Chapter Three: Morality and Utility -- Self-Regarding Conduct and the Non-Moral Sphere

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

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Chapter 3, part 4, 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 'T' he upshot of the foregoing discussion is that even if self-regarding conduct belongs to the non-moral sphere, this is not a reason why it should always be exempted from intervention. If intervention maximizes happiness, then the utilitarian is committed to it, whether or not it can be said to be morally required, or even to be morally wrong. This crucial point cannot be avoided even if we modify Mill's theory of morality so that there will be no conflict between moral and non-moral values. No matter how one carves out the territory between morality and the rest of the Art of Life, there can be no secure refuge from intervention for self-regarding conduct so long as Mill's principle of utility is regarded as seeking the end of maximizing happiness, and happiness is interpreted along classical or preference utilitarian lines. I shall briefly illustrate this.

Suppose that morally obligatory acts are a sub-class of acts which maximize happiness. We may then add that "self-regarding faults" consist of failures to maximize happiness outside the morally required area. But this will not help unless the application of sanctions is restricted to failures to perform morally required acts. But why should the utilitarian accept that? If the ultimate end is to maximize happiness, then sanctions should be applied whenever it will maximize happiness to apply them, irrespective of the type of acts to which they are applied. So either we restrict the scope of morality, in which case some sanctions may be applied to non-moral acts; or else we allow morality to have the monopoly of the use of sanctions, in which case we have to extend morally required conduct to all cases where the application of sanctions will maximize happiness.

If we adopt the latter position, then we get the following theory of morality. Acts are morally wrong when it will maximize happiness to apply sanctions to them. So some acts which fail to maximize happiness are again not morally wrong. It also does not follow from this theory that only acts which fail to maximize happiness are morally wrong, for on perhaps rare occasions it may maximize happiness to apply sanctions to acts which themselves maximize utility. But [49/50] what is the difference between this revised utilitarian theory and ordinary act utilitarianism? We have here a distinction without a practical difference.

We saw in the previous chapter that the act utilitarian distinguishes between the morality of an act and the morality of praising, or blaming, or punishing someone for the performance of the act. For example, because of the additional costs of inflicting punishment, happiness may not be maximized in a particular case by punishing someone for a wrong act. So the act utilitarian is not committed to applying sanctions to all acts that he regards as morally wrong. He will apply sanctions only when it maximizes utility to do so, and in this the practical implication of his view is exactly the same as that of revised utilitarianism. Some acts which act utilitarianism regards as wrong, the revised utilitarianism does not, but for the act utilitarian the application of sanctions is a further question. Revised utilitarianism, on the other hand, by regarding as morally wrong only acts to which the application of sanctions will maximize happiness, settles the issue of applying sanctions when it determines the act to be wrong. There is for a supporter of revised utilitarianism no further question to be raised. But on both views, sanctions are only applicable when happiness is maximized. Both doctrines will apply sanctions to exactly the same acts, and refrain from doing so on exactly the same occasions. So on both views, if applying sanctions to self-regarding conduct will maximize happiness, then it should be done. However, if it is assumed that it will never maximize happiness to interfere with selfregarding conduct, then on the revised utilitarian view, such conduct will never be wrong. In that case the act utilitarian will also support non-intervention, whether or not on his own view self-regarding conduct is morally wrong. But we have come a full circle and have to face all the same problems discussed in the previous chapter of showing that the assumption is well based. What we need, and do not have, is an argument to demonstrate that it will never maximize happiness to interfere with, or to apply sanctions to, self-regarding actions.

I conclude therefore that the various reinterpretations of Mill's moral theory do not alter the problem of reconciling his defence of self-regarding conduct with utilitarianism. We [50/51] have so far been discussing issues raised by Mill's account of self-regarding conduct. We should now turn our attention to the other side of his distinction. Other-regarding actions may be interfered with as they harm others. But what does Mill mean by "harm", and what is the scope and basis of his claim that the prevention of harm to others may justify intervention in the conduct of individuals?

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Last modified 20 April 2001