Texas A&M University
John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation.
Degree: PhD, Philosophy, 2014, Texas A&M University
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
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.
Advisors/Committee Members: Radzik, Linda (advisor), Palmer, Clare (committee member), Austin, Scott (committee member), Adams, R.J.Q. (committee member).
Subjects/Keywords: J.S. Mill; utilitarianism; rule utilitarianism; act utilitarianism; sanction utilitarianism; Roger Crisp; Fred Berger; Alan Fuchs; J.O. Urmson; Daniel Jacobson; 'On Liberty'; 'Utilitarianism'
to Zotero / EndNote / Reference
APA (6th Edition):
Wright, D. (2014). John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation. (Doctoral Dissertation). Texas A&M University. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1969.1/152774
Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition):
Wright, David. “John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation.” 2014. Doctoral Dissertation, Texas A&M University. Accessed August 14, 2020.
MLA Handbook (7th Edition):
Wright, David. “John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation.” 2014. Web. 14 Aug 2020.
Wright D. John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation. [Internet] [Doctoral dissertation]. Texas A&M University; 2014. [cited 2020 Aug 14].
Available from: http://hdl.handle.net/1969.1/152774.
Council of Science Editors:
Wright D. John Stuart Mill's Sanction Utilitarianism: A Philosophical and Historical Interpretation. [Doctoral Dissertation]. Texas A&M University; 2014. Available from: http://hdl.handle.net/1969.1/152774