It’s All Been Said (Kinda)

About a week and a half ago I wrote about how John Stuart Mill’s remarks on conventional Christianity in 1859 remained remarkably relevant today. Not quite two weeks before that I’d written about ancient Greek and Roman views of the injustice of slavery, suggesting that they might help us remember that what seems obvious to us has not always been so obvious to all intelligent and thoughtful people. After all, many of us might be similarly content with social institutions and practices that later, more enlightened ages will regard as obviously unjust. Today I was reminded that Mill had already made that point, too.

All persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse. And hence all social inequalities, which have ceased to be considered expedient, assume the character, not of simple inexpediency, but of injustice, and appear so tyrannical, that people are apt to wonder how they ever could have been tolerated; forgetful that they themselves perhaps tolerate other inequalities under an equally mistaken notion of expediency, the correction of which would make that which they approve seem quite as monstrous as what they have at last learnt to condemn. The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of color, race, and sex. — Utilitarianism, chapter 5.

I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether Mill is right to think that judgments of justice and injustice are really judgments of ‘expediency’ — which, for Mill, is a matter not of short-term convenience but of general utility — or whether his apparent optimism about the progressive trajectory of history is warranted. His more particular point, however, is surely right; much of what we now deem unjust was tolerated in the past in good part because it was taken to be necessary or unavoidable except at the cost of greater goods, and we ourselves may be tolerating injustice simply because we can’t envision any realistic alternatives. Of course, that’s pretty much the point I made in the slavery post, and now I’m here making it again. But Mill had already made it in 1861. So I was just repeating him the first time, and now repeating myself, and him, again, and on and on (I know, I know, so shut up, already, right?).

I suppose it goes to show that most of what gets said has already been said in one way or another, or, as another, even older, author put it, there’s nothing new under the sun. But then, often it’s worth looking at the same things under the sun that other people have seen before, and that we’ve seen before ourselves. So too, some things need to be said again, and again, and again.

But I’ll stop saying them for now.

Well, ok, that might be kinda new.

2 thoughts on “It’s All Been Said (Kinda)

  1. If, as Mill is saying here, justice is relative to expediency, then what was previously justifiably “tolerated” was in fact just. What is tolerated on this picture is not injustice, but rather a morally-non-ideal situation. And imagination (and a steadfast focus on what is morally better or ideal) serves, then and now, not to make sure we don’t condone injustice but rather to assure that we can see ahead to (and realize) what is morally better or ideal. Is that right? This does not really capture that idea that there are basic injustices (e.g., racism, sexism) that are always and everywhere wrong (even when they were not recognized as such). Nor does it capture the idea that, since they are always and everywhere wrong, the countervailing considerations could not have been any general considerations of utility or expediency.

    The two ideas here – that there is basic injustice that is always and everywhere wrong and that there is an arch of moral progress that does not reduce to realizing basic justice – are both valuable but they need to be clearly distinguished.


    • I don’t think that gets Mill right. I think he’s committed to two claims:

      1. Justice is, as a matter of fact, essentially a matter of what promotes general utility (the greatest happiness of the greatest number). This is a core commitment of utilitarianism.

      2. Ordinary judgments of justice are, as a matter of fact, judgments about what promotes general utility (the greatest happiness of the greatest number). In other words, utilitarianism captures the structure of ordinary moral thinking, even though most ordinary people do not recognize this; to the extent that ordinary people or theorists genuinely depart from thinking about justice within a utilitarian structure, their ideas are not only mistaken, but incoherent. This is not a core commitment of utilitarianism, because one could think that non-utilitarian modes of moral thinking are perfectly coherent, but simply false, unreasonable, or whatever. But while I’m not sure Mill says so so in so many words, he does seem committed to the claim that ordinary moral thinking is implicitly utilitarian in structure.

      So, by holding these two views, Mill is not thereby committed to thinking that what was previously tolerated was in fact just. Must he, or does he, think that whatever was justifiably tolerated was in fact just? Note that the quotation above doesn’t suggest that the inequalities between master and slave, noble and serf, or patrician and plebeian, or the inequalities of “color, race, and sex” were justifiably tolerated. He purports to show how the toleration of them in the past made sense to the people who tolerated them; they did not regard them as unjust, because they regarded them either as inevitable or as conducive to some broader good, or if they did regard them as unjust, they nonetheless put up with them for the same reason. Of course, one might think that slavery or serfom, say, were in fact the best that the societies that had them could do at the time, and so were justified. If Mill thought so, then he’d agree that they were just, at least in some sense. But I don’t think he believes that they were the best that those societies could do at the time, at least not in any relevant sense of ‘could’ that would have rendered them just.

      Now, Mill does say some potentially conflicting things that might bear on this question. On the one hand, he seems to grant that it might not be possible for every reasonable person in every time and place to identify what is in fact just according to the principle of utility, and that they cannot be blamed for this error. On the other hand, he explicitly says, in Utilitarianism chapter 5, that for an action to be morally wrong is for it to be worthy of blame or punishment, which seems to entail that blameless wrongdoing is impossible, and hence that if people in the past could not have seen that slavery or serfdom is unjust, then it couldn’t have been unjust, because those people couldn’t be blamed for acting so as to sustain slavery or serfdom given that their social and epistemic limitations rendered them unable to work out the injustice. I’m not sure whether Mill really faces this problem, but it doesn’t seem like a very serious problem to me in any case, since even if Mill has to modify or abandon some claim, the changes required seem minimal. I don’t know the texts well enough to know off-hand whether he’s already made room to distinguish between injustice that is morally wrong in his sense and injustice that isn’t, but it wouldn’t require much revision in his overall theory to allow that there can be blameless injustices, even if what is morally wrong is always blameworthy.

      Of course, to some extent Mill can’t make room for ‘basic injustices,’ just because he’s a utilitarian; justice and injustice are defined in terms of general utility, and so no injustice is basic in the sense of being unjust independently of general utility. Moreover, though I’m not entirely sure that one has to think so just by virtue of being a utilitarian, given his utilitarianism, Mill quite plausibly holds that there are few acts not already described in the suitable moral terms that will always be wrong everywhere regardless of any circumstances whatsoever. He must at least allow for the possibility that, say, intentionally killing the innocent might, in some possible circumstance, be required by the principle of utility and therefore just. If you object to that, you won’t hear any complaints from me, since I am a resolute anti-utilitarian and I am generally inclined to think that any conception of justice on which intentionally killing an innocent person is just can’t be an adequate conception of justice (though I allow that it is at least conceivable that an unjust act of that sort could be decisively rational in some circumstance, so that my opposition to Mill on this point does not revolve around a disagreement concerning moral absolutes as those are often understood). There’s some tension in Mill’s thought between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism; if he were to embrace rule utilitarianism, he might be able to maintain that intentionally killing the innocent is always unjust because it is generally contrary to general utility. But as I read him, anyway, Mill tends to lean towards act utilitarianism, at least as an account of what is objectively right, which is part of what explains his frequent treatment of moral rules as open to possible exception.

      So there may be a problem about basic injustices here, but if so it’s just a general problem for act utilitarianism. Unless I’ve missed something (which is entirely possible), Mill doesn’t draw the sort of distinction you mention between injustice and morally non-ideal situations (though he also doesn’t think that all of morality falls under the rubric of justice; that’s an issue for another time), and so he doesn’t think that what was contrary to general utility in the past was not unjust simply because people thought it was, or because they couldn’t imagine realistic alternatives, or whatever.


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