society ought to
defend you from being deceived by me.
Why? Because such a defense
maximizes utility. If society
imposes penalties on liars, most especially the penalty of ostracizing them
from the company of people who are trusted, utility is greater than if
such penalties are not imposed.
- But in exceptional cases, such as of the Gestapo
officer, imposing a penalty on the liar does not maximize utility, since
it encourages people to turn Jews in, and the suffering of these Jews
greatly decreases utility as opposed to the non-imposition of a
penalty. Hence, such a lie is neither
unjust nor immoral if utilitarianism is true.
- The above argument for a utilitarian account of
justice has the following structure: The various kinds of
justice/injustice become unified
by seeing them all as instances of violation of rights, and seeing the
violation of rights as rooted in considerations of what it is expedient to
punish completes the theory, while accounting for “exceptional”
cases. Thus, utilitarianism
provides a comprehensive and simple theory of justice.
3. The argument from
- Mill has a second argument for a utility-based
account of justice. Consider
various cases where it is not clear what justice says. E.g.:
- Should we pay workers proportionately to effort or
- Should we punish people to deter others, to improve
the people themselves, or not at all?
- Should we tax people all at the same percentage, or
the rich at a higher percentage, or should everyone get the same lump sum
- In each of these cases, it is very hard to tell what
the right answer is based on intuitive notions of justice. But once we consider utility, then, even if we do not
see what the answer is, we know how to figure it out—we need to use
economic theory. And some things
are clear. If everyone is taxed the
same lump sum, there will be a lot of misery since the poor will have to
starve as they won’t be able to afford the lump sum. If we do not punish people at all, crime
will multiply and people will be miserable. We might add: Effort is hard to measure,
so paying workers proportionately to effort will boil down to paying them
proportionately to apparent
effort, and they’ll try to fake effort, which is bad.
- An opponent to the argument from applications might
either strive to find a principled answer to the questions, or might say:
“Yes, in these cases the considerations of justice are balanced. Hence we must employ utilitarian
considerations as a tie-breaker. This
does not mean justice is grounded in utility, but that utility is a
4. The abhorrent conclusions objection
- Case A. You are the judge in a no-jury trial of a man
you know to be innocent. If you do
not sentence him to death, there will be a riot and many will be
killed. It seems that it maximizes
utility to sentence the innocent man to death.
- If it is wrong to sentence the innocent man to
death and if it maximizes utility to do so, then utilitarianism is false.
- However, the utilitarian will say that when we look
at total human happiness, we look at all human happiness from now into
the future. (, where h(x,t) is the happiness of
person x at t and the sum is over all people). Sentencing the
innocent man to death will decrease people’s trust in the law, increase
vigilante justice, and encourage future mobs.
- Case B. As a surgeon, by killing a woman coming in
for an appendectomy, you can ensure the availability of organs that would
save the lives of three people who would otherwise die. If all of the four people have equally
good prospects for a happy future, it seems to maximize utility to kill
the patient and use her organs.
- If it is wrong to kill the patient and it maximizes
utility to do so, then utilitarianism is false.
- Again, the utilitarian will say that in the long
term, utility would not be maximized.
People will become more afraid of hospitals, the surgeon might get
caught, life becomes cheapened in the surgeon’s eyes and she becomes a
less good surgeon, etc.
- In both cases, the utilitarian will likely insist
that in the long-term, the killing will produce lesser utility. Mill will add that this is why we have
such a strong commonsense opposition to killing—over the centuries we’ve
figured out these utility considerations and found that any killing of the
innocent is non-optimal vis-à-vis utility.
- The anti-utilitarian does, however, have two
responses to the “long-term” considerations.
- The “one
thought too many” response.
Saying that in these cases utility is harmed in the long run is one thought too many. It’s not the real reason it’s wrong.
The reason it’s wrong to kill the patient or sentence the
innocent person to death is that it is the killing of an innocent
person, not that it will produce all kinds of bad consequences for other people after the person
dies. It is the harm to the
victim, and maybe to the victim’s friends and family, that makes the
killing wrong, not long term consequences for others. The latter consideration should not
even come up.
- The cases can be tweaked so that the long-term
consequences aren’t like that.
- Case A*. Suppose the judge alone knows a crucial
piece of evidence that exonerates the accused, and without this
evidence there is an overwhelming case against the accused. The judge in fact saw the accused miles away from
the crime. If the judge says
this, the mob won’t believe him.
Nobody knows that the judge saw the accused. The judge holds back this crucial
piece of evidence and convicts the man.
Since everyone thinks the accused is guilty, people’s trust in
justice will be reinforced by sentencing him to death. Suppose for instance that the judge
and the accused are members of a racial minority. Then, acquittal might lead people to
question justice (and people won’t believe the judge’s testimony)
because they’ll think the judge acquitted the man because they are both
members of the same race. In
this case, the long-term consequences are better if the man is convicted.
- Again, the objector to utilitarianism insists
that even in this case, it is wrong to convict the man.
- Case B*. Suppose that the surgeon knows she can
get away with it. She can do it
while the nurse is out of the room, and no one will know. Moreover, she knows that the negative
publicity for the hospital from this death will be outweighed by the
positive publicity from the three transplant operations. And she is not worried about her own
attitude towards life worsening, because she is retiring the next day
- Again, the objector to utilitarianism insists
that even in this case, it is wrong to kill the patient for her
- Note that the second form of the Categorical
Imperative handles these cases much more intuitively. In these cases, one person is being used as a mere means. Such use is wrong.