Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 5c

The essential ingredients in the sentiment of justice

by John Stuart Mill Icon
8 minutes  • 1570 words
Table of contents

The 2 essential ingredients in the sentiment of justice are:

  1. The desire to punish a person who has done harm
  2. The knowledge or belief that there is some definite individual/s to whom harm has been done.

The desire to punish a person who has done harm to some individual, is a spontaneous outgrowth from 2 sentiments:

  • the impulse of self-defence
  • sympathy

Both are most natural and instinctive.

It is natural to resent, repel, or retaliate any harm done or attempted against ourselves, or against those with whom we sympathize.

It is common to all animal nature. Every animal tries to hurt those who have hurt, or who it thinks are about to hurt, itself or its young.

Human beings only differ from other animals on this point in 2 particulars.

  1. We can sympathize with all humans, and even with all sentient beings
  1. We have a more developed intelligence

This gives us a wider range of sentiments, whether self-regarding or sympathetic.

Through this superior intelligence, even without our superior range of sympathy, we can apprehend a community of interest between us and the human society which we are part of.

  • Any conduct which threatens the security of the society generally, is threatening to us.
  • It calls forth our instinct of self-defence.

The same superiority of intelligence joins to the power of sympathizing with human beings generally. This enables us to attach ourselves to the collective idea of our tribe, country, or mankind.

  • Any act hurtful to them rouses our instinct of sympathy, and urges us to resistance.

One of the elements of the sentiment of justice is the desire to punish. It is thus the natural feeling of retaliation or vengeance, rendered by intellect and sympathy applicable to those injuries, that is, to those hurts, which wound us through, or in common with, society at large.

This sentiment, in itself, has nothing moral in it. What is moral is the exclusive subordination of it to the social sympathies, so as to wait on and obey their call.

For the natural feeling tends to make us resent indiscriminately whatever any one does that is disagreeable to us.

But when moralized by the social feeling, it only acts in the directions conformable to the general good; just persons resenting a hurt to society, though not otherwise a hurt to themselves, and not resenting a hurt to themselves, however painful, unless it be of the kind which society has a common interest with them in the repression of.

When our sentiment of justice is outraged, we are not thinking of society at large, or of any collective interest, but only of the individual case.

It is common enough certainly, though the reverse of commendable, to feel resentment merely because we have suffered pain; but a person whose resentment is really a moral feeling, that is, who considers whether an act is blameable before he allows himself to resent it—such a person, though he may not say expressly to himself that he is standing up for the interest of society, certainly does feel that he is asserting a rule which is for the benefit of others as well as for his own.

If he is not feeling this—if he is regarding the act solely as it affects him individually—he is not consciously just; he is not concerning himself about the justice of his actions. This is admitted even by anti-utilitarian moralists. When Kant (as before remarked) propounds as the fundamental principle of morals, ‘So act, that thy rule of conduct might be adopted as a law by all rational beings,’ he virtually acknowledges that the interest of mankind collectively, or at least of mankind indiscriminately, must be in the mind of the agent when conscientiously deciding on the morality of the act.

Otherwise he uses words without a meaning= for, that a rule even of utter selfishness could not possibly be adopted by all rational beings—that there is any insuperable obstacle in the nature of things to its adoption—cannot be even plausibly maintained. To give any meaning to Kant’s principle, the sense put upon it must be, that we ought to shape our conduct by a rule which all rational beings might adopt with benefit to their collective interest.

What is Justice?

The idea of justice supposes 2 things:

  1. A rule of conduct

This is common to all mankind, and intended for their good.

  1. A sentiment which sanctions the rule

This is a desire that punishment may be suffered by those who infringe the rule.

There is involved, in addition, the conception of some definite person who suffers by the infringement; whose rights (to use the expression appropriated to the case) are violated by it.

The sentiment of justice appears to me to be, the animal desire to repel or retaliate a hurt or damage to oneself, or to those with whom one sympathizes, widened so as to include all persons, by the human capacity of enlarged sympathy, and the human conception of intelligent self-interest.

From the latter elements, the feeling derives its morality; from the former, its peculiar impressiveness, and energy of self-assertion.

I have, throughout, treated the idea of a right residing in the injured person, and violated by the injury, not as a separate element in the composition of the idea and sentiment, but as one of the forms in which the other two elements clothe themselves. These elements are, a hurt to some assignable person or persons on the one hand, and a demand for punishment on the other.

An examination of our own minds, I think, will show, that these two things include all that we mean when we speak of violation of a right. When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education and opinion.

If he has what we consider a sufficient claim, on whatever account, to have something guaranteed to him by society, we say that he has a right to it.

If we want to prove that anything does not belong to him by right, we think this done as soon as it is admitted that society ought not to take measures for securing it to him, but should leave it to chance, or to his own exertions.

Thus, a person has a right to what he can earn in fair professional competition because society should not allow any other person to hinder him from trying to earn in that manner as much as he can.

But he has not a right to 300 per year even if he might already be earning it because society is not called on to provide that he shall earn that sum.

On the contrary, if he owns 10,000 pounds 3% stock, he has a right to 300 per year because society has come under an obligation to provide him with an income of that amount.

To have a right then is to have something which society should defend me in the possession of.

If the objector goes on to ask why it should, my only answer is general utility. That word might not convey enough feeling of a strong obligation.

But this is because there goes to the composition of the sentiment, not a rational only but also an animal element, the thirst for retaliation.

This thirst derives its intensity, as well as its moral justification, from the extraordinarily important and impressive kind of utility which is concerned.

The interest involved is that of security, to every one’s feelings the most vital of all interests.

Nearly all other earthly benefits are needed by one person, not needed by another; and many of them can, if necessary, be cheerfully foregone, or replaced by something else; but security no human being can possibly do without; on it we depend for all our immunity from evil, and for the whole value of all and every good, beyond the passing moment; since nothing but the gratification of the instant could be of any worth to us, if we could be deprived of everything the next instant by whoever was momentarily stronger than ourselves.

Now this most indispensable of all necessaries, after physical nutriment, cannot be had, unless the machinery for providing it is kept unintermittedly in active play.

Our notion, therefore, of the claim we have on our fellow creatures to join in making safe for us the very groundwork of our existence, gathers feelings round it so much more intense than those concerned in any of the more common cases of utility, that the difference in degree (as is often the case in psychology) becomes a real difference in kind.

The claim assumes that character of absoluteness, that apparent infinity, and incommensurability with all other considerations, which constitute the distinction between the feeling of right and wrong and that of ordinary expediency and inexpediency.

The feelings concerned are so powerful, and we count so positively on finding a responsive feeling in others (all being alike interested), that ought and should grow into must, and recognized indispensability becomes a moral necessity, analogous to physical, and often not inferior to it in binding force.

If my analysis is not the correct notion of justice then it is hard to understand:

  • why that internal oracle is so ambiguous, and
  • why so many things appear either just or unjust

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