Chapter Three: Morality and Utility -- The Art of Life

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

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Chapter 3, 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 'M' ill distinguishes between science and art, and he regards morality as an art. Science is concerned with matters of fact, whereas art is concerned with rules and precepts which enjoin or recommend that something should be the case. The propositions of art are about what ought to be or should be the case; those of science are expressed in the indicative mood and are about what is or will be. Every particular art has an end or purpose: "The builder's art assumes that it is desirable to have buildings; architecture (as one of the fine arts), that it is desirable to have them beautiful or imposing. The hygienic and medical arts assume, the one that preservation of health, the other that the cure of disease, are fitting and desirable ends" (Mill's Ethical Essays, p. 165).

Once a particular art has proposed a certain end as desirable, science investigates the means by which this end can be attained. The performance of those actions constituting the means is then pronounced by art as desirable, and rules or precepts are generated. Thus the relation between art and science can be characterized in the form of a deductive model with the major premiss supplied by art and the minor premiss by science. From these a conclusion in the form of a rule or precept is drawn. Mill's thesis can be roughly represented as follows: [for a brief and lucid account of Mill's theory, see Baker]

Major Premiss E is desirable (where E is defined by a particular art).
Minor Premiss Actions of type a will bring about E (theorem of science).
Conclusion Therefore a is desirable.  

Mill points out that the rules or precepts for guiding conduct [43/44] are to be considered provisional: "But they do not all supersede the propensity of going through (when circumstances permit) the scientific process requisite for framing a rule from the data of the particular case before us" (Mill's Ethical Writings, p. 162). In a particular case, because of unusual circumstances, following a rule may not attain the desirable end. Again, in certain situations, following a rule will lead to a conflict with some other end which is more desirable.

The possibility of conflict between the ends of various arts points to the need for determining the relative importance of these ends, or the order of precedence between them. This is the province for that body of doctrine which Mill calls variously the Art of Life, Teleology, the Doctrine of Ends, and the Principles of Practical Reason. The function of the Art of Life is to justify the ends of subordinate arts, and to establish an order of priority among them. The Art of Life has three departments: "Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Aesthetics, the Right, the Expedient, and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct and works" (Ethical Writings, p. 166). Elsewhere, in Utilitarianism, Mill distinguishes morality from "the remaining provinces of Expediency and Worthiness" (p. 46; cited by Brown, Liberty, p. 154). And in the essay on Bentham he refers to the various aspects possessed by actions: "a moral aspect, that of its right and wrong; its aesthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect or that of its loveableness" (Ryan, "Philosophy," p. 215). But what is clear is that moral appraisals are not the only appraisals of conduct. There are also prudential and aesthetic appraisals.

The next step Mill takes is to argue that there must be only one ultimate principle or standaxd for assessing the value of various ends and their order of precedence. If there were more than one ultimate principle, then the same action might be derived from one principle while running foul of another. It would then be necessary to appeal to yet another principle to settle conflicts between these two principles. So the Art of Life has only one ultimate principle, and this principle is common to all the departments of the Art. Mill then asserts that

the general principle to which all rules of practice ought to conform, and the test by which they should be tried, is that of conduciveness to the happiness of mankind or rather of all sentient beings; in other [44/45] words, that the promotion of happiness is the ultimate principle of Teleology. [Ethical Writings, p. 168]

In a A System of Logic he does not attempt to justify this claim, but he inserts a footnote which draws attention to his famous "proof" of utility in Utilitarianism. So for Mill the principle of utility is the ultimate principle of the whole Art of Life, and is therefore the ultimate basis for moral as well as non-moral appraisals of conduct.

Mill's account of the Art of Life raises several problems. D. G. Brown has drawn attention to the serious difficulty of stating the principle of utility in such a way as to enable it to perform the important role Mill has cast for it. Brown himself favours the formulation, "Happiness is the only thing desirable as an end" ("Liberty," pp. 156f; see also Brown, "Principle"). Another problem is how exactly the different departments of the Art of Life are to be demarcated from one another. Mill says much more about the province of morality than he does about the other areas, and I shall focus on one detailed interpretation of his theory of morality which takes account of these divisions within the Art of Life. My purpose is to ascertain whether, assuming the correctness of this theory of morality, we have here a new weapon within the utilitarian armoury for defending the individual's liberty to engage in self-regarding actions.


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.

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

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Last modified 18 April 2001