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Mill’s extraordinary utilitarian moral theory


  • Jonathan Riley

    (Tulane University, USA,


D.G. Brown’s revisionist interpretation, despite its interest, misrepresents Mill’s moral theory as outlined in Utilitarianism . Mill’s utilitarianism is extraordinary because it explicitly aims to maximize general happiness both in point of quality and quantity. It encompasses spheres of life beyond morality, and its structure cannot be understood without clarification of his much-maligned doctrine that some kinds of pleasant feelings are qualitatively superior to others irrespective of quantity. This doctrine of higher pleasures establishes an order of precedence among conflicting kinds of enjoyments, including moral as well as non-moral kinds. In particular, as he indicates in Utilitarianism , Chapter V, the higher kind of pleasure associated with the moral sentiment of justice, namely, a feeling of ‘security’ for vital personal concerns that everyone has and that ought to be recognized as equal rights, is qualitatively superior to any competing kinds of pleasures regardless of quantity. Justice (more generally, morality) is conceived as a social system of rules and dispositions which has as its ultimate end the maximization of this pleasant feeling of security for everyone. The upshot is that an optimal social code that distributes and sanctions particular equal rights and correlative duties has absolute priority over competing considerations within his utilitarianism. The code seeks to prevent conduct that, in the judgment of suitably competent majorities, causes grievous kinds of harm to other people by injuring their vital personal concerns. To prevent the acts and omissions which are judged to cause such undue harm, the code assigns equal duties not to perform them, and authorizes due punishment of anyone who fails to fulfill his duties. Punishment is always expedient to condemn and deter wrongdoing. But it is properly a separate issue which particular ways of inflicting punishment are expedient in any particular situation. Given that feelings of guilt are a way of inflicting punishment, coercion is not necessary for punishment. Thus, Mill’s claim that wrongdoing always deserves to be punished in some way does not imply that coercive legal sanctions and public stigma are always expedient for the enforcement of moral duties.

Suggested Citation

  • Jonathan Riley, 2010. "Mill’s extraordinary utilitarian moral theory," Politics, Philosophy & Economics, , vol. 9(1), pages 67-116, February.
  • Handle: RePEc:sae:pophec:v:9:y:2010:i:1:p:67-116

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