Chapter Two: Self-Regarding Conduct -- Two Levels of Moral Thinking

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

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Chapter 2, part 7, 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' nother sophisticated version of utilitarianism, similar to Sartorius's, is to be found in R. M. Hare's idea of the two levels of moral thinking [Hare; see also J. L. Mackie's comments on this theory]. Hare himself does not discuss Mill's liberty principle, but a utilitarian, who is deeply committed to the principle, may well fall back on Hare's theory to explain and justify this commitment.

Level-1 in Hare's theory is the level of everyday practical moral thinking, whereas level-2 is the level of leisured moral thought when we have completely adequate knowledge of the facts. The utilitarian will of course adopt the utilitarian principle at level-2. But in everyday life a person, confronted with a moral problem, will often get the wrong answer if he applies the utilitarian principle directly because he lacks the time, or adequate information, or sufficient self-discipline. So at this level-1 it would be better to adopt other principles. The level-1 principles chosen will be those "whose general acceptance leads to actions in accord with the best level-2 principles in most situations that are actually encountered." [Hare, p. 123] The level-1 principles will evolve with changing circumstances, and we use our level-2 principles to select the appropriate level-1 principles.

Now, it is arguable that Mill's liberty principle was put forward as a level-1 principle, and for that reason, even though it is based on utilitarianism at level-2, it need not always give the same answer as the direct application of the utilitarian principle. So far the argument is basically the same as that of Sartorius. But Hare is able to explain why violations [37/38] of level-1 principles, even when know to be dearly justified on utilitarian grounds, will still be met with great repugnance by the utilitarian. On rare occasions we may have all the relevant information, and the normal, stressful conditions of everyday moral thinking may be absent. A utilitarian may then discover that his level-2 utilitarian principle dictates a course of action that violates a level-1 principle he has come to accept. Thus it may be clear, on a particular occasion, that breaking Mill's liberty principle will maximize net satisfactions. On this view a utilitarian should then act against the level-1 principle. But even so he will view the violation of the principle with great repugnance. This is because the level-1 principle has been inculcated in him as part of his self-education, and breaking it goes so much against the grain for him. In accepting the principle he has also acquired a set of motives and dispositions.

In this way one might be able to explain why Mill wished to exclude from his calculation the distress suffered by the religious bigot from the self-regarding conduct of others which violates his religious belief. At level-2 Mill, if he is a utilitarian, must take into account the distress. But, so the ar-unent goes, he has in his self-education implanted in himself at level-1 a firm belief in the liberty principle which prohibits absolutely interference with self-regarding conduct. He is also trying to inculcate this principle in his fellow citizens. It is therefore understandable that he should be so attached to the principle, and should view its violation by others with great repugnance.

But there is one fatal flaw in this reconstruction of Mill's thinking. Mill was very much alive to the dangers of our beliefs hardening into prejudices and dogmas and, as we shall see in Chapter 8, he thought that freedom of discussion would help us avoid these dangers. He would therefore not wish to create a situation in which the level-1 principles are held in a rigid and inflexible manner. If he were a utilitarian, the way to ensure this would be to be constantly aware of the utilitarian underpinnings of all level-1 principles. So he could not allow the liberty principle to be too deeply ingrained in himself and in others. He could not develop in himself and in others too strong a disposition to disregard those utilitarian [38/39] considerations which are inconsistent with the recognition of the liberty principle. If the liberty principle is simply a level-1 principle, which has to be revised in the light of changing circumstances by an appeal to utilitarianism at level-2, then it is difficult to see how Mill could have argued so forcefully and unqualifiedly for the exclusion of some utilitarianly relevant considerations. So once again Mill's attachment to the liberty principle seems deeper and stronger than it would be if it were a level-1 principle.

The arguments of Sartorius and Hare, while consistent with a sophisticated utilitarianism, differ from those more commonly used by utilitarians. A more usual approach adopted by utilitarians is to treat subordinate moral principles as mere "rules of thumb" whose application will generally, though not invariably, serve the utilitarian end of maximizing happiness or net satisfactions. Such "rules of thumb" are often necessary if people are to have reasonably clear guidance as to how they are to act in particular situations. As we have already noted earlier, it is, for example, much easier to know what is required if one is asked to tell the truth than if one is asked to maximize happiness. Now, it has been suggested that the various liberal principles to be extracted from Mill's essay are not, in spite of what Mill says, absolute, but rather "rules of thumb" which may be breached when breaking them win better serve the utilitarian end [cf. Honderich]. For example, there is to be a presumption against state or social intervention to prevent individuals from harming themselves, and there is also a very strong presumption against interfering with a person's conduct on the ground that it violates the shared morality of society. However these presumptions are rebuttable on utilitarian grounds.

This interpretation of Mill is based on the assumption that he is clearly a utilitarian, and that therefore any account of his case for liberty must be consistent with utilitarianism. But this is precisely the assumption that I have challenged in this chapter. By excluding some pleasures and pains, and some satisfactions, as irrelevant, Mill altered the content of the notion of utility or happiness. To show that he is still a utilitarian, it is therefore necessary not merely to fit his arguments for liberty into the formal structure of a particular [39/40] model of moral reasoning adopted by utilitarians, but also to establish that the substantive considerations he appealed to, or ruled out, are consistent with some version of utilitariansim. This has so far not been done.


Hare, R. M. "Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism" Contemporary British Philosophy: Personal Statements, ed. H. D. Lewis. 4th Series. London, 1976.

Honderich, Ted. "The Worth of J. S. Mill On Liberty" Political Studies, 12 (1974).

Mackie, J. L. "Can there be a Right-Bases Moral Theory?" Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 3 (1978).

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Last modified 18 April 2001