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James Mackintosh on the relationship between justice and utility (1791)

The Scottish philosopher and historian James Mackintosh (1765-1832) replied to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution and the idea of natural rights in Vindiciae Gallicae (A Vindication of France) (1791). In this passage he rejects the idea that one should abandon “general maxims” about what it is right to do for the sake of expediency:

Justice is expediency, but it is expediency, speaking by general maxims, into which reason has concentrated the experience of mankind. Every general principle of justice is demonstrably expedient, and it is this utility alone that confers on it a moral obligation. But it would be fatal to the existence of morality, if the utility of every particular act were to be the subject of deliberation in the mind of every moral agent. A general moral maxim is to be obeyed, even if the inutility is evident, because the precedent of deviating more than balances any utility that may exist in the particular deviation. Political first principles are of this description.

But it may urged, that though all appeals to the natural rights of men be not precluded [218] by the social compact, though their integrity and perfection in the civil state may theoretically be admitted, yet as men unquestionably may refrain from the exercise of their rights, if they think their exertion unwise: and as Government is not a scientific subtlety, but a practical expedient for general good, all recourse to these elaborate abstractions is frivolous and futile, and the grand question in Government is not its source, but its tendency; not a question of right, but a consideration of expediency. Political forms, it may be added, are only the means of ensuring a certain portion of public felicity. If the end be confessedly obtained, all discussion of the theoretical aptitude of the means to produce it is nugatory and redundant.

To this I answer, first, that such reasoning will prove too much, and that, taken in its proper extent, it impeaches the great system of morals, of which political principles form [219] only a part. All morality is, no doubt, founded on a broad and general expediency — “Ipsa utilitas justi prope mater equi,” [And so does Expedience herself, the mother, we may say, of justice and right.”] may be safely adopted, without the reserve dictated by the timid and inconstant philosophy of the Poet. Justice is expediency, but it is expediency, speaking by general maxims, into which reason has concentrated the experience of mankind. Every general principle of justice is demonstrably expedient, and it is this utility alone that confers on it a moral obligation. But it would be fatal to the existence of morality, if the utility of every particular act were to be the subject of deliberation in the mind of every moral agent. A general moral maxim is to be obeyed, even if the inutility is evident, because the precedent of deviating more than balances any utility that may exist in the particular deviation. Political first principles are of this description. They are only moral principles adapted to the civil union of men. When I assert that a man has a right [220] to life, liberty, c. I only mean to enunciate a moral maxim founded on general interest, which prohibits any attack on these possessions. In this primary and radical [97] sense, all rights, natural as well as civil, arise from expediency. But the moment the moral edifice is reared, its basis is hid from the eye for ever. The moment these maxims, which are founded on an utility that is paramount and perpetual, are embodied and consecrated, they cease to yield to partial and subordinate expediency. It then becomes the perfection of virtue to consider, not whether an action be useful, but whether it be right.

The same necessity for the substitution of general maxims exists in politics as in morals. These precise and inflexible principles, which yield neither to the seductions of passion, nor the suggestion of interest, ought to be the guide of Public as well as private morals. —Acting according to the natural rights of men, [221] is only another expression for acting according to those general maxims of social morals which prescribe what is right and fit in human intercourse. We have proved that the social compact does not alter these maxims, or destroy these rights, and it incontestibly follows, from the same principles which guide all morality, that no expediency can justify their infraction.

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The outbreak of the French Revolution caused much discussion in Britain between radicals who generally supported it because they saw it as a defensive act by ordinary people against an unjust regime which regulated their activity and imposed heavy taxes upon them without their consent, and conservatives who condemned it because it was an act of violence against the established order and an illegitimate challenge to the authority of those classes who controlled the French state and church. We have numerous works in the OLL collection which take various sides in this fascinating debate (see the Debate about the French Revolution. Here we see Mackintosh’s quick response to Burke’s book Reflections (1790) where he takes up Burke’s laying the blame for the revolution on the fact that the revolutionaries had a theory of individual liberty based upon natural rights which they used to examine existing institutions critically in order to see whether or not they violated or supported those rights. Burke’s view was that this was a dangerous thing to do as existing institutions were based upon ideas and practices which had emerged over centuries. To change them suddenly or radically would disrupt society at such a fundamental level that much of this acquired wisdom would be lost in the chaos of revolutionary violence. Mackintosh’s reply was that, while it might appear to be “expedient” to follow traditional and customary practices, “justice” sometimes demanded that “infractions” of the natural law needed to be rectified.

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