Chapter Two: Self-Regarding Conduct -- The Irrelevance of Society's "Likings and Dislikings"

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

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Chapter 2, part 3, 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 'A' ccording to Mill, an action indirectly affects others, or the interests of others, if it affects them simply because they dislike it, or find it repugnant or immoral. Soon after stating his principle, he picks out three areas of self-regarding conduct. The difference between other-regarding and self-regarding actions in the area of "tastes and pursuits" is expressed in [14/15] terms of actions which "harm" our fellow creatures on the one hand, and on the other hand, actions which do not harm them "even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong". Again, before he states his liberty principle, he considers certain attitudes which he thinks have worked against the cause of freedom. He criticizes those who "have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether their likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals" (pp. 70-71). His principle is meant to oppose such attitudes.

Sometimes the feelings of abhorrence and dislike can be very intense, and in this way self-regarding conduct can seriously affect others. But Mill deplores a state of affairs in which punishment and severe social pressures are brought to bear on actions which merely arouse society's intense dislike and repugnance. He points out that "wherever the sentiment of the majority is still genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed" (p. 71). We have such a situation if a society, consisting of a majority of Muslims, prohibited the eating of pork. Mill reminds us that they find the practice "really revolting" and they "also sincerely think that it is forbidden and abhorred by the Deity" (p. 142). The only tenable ground we can have for condemning such a prohibition is that "with the personal tastes and self-regarding concerns of individuals the public has no business to interfere." In other words, only by adopting the liberty principle can we have a reason for ruling out the appeal to the majority's genuine feelings of repugnance and revulsion as a ground for interfering with individual liberty. Mill's essay On Liberty is a protest against the appeal, which he felt was so often made, to such feelings of the majority as relevant and good reasons for restricting the actions of individuals. According to him they are in themselves never relevant or good reasons for interference. If the only reason that can be given for wishing to restrict an individual's action is an appeal to such feelings, or to the mere belief that the conduct is wrong, then the individual's action is a self-regarding one. If however the action harms others, or violates "a distinct and assignable obligation", then an additional factor is introduced which takes it out of the self-regarding into the other-regarding [15/16] class. But even so Mill insists that we should give the proper reason for intervention:

If, for example, a man, through intemperance or extravagance, becomes unable to pay his debts, or having undertaken the moral responsibility of a family, becomes from some cause incapable of supporting or educating them, he is deservedly reprobated, and might be justly punished; but it is for the breach of duty to his family or creditors, not for the extravagance. [p. 138.]

Mill wants to revise the framework within which questions about individual liberty and society's right of interference are raised and answered. A principled defence of individual liberty will reject the idea that the "likings and dislikings" of society shall dictate what individuals are permitted to do. But such a defence has generally not been given. It is only in the area of religious belief that "the higher ground has been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an individual here and there" (p. 71). But even here religious toleration has only been practically realized when there is religious indifference. "Wherever the sentiment of the majority is still genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed" (p. 71). We would certainly think it unjust if we were in the minority and a majority, because it strongly disapproved of our religious practices, prohibited them. By the same token, we should recognize that we ourselves have no better case for prohibiting anything simply because we find it offensive and we are in the majority. We should not adopt "the logic of persecutors" and claim that "we may persecute others because we are right, and that they must not persecute us because they are wrong" (p. 142). His liberty principle provides the basis for our consistently excluding all such cases of oppression by the majority.

Mill wants to show that a consistent defence of individual liberty will involve the application of his liberty principle not just to religious beliefs and practices, where it has already a limited acceptance, but also to all other similar cases. The adoption of his principle excludes the use of a certain kind of balancing as the basis for interference with liberty. The outraged sensibilities of the majority are not to be weighed against the feelings of those whose conduct offends the majority. The mere fact that one is offended by the conduct of others carries no weight. [16/17]

There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person's taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse. [p. 140]

Mill says that his case for liberty is not based on "the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility". By this he means that he is not simply going to intuit the value of liberty, or baldly and boldly to assert its value without further argument. He is going to base his case on "utility in the largest sense". Now it appears that part of his argument for liberty rqsts on spelling out the different implications of accepting or rejecting his liberty principle. The rejection of his principle will have undesirable consequences in that it will lead to religious intolerance. He focuses on religious examples because here the undesirable consequences or implications of the rejection of his principle will be appreciated with less difficulty by more people. But he generalizes from particular cases and tries to show that any sound and consistent defence of religious toleration will lead to the acceptance of his principle, and therefore to the recognition of a wider area of individual freedom.

In giving a unified account of the value of promoting freedom with respect to self-regarding conduct generally, Mill also appeals to the different types of benefit that freedom brings to society and to the agents themselves. Some of these benefits are the effects of freedom. Thus he points out that freedom will allow individuals to conduct "experiments in living", and to learn from their own and other people's experiences and mistakes. In this way people are more likely to discover enjoyable and worthwhile activities. In Utilitarianism he remarks that a "cultivated mind" will find "sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future" [Utilitarianism, p. 13]. Any ordinary [17/18] person in "a civilized country" can aquire the requisite amount of "mental culture". Mill regards the absence of freedom as one of the principal barriers to the attainment of human happiness.

In a world in which there is so much to interest, so much to enjoy, and so much also to correct and improve, everyone who has this moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable; and unless such a person, through bad laws, or subjection to the will of others, is denied the liberty to use the sources of happiness within his reach, he will not fail to find this enviable existence, if he escape the positive evils of life, the great sources of physical and mental suffering -- such as indigence, disease, and the unkindness, worthlessness, or premature loss of objects of affection. [Utilitarianism, pp. 13-14]

However, the relation between freedom and some of its benefits is not properly described in terms of cause and effect, means and end. Mill regards freedom as important for individuals to form and to develop their "characters", to express themselves both in words and in deeds, to cultivate what he calls 'the free development of individuality'. His ideal of individuality will be examined in detail in Chapter 5, but at present it is enough to note that freedom is an ingredient of individuality rather than a mere means to its promotion. Freedom is a component of Mill's view of a desirable form of life and of the happiness associated with such a life.

In treating as irrelevant the repugnance and abhorrence of the majority towards some self-regarding actions, Mill goes against the classical utilitarian's view that all pleasures and pains are relevant in determining the rightness or wrongness of an act. Mill's view also seems to be inconsistent with preference utilitarianism which regards the satisfaction of any desire as in itself good. The frustration of people's desire to suppress self-regarding conduct carries no weight. But can a consistent utilitarian discount, as Mill evidently wants to, the adverse effects on others that are produced by some self-regarding actions? This is the question to which we shall now turn.


Mill, John Stuart. "On Liberty". Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government (Everyman edn).

_____ Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government (Everyman edn).

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Last modified 18 April 2001