Chapter 5: Of the Connection between Justice and Utility (Part 2)

Summary Chapter 5: Of the Connection between Justice and Utility (Part 2)

Mill closes by observing that justice is a name for some moral requirements, which are higher on the scale of utility, and thus more important, than any others. However, there can be cases in which some other social duty is so important that it overrules one of the general rules of justice. Thus, it could be acceptable to steal in order to save a life. Mill argues that the previous discussion has resolved what had been the only real problem with utilitarian theory. It has always been clear that cases of justice are also cases of expediency; the difference is that very different sentiments attach themselves to issues of justice and expeediency. Mill argues that he has accounted for what this feeling is; it is simply the natural feeling of resentment, moralized by being connected to social good. Justice is the name for certain social utilities that are more important than any other kind, and thus should be preserved by a feeling that is different in kind from others.


In this final section, Mill attempts to show that justice is actually grounded on utility. He argues that the sentiment of justice itself is rooted in the human desire of retribution. However, the reason why we feel that this sentiment of retribution is a moral one, is that it occurs when not only an individual is wronged, but when society in general is wronged. In cases involving justice, the challenge to social good is particularly pernicious, and therefore the feelings about it are uniquely strong. However, justice is still grounded in utility concerns. It does not have separate origins, but can rather be measured on the same scale of utility.

Perhaps Mill's most interesting comments are those on the question of rights. Unlike many utilitarians, Mill accepts the existence of rights. However, he does not ground these rights in nature, or in God, or in metaphysics. Rather, they are grounded in utility. Rights represent the most basic social utilities necessary for human well-being; human culture cannot flourish if society does not protect individual rights. Thus, rights are fundamental to the greatest happiness principle (utility), since they must be protected for people to be able to enjoy anything else.

However, it is important to consider the implications of grounding rights in utility. As Mill admits, grounding rights in utility implies that if there were a more pressing utility concern, rights could be violated. Mill would argue that there are very few cases in which this would occur; rights are among the most important criteria for happiness. However, since utilitarianism is concerned with total happiness, it does seem possible that there is room for violation of the rights of an individual in the interest of aggregate good. One must thus ask whether utility provides sufficient protection for the individual. Mill would argue that the protection the theory does provide, small as it may be, is the only protection that can be justified.

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