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74. RULE-UTILITARIANISM AND HUME'S THEORY OF JUSTICE One of the striking features of Hume's theory of justice is the narrowness of the range of judgments it is designed to illumine. For Hume the paradigms of judgments of justice are judgments about particular actions, not judgments about laws or institutions or states of affairs. Moreover, the characterization of actions as just or unjust is possible according to Hume only in a certain kind of legal context - namely when questions arise about the conformity of conduct to a certain class of legal rules, those which comprise the law of property. In such contexts, actions are said to be just if they are in accordance with property rules and unjust if they are contrary to them. Of particular interest is the exclusion of judgments about the law - and in particular judgments about property rules - from the class of judgments of justice. Hume recognizes , of course, that we often have occasion to evaluate rules of law, including the rules which make up the law of property. When such judgments have to be made, however, it is never their justice or injustice which is in question for Hume. The fact that he often refers to the rules of property as "rules of justice" may seem to be inconsistent with this view, but it is not. When Hume refers to property rules in this way, it is not because he wishes to signify that the rules themselves satisfy some principle of justice, but rather because he conceives of them as embodying our criteria for the making of judgments about the justice of particular acts. Property rules cannot be viewed as "rules of justice" in this sense without satisfying some supralegal standard of acceptability. But the standard in quesrtion is social utility, not justice. Property rules qualify as "rules of justice", then, not because they are just but rather because they serve the public interest. Like some contemporary rule-utilitarians, Hume expressly disallows the question whether particular acts of 75. justice are socially useful. Or rather, to be more accurate, he claims that the disutility of particular acts sanctioned by property law counts neither against their being regarded as "acts of justice" nor against recognition of the obligation to perform them. Neither the characterisation of particular actions as "just" nor the stringency of the obligation to perform them is affected by the discovery that they might have to be said not to be in the public interest if attention were to be concentrated on the special circumstances of their performance. The reason is that it is a mistake, Hume thinks, for such acts to be viewed in isolation from other similar acts. Rather they must be seen as forming part of a scheme or system - a scheme or system which, taken in its entirety, serves the public interest. Hume's theory of justice thus embodies an unusually neat distinction between questions of justice and questions of social utility. When questions of justice are allowed to arise which is when the justice of particular acts is to be determined - questions of social utility do not arise. And when questions of social utility are allowed to arise - as they do when property rules have to be evaluated - questions of justice do not arise. Despite the sharp distinction he draws between justice and utility, Hume's theory of justice is clearly a utilitarian one. It is indeed a veritable prototype of the kind of theory now dubbed "rule-utilitarian". As such it has obvious attractions for would-be utilitarians, if it can be made to work. It would enable utilitarians to offer an account of judgments of justice in terms of rules enjoying the status of secondary principles of morality. Justice judgments could be represented as a special sub-class of moral judgments and the principles regulating them as subordinate to, and derivable from, the principle of utility. The vexed question of the relation between justice and utility would thereby be resolved without challenge to the assumption that they are different values and also without 76. abandonment of the claim that the principle of utility is the only underivative moral principle. By contrast, utilitarians for whom the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 74-84
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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