Mill's Ambivalence About Rights

23 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2007

See all articles by David O. Brink

David O. Brink

University of California, San Diego; University of San Diego School of Law

Date Written: April 9, 2007


Mill recognizes individual rights, but he insists that these rights have a utilitarian foundation. Much contemporary work in moral and political philosophy assumes that rights act as trumps or side constraints on the pursuit of utility and is skeptical about the compatibility of utility and rights. Understanding Mill's theory of rights is a good test of this conventional wisdom. Though Mill recognizes the existence and importance of rights, he is ambivalent about their connection with utility. On one conception, rights function as an important kind of secondary principle to be used in moral reasoning in lieu of direct appeals to the utilitarian first principle. On another conception, rights protect certain interests and liberties that qualify as pre-eminent goods, higher in importance than other goods. Both of these conceptions of rights can be squared with the direct utilitarian assumption that any object of moral assessment should be assessed by and in proportion to the value of its consequences for the general happiness. Mill's third conception of rights understands them as claims that it is especially useful for society to enforce. This conception requires adopting a form of indirect utilitarianism, which assumes that an object of moral assessment should be assessed, not by the value of its consequences for human happiness, but by its conformity to norms that have good or optimal acceptance value. This essay sketches these three conceptions of rights, compares their commitments, and explores the different ways they reconcile utility and rights.

Keywords: act utilitarianism, consequentialism,direct utilitarianism, indirect utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, rights, uitlitarianism

JEL Classification: D60

Suggested Citation

Brink, David O., Mill's Ambivalence About Rights (April 9, 2007). Available at SSRN: or

David O. Brink (Contact Author)

University of California, San Diego ( email )

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University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

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