Utilitarian Liberalism: Between Gray and Mill
John Gray is among the most trenchant critics of Mill’s utilitarian liberalism. His criticisms, which receive their most refined statement in Two Faces of Liberalism (Gray 2000), are of special interest because, in his earlier Mill on Liberty: A Defence (Gray 1996), he offered a sympathetic and influential reconstruction of Mill’s
approach. In particular, he suggested that Mill’s utilitarianism should be interpreted as an ‘indirect’ version of the doctrine which confines application of the utilitarian criterion to the selection of, say, an optimal code of rules. Instead of requiring individuals to calculate directly and perform the best acts in every situation, such a rule utilitarianism requires individuals to comply with the relevant rules to promote the general good. Given that an optimal code contains rules of justice which distribute, and give suitable priority to, equal rights and correlative obligations, rule utilitarianism seems compatible with liberalism and pluralism. Indeed, a case can be made that pure maximizing utilitarianism itself is properly conceived in terms of this sort of liberal rule utilitarianism (Harsanyi 1992; Riley 2000).