Welfare Liberal Justice: The Utilitarian Perspective
One way to avoid the challenges directed at a contractarian defense of welfare liberal justice is to find some alternative way of defending it. Historically utilitarianism has been thought to provide such an alternative defense. Under a utilitarian view, the requirements of a welfare liberal conception of justice can be derived from considerations of utility in such a way that following these requirements will result in the maximization of total happiness or satisfaction in society. The best-known classical defense of this utilitarian approach is that presented by John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in Utilitarianism (1863).
In chapter 5 of this work, Mill surveys various types of actions and situations that are ordinarily described as just or unjust, and concludes that justice simply denotes a certain class of fundamental rules, the adherence to which is essential for maximizing social utility. Thus Mill rejects the idea that justice and social utility are ultimately distinct ideals, maintaining instead that justice is in fact derivable from the ideal of social utility.
Nevertheless a serious problem remains for the utilitarian defense of welfare liberal justice. There would appear to be ways of maximizing social utility overall that do an injustice to particular individuals. Think of the Roman practice of throwing people to the lions for the enjoyment of all those in the Colosseum. This unjust practice arguably maximized social utility overall.
Rawls makes the same point somewhat differently. Since utilitarianism sees society as a whole as if it were just one person, it treats the desires and satisfactions of separate persons as if they were the desires and satisfactions of just one person. Thus, according to Rawls, utilitarianism fails to preserve the distinction between persons.
But is Rawls right? Suppose we were to interpret utilitarianism to be constrained by the "ought" implies "can" principle, according to which people are not morally required to do what they lack the power to do or what would involve so great a sacrifice that it would be unreasonable to ask, and/or in cases of severe conflict of interest, unreasonable to require them to abide by. So constrained, utilitarianism would not impose unreasonable sacrifices on individuals, and so would not then have the consequences to which Rawls objects.
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