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John Stuart Mill's Position on Justice

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ohn Stuart Mill opens his essay, Utilitarianism, by mentioning that there’s little progress being made toward a standard system that judges people’s actions as morally right or wrong

For over 2000 years, philosophers have tried to lay the foundation of morality, but have yet to come closer to an agreement of what the notions of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are based on. Mill argues that unlike science where “particular truth precedes general theory”, ethics needs ‘general laws’ in order for morality to have legitimacy or significance.

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Given so many different applications of the concept of justice, it is hard to find what links them all together, and on what concept the sentiment of justice is based. Nevertheless, people do see justice as a unified concept, and do feel a sentiment of justice regardless of whether they understand its foundation. Mill says that some help may come from looking at the history of the word. In most languages, the word's origin came from either positive law or authoritative custom. Thus, the most primitive element of justice is the idea of conformity to law. The Greeks and Romans realized that there could be bad laws, and thus justice came to be associated only to those laws that ought to exist, including those that should exist but do not. Mill also recognizes, however, that the idea of justice is often applied to areas about which we would not want legislation: for example, we always think it right that unjust acts be punished, even if we recognize that it would be inexpedient for courts to acts as punishers in particular cases. The limitation on the scope of the state's right to punish in particular cases has to do with practical concerns about extending the state's power, not with a sense that the person should not be punished. At this point, Mill observes that while this discussion has given a true account of the origin and development of justice, it does not show a distinction from other forms of morality. The idea of a penal sanction enters into any kind of wrong; in fact, something is considered wrong only when it is thought that the person should be punished either by law, opinion, or one's own conscience. Thus, moral obligation in general comes from the idea of duty, the idea that a person may rightly be compelled to do something. He argues that this concept of deserving or not deserving punishment is the essence of moral thinking in general. Mill argues that justice can be distinguished from other forms of morality by looking at the difference between perfect and imperfect obligations. Imperfect obligations are those that no one person has the right to require of another. Perfect obligations are those that a person may demand of another

Justice corresponds with the idea of perfect obligation: it involves the idea of a personal right. In cases of justice, the person who has been wronged has had his or her moral right impinged upon; it is thus his or her moral right to seek restitution.

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Mill’s response to these alleged differences is mixed. Sometimes, he questions whether the traits in question are unevenly distributed. But, for the most part, he seems to concede that the traits are unevenly distributed

He doesn’t always agree that the female trait is a deficit or disqualifier. For instance, he thinks that being more intuitive, more practical, more focused on particulars, and less rigid allows women to compensate for deficits in the way that men typically approach decision-making. Women are less likely to follow principle for its own sake and are more likely to test principles by their real world consequences. They are better able to multi-task and intellectually more open-minded (Collini, S., 1979). Being morally superior and less aggressive are unqualified goods. However, he seems to concede that women are more excitable, less accomplished, and less original than men. He tries to explain these deficits and disqualifiers in ways that do not presuppose women’s natural inferiority. Mill’s primary response to the apologists is to claim that even if the trait is unevenly distributed and functions as a deficit or disqualifier there is nonetheless no evidence of natural inferiority. There is no evidence of natural inferiority, because we cannot be sure that the incapacity is the product of nature, rather than nurture. In particular, because the history of sexual relations has been discriminatory, we cannot rule out the possibility that female incapacity is the product of past discriminatory treatment (Brown, D.G., 1972).

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As has been noted, both followed the basic principles of utilitarianism, which focuses on the pursuit of happiness, which is the morally superior act to follow

You mean morally good principle, or sole intrinsic good. This makes it almost completely opposite to the Kantian view of Ethics, where moral obligations should be completed because of their moral worth rather than the pleasure you receive out of this.

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Brown, D.G., 1972, “Mill on Liberty and Morality,” Philosophical Review, 81: 133–58.

Collini, S., 1979, Liberalism and Sociology: L.T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England 1880–1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copp, D. (ed.), 1979, New Essays on John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supp. Vol. V.

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