The Objection from Justice and the Conceptual/Substantive Distinction

In , Mill on Justice. Palgrave Macmillan. 198 (2012)
Abstract
I begin this chapter by outlining Mill's thinking about why justice is a problem for utilitarians. Next, I turn to Mill's own account of justice and explain its connection with rights, perfect duties, and harms. I then examine David Lyons' answer to the question of how Mill's account is meant to answer the Weak Objection from Justice. Lyons maintains that Mill's account of justice has both a conceptual side and a substantive side. The former provides an analysis of such concepts as 'justice' and 'rights'. The latter, based on the Principle of Utility, provides an explanation of when these concepts apply. As a result, utilitarians can allow for circumstances in which actions are wrong because they are unjust, while also claiming that the standards of right and wrong (as well as justice and injustice) are determined by the Principle of Utility. However, the main thesis of this paper is that Lyons' interpretation is flawed. The distinction between the conceptual and the substantive levels of Mill's thinking does not hold up to scrutiny, and even if it did, it would not support Lyon's reading of Mill. It would instead support a debunking interpretation of justice, an interpretation recently explored by Roger Crisp. Such a debunking interpretation suggests a very different response to the Weak Objection from Justice, one that many, but not all, utilitarians will find unwelcome.
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