Economic Justice and Liberty: The Social Philosophy in John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism

By Schefczyk, Michael | Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Economic Justice and Liberty: The Social Philosophy in John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism


Schefczyk, Michael, Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics


Review of Huei-chun Su's Economic justice and liberty: the social philosophy in John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism. Routledge, 2013, 214 pp.

For those who are inclined to discount John Stuart Mill as an erratic and eclectic thinker, Economic justice and liberty should be required reading. The book belongs to a steadily growing class of scholarly works which interpret Mill with sympathy and a solid cognizance of his writings, and which confirm J. O. Urmson's judgement that if one studies his work diligently, "an essentially consistent thesis can be discovered which is very superior to that usually attributed to Mill and immune to the common run of criticisms" (Urmson 1953, 33). The author of this highly readable book, Huei-chun Su, goes even further than Urmson. Mill's position is not only superior to what sloppy, lazy or nit-picking readers ascribe to him. His social philosophy offers modern readers a serious alternative to that of contemporary luminaries such as Rawls, Sen, and Hayek. By ending the book with the remark that "Mill deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest thinkers in human intellectual history", the author's praise may go a bit over the top. But it is an understandable reaction to the ill-informed dismissiveness towards Mill which is still de rigueur in some academic quarters. Many philosophers take liberties with Mill they would never dare to take with G. E. Moore.

Economic justice and liberty was developed from a PhD thesis supervised by John Maloney at the University of Exeter. The later stages of the book, however, took shape at the Bentham Project at University College London, and one gets the impression that this academic environment helped the author to hammer out what utilitarianism was in the 19th century and how it differed from its modern successor, as canonised by J. J. C. Smart. In order to mark the difference between the two as clearly as possible, Frederick Rosen once coined the useful term 'post-utilitarian paradigm' to describe the latter (Rosen 1997). The postutilitarian paradigm of Smart and others requires the maximisation of total utility and is indifferent to how utility is distributed. Since it conceives utility to be a uniform and summable entity, the post- utilitarian paradigm seems to open the floodgates for the justification of all kinds of injustices, ranging from imprisoning innocent people for fun to extreme inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. One of the great merits of Economic justice and liberty consists in pointing out that a principle of justice is at the very centre of Mill's utilitarianism and that his conception of justice is surprisingly close to that of Rawls, who did so much to discredit utilitarianism as a theory of political morality.

The book has three parts. The concise first part elucidates important aspects of Mill's moral psychology. Everyone has heard that Mill was both a utilitarian and a radical empiricist. Far less established, though, is how closely Mill linked moral theory with empirical science. The bogus authority of moral intuitions must be replaced by a proper inductive basis for normative and axiological claims. Pursuing an essentially Humean programme, Mill was convinced that moral philosophy had to be based on a science of human nature containing in particular what he called "the laws of mind". As Mill frequently lamented, there was no scientific psychology in his day. This has important implications for the status of Mill's moral philosophy and how modern sympathisers should deal with it. Measured against its own standard his moral theory is based on merely conjectural knowledge. It is thus in the spirit of Mill's approach that Huei-chun Su sketches in the book's concluding remarks what a scientific foundation for utilitarianism might look like if we used the resources of modern psychology.

Mill is certainly not to blame for the lack of a scientific psychology in his day, but he could have presented his ideas about moral psychology in a more systematic fashion. …

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