By Leonard Kahn (eds.)
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There is a long tradition of reading Mill as an act utilitarian, who thinks that it is our duty to perform the action with the best consequences for human happiness. Act utilitarianism is a form of direct consequentialism because it makes the assessment of anything, including an action, depend upon its consequences. S. O. Urmson (1953) argued 21 22 David O. Brink against this act utilitarian reading of Mill and defended a rule utilitarian reading, according to which an act is obligatory, not because of its consequences, but if it conforms to a rule with optimal acceptance value.
But similar claims would apply, mutatis mutandis, for the comparison with the net benefit criterion. 46 David O. Brink 8. In ‘Auguste Comte and Positivism’ Mill discusses the need to recognize categories of the permissible but not obligatory and the supererogatory (CW X, pp. 337–8), but he does not say or imply that this is a problem for act utilitarianism or an argument for sanction utilitarianism. 9. Earlier versions of some of this material were presented at the triennial meetings of the International Society for Utilitarian Studies at Dartmouth in August 2005, a UCSD History of Philosophy Roundtable in March 2007, the University of Pennsylvania in March 2007, a philosophy and law seminar at Georgetown University in February 2008, the University of California, Santa Barbara in May 2008, and the University of Texas in October 2008, and benefited from feedback on those occasions.
Brink To say that we can reconcile the abstinence passage with direct utilitarianism is not to say that this is the most natural reading of the passage or that there is nothing to be said for a rule utilitarian reading. But, if we continue to abstract, for the moment, from complexities to be introduced in Chapter V of Utilitarianism (discussed below), then, given Mill’s commitments to direct utilitarianism elsewhere, a direct utilitarian reading of the abstinence passage appears to be the only way for him to maintain a consistent position.
Mill on Justice by Leonard Kahn (eds.)