Chapter Three: Morality and Utility -- Moral and Non-Moral Appraisals of Conduct

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

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Chapter 3, 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 'I' n arguing that Mill's liberty principle is inconsistent with utilitarianism, I have assumed that utilitarianism is a moral doctrine about the rightness or wrongness of actions. But some recent interpretations of Mill have argued that, although he subscribed to a principle of utility, his version of it is not that of a moral principle but rather a more general principle on the basis of which all appraisals of conduct, whether moral or non-moral, are made. Moral appraisals of conduct are merely one type of evaluations derivable from the principle of utility, and Mill has a more restricted theory of morality than is commonly assumed. How does this account of Mill's principle of utility and his theory of morality affect the nature of his case for liberty? The pioneering work of Alan Ryan in this area has illuminated previously neglected aspects of his thought [Ryan, McCloskey; Ryan, Art of Living; Ryan, Philosophy; Ryan, John Stuart Mill]. Ryan's thesis is that the distinction between self- and other-regarding conduct "is at the heart of the distinction between moral and non-moral appraisal of actions" [Ryan, Philosophy, p. 236]. Self-regarding conduct belongs to the areas of prudence and aesthetics and not those of morality and law which are concerned with other-regarding conduct. It is only in the other-regarding sphere that sanctions or punishment may be applied. In deciding whether to use legal sanctions or the sanction of public opinion and social disapproval to deter wrongful acts, we take account of the relative social costs involved. Moral judgements are based on the harm the agent knowingly does to others. But self-regarding conduct, which does not harm others, lies outside this moral realm. Such conduct may not therefore be punished, or subjected to compulsion, although it is a "fit matter for entreaty, expostulation, exhortation" [Ryan, Philosophy, p. 240].

Ryan's work has led to important developments in the interpretation of Mill; the most valuable of these appear in the bibliography below. It is necessary to examine in greater detail the distinction between the moral and the non-moral [42/43] spheres of conduct to see whether it provides a new basis for Aws defence of individual liberty. In the following section I shall begin by outlining Mill's theory of "the Art of Life" as propounded in A System of Logic, Book VI, Chapter xii. This will help in the understanding of his division between the moral and the non-moral spheres.

References

Brown, D.G. "Mill on Liberty and Morality" Philosophical Review, 81 (1972).

_____"What is Mill's Principle of Utility" Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 3 (1973).

_____ "Mill on Harm to Others' Interests" Political Studies, 26 (1978).

Lyons, David. "Mill's Theory of Morality" Nous, 10 (1976).

_____ "Human Rights and the General Welfare" Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6 (1977).

_____ "Mill's Theory of Justice" Values and Morals, ed. Alvin L. Goldman / Jaegwon Kim. Dordrecht, 1978.

Ryan, Alan. "Mr McCloskey on Mill's Liberalism" The Philosophical Quarterly, 14 (1964)..

_____ "John Stuart Mill's Art of Living" The Listener, 21 October 1965..

_____ The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. London, 1970..

_____ John Stuart Mill. London, 1974.


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Last modified 18 April 2001