Chapter Two: Self-Regarding Conduct -- The Traditional Interpretation

Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

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Chapter 2, part 1, of the author's Mill on Liberty, which Clarendon Press published in 1980. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author and of the Clarendon Press, which retains copyright.

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decorative initial 'W' hat is the nature and basis of Mill's distinction between self- and other-regarding conduct? According to the traditional interpretation, self-regarding actions have no effect on others against their wishes; they only affect the agents and consenting adults. This interpretation has provided much of the basis for the criticism of Mill's allegedly false individualism which sees society merely as a collection of atomistic individuals, each one capable of living in substantial independence of the others [this kind of objections to Mill has been well documented and discussed by J. C. Rees]. As against this, Mill's critics remind us that man lives in a society, and he is not, and cannot be, isolated from others. Except for a few very trivial actions which no one has ever thought of suppressing, all our actions will affect others in some way. This will be readily seen if we think not just of the physical effects on others such as are produced by being punched, stabbed, or shot at, but also of the mental anguish and suffering produced. As Robert Paul Wolff points out, to a devout Calvinist or a principled vegetarian the "very presence in his community of a Catholic or a meat-eater may cause him fully as much pain as a blow to the face or the theft of his purse" [Wolff, p. 24]. There are therefore no self-regarding actions of any importance, and in setting up a protective fence around such actions, Mill only succeeded in defending the freedom of individuals to engage in trivial activities. But whenever an act provokes the anger, resentment, or disgust of others, it clearly affects them and thus falls into the category of other-regarding conduct.

In defending Mill's notion of self-regarding conduct, his disciple Morley maintained that we should set a limit to what may properly be considered as the effects of an act such that the remote effects on others should not be counted [Morley, p. 252]. Morley also claimed that it is unreasonable to bring in the "indirect and negative consequences" of the act which consist in the agent's neglect of some socially useful activities while he is [10/11] performing an act which otherwise affects only himself." [Morley, p. 253] But these restrictions on what are to count as the effects of an act are insufficient to show that there are non-trivial acts which have no effect on others. For acts which are disliked, abhorred, or viewed with repugnance by others, all affect them immediately and positively. Yet it is clear that Mill. would not count such effects as disqualifying an act from membership of the self-regarding class.

Mill, readily and explicitly admits that self-regarding conduct affects others, and this admission is fatal to the traditional interpretation. Thus he acknowledges that "the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those nearly connected with him and, in a minor degree, society at large" (p. 137). He also writes that a person's self-regarding conduct which affects him directly, "may affect others through himself" (p. 75).


Rees, J. C. Mill and his Early Critics. Leicester, 1956.

_____ "A Re-Reading of Mill on Liberty" Political Studies, 8 (1960). Repr. with new postscript: Limits of Liberty: Studies of Mill's On Liberty, ed. Peter Radcliff. Belmont, 1965.

_____ "Individualism and Individual Liberty" Il politico, 26 (1961).

Morley, John. "Mr Mill's Doctrine on Liberty" Fortnightly Review (1 August 1873)

Wolff, Robert Paul. The Poverty of Liberalism. Boston, 1969.

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Last modified 18 April 2001