Melissa Browning, Ph.D.
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies congregational and community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her recent book, "Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania," builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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HIV/AIDS Justice Poverty

More on Justice: Rawls and Mill

By on August 19, 2010

shapeimage_2-4Today I wanted to write a little more on justice. My goal in this blog post is to begin to create space to talk about important issues on this blog – so I’m trying to be a good theologian and start by defining my terms! When I think about justice theories, there are two important thinkers that come to mind – John Rawls and John Stuart Mill.

John Rawls imagined justice by creating a scenario he called the “original position.” Rawls believed that taking a group of knowledgeable people and putting them behind a “veil of ignorance” would be a way to discern justice. Behind this veil, they would be asked to imagine a just society, but they would not know what position they would be in once the veil was lifted. In Rawls’ “original position,” the person would be unable to know whether she or he would be rich or poor, well or sick, HIV+ or HIV negative. Rawls’ believed this uncertainty would cause people to choose the maximum advantage for the greatest number of the world’s people.

Rawls’ method is most useful in that his articulation of the original position opens space for imagination within ethical discourse. In a similar way, the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill offers a space to imagine happiness. Mill begins with Bentham’s understanding of utility, or the greatest happiness principle and defines this by saying, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill extends this definition by saying, “By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.”

While John Stuart Mill focused his ethics on a microlevel and neglected the macrolevel, there are important implications of his thought that could be made within the realm of global ethics. First, if the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people moved beyond the realm of the state, it would certainly change our understanding of obligation beyond our borders. While this may not be a realistic model for a ethical relations between states, it can certainly inform our understandings of aid and development in regard to moral obligation as it points out that the greatest happiness currently rests with a very small portion of the world’s population.

Mill also addresses issues such as poverty, disease, and gender inequality. In speaking of poverty and disease, Mill is optimistic that human creativity can extinguish both, even though their removal will not come quickly. Mill puts it this way: “Poverty, in any sense implying suffering, may be completely extinguished by the wisdom of society combined with the good sense and providence of individuals.” Mill goes on to say the same for disease and other “grand sources” of human suffering, saying they are “almost entirely conquerable by human care and effort” even though their removal is “grievously slow.”

In my own work on HIV/AIDS I find Mill’s work especially helpful. Ending this pandemic is also “grievously slow.” Yet we are challenged in reading Mill as we realize he is not writing in our contemporary era, but more than a century prior to significant scientific advancements in science and medicine. The removal of a disease such as AIDS should not be so “grievously slow” in our day and age. The fact that it remains a pandemic after a quarter of a century calls into question our commitment as a global community to the happiness and health of the world’s poorest people. In understanding Mill’s claim, we can find space to re-envision a happiness that takes into account the lived experiences of those who suffer the most.

Mill’s work on gender is also of interest. In his text, “On the Subjugation of Women,” Mill uses utility to argue that the oppression of women is wrong. Here, he says that if half of the population is unhappy, then utility cannot be served. He used this argument to advocate for voting rights for women by comparing this inequality to women’s subjugation to slavery. As we celebrate the anniversary of women winning the right to vote this month, we can remember that this right we take for granted was once unimaginable. Justice CAN be imagined and imagination can push us toward creating a more just world.

Both Mill’s utilitarianism and Rawl’s understanding of “justice as fairness” can bring us two steps closer to imagining justice. If utilitarianism served only to restrain us, reminding us that we cannot steal happiness as the expense of others, it would be revolutionary for our society. And if “justice as fairness” could really teach us to imagine our lives as a little less secure, then perhaps we could imagine spaces where security for all could be abundant.

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