An excellent essay by John Stuart Mill that addresses the age-old question about the authority of government--namely, when can a society legitimately force one of its members to do something against his or her will?

Mill takes the classic libertarian point of view: society can only intervene to stop one individual from infringing upon the liberties of another. Say what you want, write what you want, do what you want--even if you're harming yourself--and society has no right to intervene. Infringe upon the liberties of another, however, and government is obligated to step in.

Mill's argument differs in some ways from boilerplate libertarianism. In an unusual twist that presages Asimov's First Law of Robotics, Mill also asserts that society can intervene when an individual harms another through inaction; thus, a member of a society can be conscripted into the army or compelled to testify in court. Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, two of the more outspoken libertarian thinkers in history, did not agree.

That aside, they likely would agree with Mill's overall claim that maximal liberty is essential to humanity's development (and that government meddling usually causes more harm than good). As Mill himself notes, his arguments are not entirely original--a similar philosophy motivated the Founding Fathers almost a century before Mill--but in the era of the CDA, it's probably worthwhile to give his thoughts one more airing.

Besides, if you don't feel like reading the whole essay, you can stop after the beautiful and painfully loving dedication:

To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings--the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward--I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her as to me; but the work as it stands has had, in a very insufficient degree, the inestimable advantage of her revision; some of the most important portions having been reserved for a more careful re-examination, which they are now never destined to receive. Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.

My essay, written for a philosophy course at Bristol Universtity

In his essayOn Liberty”, John Stuart Mill lays down “one very simple principle as entitled to govern absolutely” 1 ; that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” 2.

Before discussing the merits and difficulties with this claim, it is important to note that “on Liberty” is not the only philosophical essay Mill has written that might have some bearing of the limits of justifiable action. In his essay “Utilitarianism”, he holds that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness3.

This essay will explore whether the principle of Liberty and that of Utility are compatible, whether they are motivated by the same or different premises, whether they are in fact one principle, or, if they are discrete ideas that can be in conflict, which will be supreme.

The doctrine of Liberty asserts that the only basis for interference in the actions of another individual is to prevent harm to others. This principle is binding both on other individuals and governments, and even society in general.

What motivates this claim? One answer that Mill gives is Utilitarianism. 4 This suggests that the Liberty Principle is nothing more than an application of the Utility Principle.

An important contrast must be drawn here between Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. Act Utilitarianism is a moral system that enjoins everyone to perform the happiness-maximising action in any given situation. Rule Utilitarianism, however, is a system that creates rules such that everyone keeping to the rules will provide the maximum utility. In “Utilitarianism”, Mill comes across more as an Act Utilitarian.

It is possible that the Liberty Principle could be a guideline for Act Utilitarians; in other words: in every instance that the Liberty Principle is upheld, utility is maximised (claim 1).

However, it is difficult to see how this could be the case. Imagine a case of self-harm. The Liberty Principle would forbid interference by anyone, as no harm was being done apart from to the subject. If this principle is an Act Utilitarian rule, it would be tantamount to saying that any injury a person can do to himself can never be as harmful as forcibly restraining him from causing the same injury.

This is dubious but does not appear entirely implausible. Mill explains that “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification5. One of these could be independence. He also says that he is dealing with “utility in the largest sense6, implying perhaps that restraining the actions of an individual is harmful on some deep level as an affront to her role as an independent rational being.

A specific example reveals some weakness in claim 1:

It is B’s desire to stick pins in his eyes. B is aware it will hurt, and likely blind him. B doesn’t care. He plans to do it anyway.

B’s friend S knows about his plan. She also knows with certainty that B will regret his actions and curse his stupidity for the rest of his blind life.

Now for claim 1 to be true, it would have to be thought that for S to restrain B’s actions is more harmful to him7 than letting him injure himself. Even allowing the above points about higher faculties, it is difficult to imagine that to be the case.

Is the Liberty Principle a Rule Utilitarian rule? In such a case, the claim (claim 2) would be “Not interfering with people’s freedom unless they harm others is a rule such that everybody following it will lead to the maximum utility”.

This claim is immediately beset by the objections to which Rule Utilitarianism is open. If, as in the above case, there is a clear happiness-maximising course of action, what will motivate adherence to the rule, and in what sense can the outcome be said to be optimal?

