Chapter Two: Self-Regarding Conduct -- Affecting the Interests of Others

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

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Chapter 2, part 2, 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 'I' n his important paper "A Re-Reading of Mill on Liberty", J. C. Rees very effectively criticizes the traditional interpretation and provides an alternative interpretation [subsequent references to Rees, Re-Reading will be to the Radcill edn]. Rees maintains that self-regarding actions do not affect the interests of others. He claims that there is for Mill a distinction between merely "affecting-others" and affecting the "interests of others", and that in some crucial passages when he is stating his principle, Mill uses the notion of interests rather than that of effects. To say that somebody's conduct affects others is to make a factual statement, whereas to claim that a person's interests are affected is to make a statement that is in part normative. Whether one's interests are affected depends on whether one is affected in a way that is regarded as important. We appeal to certain standards or values in determining whether interests have been affected. On the other hand, a person can be affected by an act simply because he is extrasensitive. The peculiarities of one's tastes, and other subjective factors, can determine whether one is affected by another's conduct. But whether or not interests are affected does not depend on such factors. There is an objective element in the [11/12] notion of interests such that not just any effect will count as an effect on interests.

    Rees also argues that the notion of interests is different from that of effects because Mill links interests to the notion of rights. Thus Mill says that individuals should not injure the interests of one another, "or rather certain interests which, either by express provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights" (p. 132). This link between interests and rights again shows that standards and values are invoked when one claims that interests are violated in the way that they are not when one talks of effects.

    According to Rees, interests "depend for their existence on social recognition and are closely connected with prevailing standards about the sort of behaviour a man can legitimately expect from others" [Re-Reading, p. 94]. But if this is the case, then the area of individual liberty is to a large extent determined by prevailing standards and values, Now Mill, when he put forward his principle, was concerned to set a barrier against the tyranny of the majority. But on Rees's account his principle would strengthen the hands of the majority. For it follows that the extent to which the conduct of the individual may be interfered with now depends on what are recognized by prevailing standards as the individual's interests. It is therefore the values of the majority which determine whether or not other people's interests are violated by a person's conduct, and hence whether his conduct falls within the area of legitimate intervention by law and public opinion. But since Mill feared so much the tyranny of prevailing values, and explicitly fought against it, it seems highly unlikely that he would subscribe to a notion of self-regarding conduct that places individuals at the mercy of these values. As Wollheim has argued, Rees's interpretation makes Mill's principle both conservative and relativistic in its application [Wollheim, p. 6]. It is conservative because the area of individual liberty will only be enlarged with difficulty since there must first be a favourable change in socially recognized norms. The principle is also relativistic because its content will vary greatly from one society to another, depending on what the respective prevailing norms are.

    If the appeal to prevailing standards will not do, perhaps [12/13] it is possible to give another account of interests which makes it dependent on a more acceptable set of standards and values. Since Mill explicitly professes to be a utilitarian of some sort, it is tempting to explicate interests in terms of the principle of utility. Such an account has been offered by Ted Honderich [ch. 6, esp. pp. 181-86]. He agrees with Rees that there is a distinction between interests and effects, but disagrees about the nature of the relevant interests. Self-regarding actions are those actions which do not violate what ought to be the interests of others, and the standard of what ought to be the interests of others is provided by the principle of utility. The relevant interests are therefore no longer determined by the variable and varying prevailing standards of different societies, and Mill's principle is rescued from conservatism and relativism.

    There are, however, difficulties in Honderich's account that he himself lucidly and candidly explores. For a utilitarian, Mill's liberty principle would be secondary or subordinate to the principle of utility. Its status should be similar to that of other secondary principles, like the principles that one should keep one's promises and that one should tell the truth. These secondary principles give more detailed and precise guides than does the principle of utility itself as to how one should act on particular occasions. But they are secondary in the sense that they derive their justification from the ultimate principle of utility: keeping one's promises and telling the truth will maximize happiness at least in most cases. A secondary principle is therefore something distinct from the principle of utility, but justifiable in terms of it. However, on Honderich's account Mill's principle is not distinct from the principle of utility. For self-regarding actions do not violate what ought to be the interests of others, and "what ought to be in the interests of others" is defined in terms of the principle of utility. The principle of utility enters into the very formulation of Mill's allegedly secondary principle. It would therefore have been simpler if Mill had defended liberty by directly applying the principle of utility instead of proceeding via the liberty principle. For, on this view, the liberty principle cannot in any case be stated without reference to the principle of utility.

    There is a general objection to any account of self-regarding [13/14] conduct that depends on making a distinction between interests and effects. Mill does not seem to recognize any such distinction [cf. Wollheim, pp. 22-4]. It is of course true that the term "interests" is often used in stating his principle. But he also uses a host of other expressions, especially "what affects others" and "what concerns others", and he moves easily from one expression to another in a way which suggests that he is using the terms "interests", "effects", and "concerns" interchangeably. Indeed, just as he allows that self-regarding actions may affect others, he too concedes that they may affect indirectly the interests of others: "But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; . . ." (p. 75). He goes on to acknowledge the possible effects on others of self-regarding conduct. The important distinction for him is not that between interests and effects, but rather that between direct and indirect interests, or, what amounts to the same thing, direct and indirect effects. Elsewhere in the essay, as Rees points out, Mill uses similar phrases to draw the line between self- and other-regarding conduct. The contrast is between what primarily and chiefly concerns the interests of the individual, and what primarily or chiefly concerns the interests of society.

    The ultimate importance of Rees's interpretation does not depend on there being a distinction between interests and effects, for what he has shown is that Mill wanted to distinguish between the different types of effects that an action may have. Rees has decisively refuted the traditional interpretation, and he has established that self-regarding conduct affects others in certain ways. So the problem now is to give a coherent account of the nature of the effects on others that self-regarding conduct may have.


    Honderich, Ted. Punishment, the Supposed Justifications. London, 1969.

    Rees, J. C. "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.

    Wollheim, Richard. "John Stuart Mill and the Limits of State Action" Social Research, 40 (1973).

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    Last modified 18 April 2001