Chapter Three: Morality and Utility -- Lyons on Mill's Theory of Morality

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

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Chapter 3, 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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David Lyons has recently developed a complex, though apparently still incomplete, interpretation of Mill's theory of morality. Lyons places great weight on a passage in Utilitarianism which in part reads:

We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow-creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency. It is part of the notion of Duty in every one of its forms, that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfil it. Duty is a thing which may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt.... Reasons of prudence, or the interest of other people, may militate against actually exacting it; but the person himself, it is clearly understood, would not be entitled to complain. There are other things, on the contrary, which we wish that People should do, which we like or admire them for doing, perhaps dislike or despise them for not doing, but yet admit that they are not [45/46] bound to do; it is not a case of moral obligation; we do not blame them, that is, we do not think that they are proper objects for punishment. [Utilitarianism, p. 45]

Here Mill is linking the notion of morality with "punishment" or sanctions. Morality is concerned with right and wrong, with duty and obligation, and when we call an action wrong we imply that "punishment" of it, or some sort of sanction against it, would be justified. But sanctions are of different types. Legal penalties and social disapprobation are external sanctions, whereas guilt feelings, or the reproaches of one's conscience, axe internal sanctions. Lyons observes that Min's point here is a conceptual one about the concept of moral wrongness, and is independent of his subscription to utilitarianism. But utilitarianism is invoked in determining when sanctions are justifiably applied, and the type of sanctions to be applied.

According to Lyons, Mill regards the internal sanction as basic ("Rights," p. 121; here he differs from the interpretations of Ryan and Brown which stress the connection between morality and the external sanctions). Hence an act is wrong when guilt feelings for it would be warranted. The application of external sanctions to wrong acts will not always be appropriate as there are additional disutilities involved. But when the stakes are high, then the use of external sanctions can be justified on utilitarian grounds. The external sanctions applied to wrong acts operate not only after the acts have been done, but also before the acts in the form of threats to discourage the acts from being committed. To discourage wrong acts, sanctions will be attached to coercive rules which serve to direct conduct. The external sanctions are attached to legal rules and to informal social rules which embody the conventional morality of the society. In the case of internal sanctions, the link is not directly with social rules but with a person's conscience. The personal values, violation of which produces guilt feelings, can be conceived of as guides to conduct. But the more important way in which personal values produce directives for conduct is through their connection with the community's moral code. The common morality is constituted by the shared personal values of its members. So the internal sanctions will, to some extent at least, be attached to the same set of rules as the external sanctions of social disapproval. Both the existence of informal social rules and their effectiveness in directing conduct depend on the widespread internalization [46/47] within the community of the relevant values ("Theory of Morality," p. 108; Lyons, "Rights," p. 122).

Since even the internal sanctions are linked, in the way described, to social rules, it follows that if we are to show that an act is wrong, we have to show that a coercive social rule against it is justified. The justification of a coercive social rule establishes a moral obligation to act in accordance with it. In the absence of another overriding obligation, it is wrong to breach the rule.

The justification for the coercive rule must always be on utilitarian grounds. But Mill's position, on Lyon's interpretation, is unlike that of the act utilitarian who justifies particular acts by their utility. According to the act utilitarian, an act is wrong if, compared to all alternative acts, it does not maximize utility. In Mill's theory of morality, on the other hand, it is not just the utility of the act which has to be taken into account. One has also to determine the utility of regulating actions of that type by means of a coercive social rule. There are therefore acts which the act utilitarian would regard as wrong, but which Mill will not.

It is also clear that there are acts which one has a moral obligation to perform even though they do not maximize utility. This is because Lyons's account of Mill's theory of morality makes it into a version of rule utilitarianism. But it differs from ordinary versions of rule utilitarianism in that the latter subjects only rules, and never acts directly, to the utilitarian test. In ordinary versions of rule utilitarianism, an act is right if it falls under a rule that, if generally adopted or followed, will produce maximum utility, as compared with alternative rules. But, according to Lyons, it is only Mill's theory of morality which conforms to this rule utilitarian structure. Non-moral evaluations of conduct are made, not via their conformity to maximally useful rules, but by a direct appeal to the principle of utility.

On Lyons's interpretation, Mill's principle of utility does not lay down a moral requirement or obligation always to maximize utility. Like Brown, Lyons believes that the principle of utility refers to an end, happiness, in terms of which all conduct must be evaluated. Mill would prefer one act to another if it promoted greater utility or happiness. An act is regarded as "inexpedient" when it fails to maximize utility. [47/48] But an inexpedient act is not necessarily a wrong act. When the principle of utility is applied directly to acts, it does not yield a moral judgement about the acts, but rather evaluations of their expediency.

As we have noted, Lyons's account allows for the possibility of a conflict between a requirement of morality and the end of maximizing happiness. Lyons himself raises this problem but he expresses uncertainty about how Mill would solve it. He is unsure whether Mill's commitment to the end of happiness necessarily implies the subordination of all other values ("Theory of Mortality," pp. 118-9). But it looks as if, even on Lyons's own interpretation of Mill's principle of utility, this uncertainty is misplaced. For Lyons maintains: "Mill is committed fundamentally to the end of happiness, and thereby to whatever means best serve that end" ("Theory of Morality," p. 117; Lyons's emphasis). The end is that of maximizing happiness. Suppose now that the best means of serving the end of maximizing happiness is to perform a morally wrong act. Surely Mill is committed to sacrificing morality in the interests of serving this end. Mill's principle of utility is the sole ultimate principle of the Art of Life, and it must therefore be the final court of appeal in all conflicts between other principles belonging to the various departments of the Art of Life. If the principle of utility requires the maximization of happiness, then morality must give way if it hinders this ultimate end. Morality is only one generally effective means of promoting the end of maximizing happiness.

There is nothing in Mill's analysis of the concept of morality to show that the requirements of morality must take precedence over all non-moral considerations. In any case, the question of what one should ultimately do has to be settled in the light of one's substantive values. A conceptual analysis of the notion of moral obligation can determine only the terms in which we state what we should do; it cannot settle for us the choice between alternative courses of action. Thus we may not have a moral obligation always to maximize happiness, but from this alone it does not follow that we should not always act to maximize happiness, even when this involves the violation of our moral obligations.


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