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Symposium on Mill's moral theory in PPE

Mark D. White

In the latest issue of Politics, Philosophy & Economics, there is a symposium on John Stuart Mill's moral theory. It seems my library no longer has access to this journal, but the articles are:

D.G. Brown,

Dale E. Miller,

Jonathan Riley,

Any comments on the articles, or the symposium as a whole, would be most welcome.


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Here are the abstracts:

Mill’s moral theory: Ongoing revisionism
D.G. Brown

University of British Columbia, Canada, [email protected]

Revisionist interpretation of Mill needs to be extended to deal with a residue of puzzles about his moral theory and its connection with his theory of liberty. The upshot shows his reinterpretation of his Benthamite tradition as a form of ‘philosophical utilitarianism’; his definition of the art of morality as collective self-defence; his ignoring of maximization in favour of ad hoc dealing in utilities; the central role of his account of the justice of punishment; the marginal role of the internal sanction in his criterion of moral wrong; his deep respect for common-sense morality; and his restriction of the scope of morality so as to claim for the utilitarian tradition the whole realm of the aesthetics of conduct as part of a general theory of practical reason.

Brown on Mill’s moral theory: A critical response
Dale E. Miller

Old Dominion University, USA, [email protected]

In this article, I argue that the reading of Mill that D.G. Brown presents in ‘Mill’s Moral Theory: Ongoing Revisionism’ is inconsistent with several key passages in Mill’s writings. I also show that a rule-utilitarian interpretation that is very close to the one developed by David Lyons is able to account for these passages without difficulty.

Mill’s extraordinary utilitarian moral theory
Jonathan Riley

Tulane University, USA, [email protected]

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.

Thanks, Dale! Looks like you all had a great exchange. Do you know if Brown is planning to respond (hopefully in PPE)?

Not that I know of, although I like the idea. I proposed that he have a reply in this issue, but he didn't seem all that keen. I have some idea what he thinks about some of my objections to his reading, because the three of us presented our papers as a panel at the last International Society for Utilitarian Studies conference, but both his paper and mine changed some since then so even I don't know how he would answer all of my points. And I've no idea what he would say to Riley.

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