John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation
MetadataShow full item record
This dissertation argues for a particular interpretation of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, namely that Mill is best read as a sanction utilitarian. In general, scholars commonly interpret Mill as some type of act or rule utilitarian. In making their case for these interpretations, it is also common for scholars to use large portions of Mill’s Utilitarianism as the chief source of insight into his moral theory. By contrast, I argue that Utilitarianism is best read as an ecumenical text where Mill explains and defends the general tenets of utilitarianism rather than setting out his own preferred theory. The exception to this ecumenical approach to the text comes in the fifth chapter on justice which, I argue on textual and historical grounds, outlines the central features of Mill’s utilitarianism. With this understanding of Utilitarianism in place, many of the passages commonly cited in favor of the previous interpretations are rendered less plausible, and interpretations emphasizing Mill’s other writings are strengthened. Using this methodology, I critique four of the most prominent act or rule utilitarian interpretations of Mill’s moral theory. I then provide an interpretation of Mill’s theory of moral obligation and utilitarianism. On Mill’s account of moral obligation (which purportedly holds for moral theories generally, not just utilitarianism) there is a tight relation between an action being wrong and it being subject to punishment by an agent’s conscience. The utilitarian aspect of Mill’s theory concerns the role of rules in an agent’s conscience. According to Mill’s sanction utilitarian view, the actions that are punished are those actions that violate the moral rules which, if widely internalized across society, would promote general utility. On this account, an action is wrong when an agent violates a justified moral rule and is properly punished, at least by one’s conscience. An action is right when conditions are such that if the action were not performed, then the action would be properly punished by at least the agent’s conscience. I apply this interpretation to other notable components of Mill’s approach such as his account of practical action (the Art of Life) and his theory of liberty.
Wright, David (2014). John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from