It is therefore not trivially true that the Liberty Principle is a restated part of either form of Utilitarianism. There are cases where the two principles are in conflict and Liberty wins out.

However, Mill brings up other contentious cases. He records that there are “many acts … injurious only to the agents themselves, … which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightfully be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency…” 8.

This appears to be a major backtrack on the Liberty Principle. Why should Mill pull back from the brink at this point?

One suggestion is Utilitarianism. While the actions described are “injurious only to the agents themselves”, that is the harm-assessment for the Liberty principle. The “offences against others”, while not harm, is still pleasure diminishing; this would affect Utility calculations. In this case, Utility won out.

Once again, this is no clear case. If it is stating an Utilitarian position, this example appears very anomalous. Mill has already told us that the offence of others is not good grounds for restricting the Liberty of an individual.

This particular example is perhaps an inconsistent point in Mill’s general argument, which he introduced to avoid the otherwise inescapable conclusion that public decency was also not immune from Liberty. It would be neater to be able to account for this exception in terms of Mill’s general principles, though.

Returning to the Rule Utilitarian track, maybe the purpose of the Essay on Liberty was to lay down what Mill saw as the most important rule for his Utilitarian government.

How would the Utilitarian State act for the greater good? Assuming individuals won’t spontaneously become Utilitarians themselves, it seeks the optimum set of workable rules to produce maximum utility.

In this situation, Rule Utilitarianism makes sense not as a philosophically desirable solution to morality, but as a practicable, pragmatic model for legislating in and running a State.

Liberty is the prime rule in this Utilitarian society, and it is discussed in detail in Mill’s Essay, but there are presumably other rules. There would also be some Utility-based hierarchy, which can explain why one rule is more salient than others in any situation.

It might deal with the problem of public indecency discussed above by arguing that in almost all circumstances, more people are offended (Utility-diminished) by it than would be if it were banned.

Unfortunately for the compatibility idea of the last few paragraphs, there are many cases where the Liberty Principle ‘trumps’ utility-maximising; in alcohol prohibition, religious discrimination etc. It is not presented just a rule of social organisation, but rather as the ‘Golden Rule’ affecting all human interaction.

So is Liberty Utility, or vice versa? Are these two principles compatible? There is not a simple answer. It’s clear that the Liberty principle isn’t operating in isolation]. It is instead working against a backdrop of general Utility. What it isn’t doing, however, is all the work of a full-blown Utility Principle. There is no suggestion in Mill’s work that a ‘Liberty-maximising’ situation should be sought in every circumstance. Rather, the usage of the principle is, at essence, simple; if it isn’t hurting anyone, you have no right to stop someone doing it.

Despite Mill’s claim above that Liberty has no special claim for supremacy apart for by Utility, he does often give Liberty a strength over that of ‘simple’ Utility. However, at no point does he give a thorough account of what he means by “utility in the largest sense” 9. So it is never clear where the boundaries lie between Utility and Liberty. Finally, the Essay on Liberty ‘gives in’ on the Liberty Principle at points, in favour of, for example, protecting people’s sensibilities.

Liberty and Utility are not concepts that stand alone in John Stuart Mill’s conception of moral and political philosophy. However, they may be concepts that act alone. If ‘On Liberty’ really was the blueprint for the foundations of the Rule Utilitarian State, it’s missing a lot of the pieces of the whole. It seems more likely that it was written as another suggestion, another simple principle to sit on the bookshelf next to Utility without each fully taking account the effects of accepting the other.

The influence of Utility on Liberty is clear, but influence is not the same as compatibility. As long as the two systems give opposite solutions for the same problems, they remain incompatible.

1 Mill, JS Essay on Liberty, Chap 1
2 ibid.
3 Mill, JS Utilitarianism, Chap 2
4 “… I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense …” Mill, JS Essay on Liberty, Chap 1
5 Mill, JS Utilitarianism, Chap 2
6 Mill, JS Essay on Liberty, Chap 1
7 Or, perhaps, produces less utility for him
8 Mill, JS Essay on Liberty, Chap 5
9 Mill, JS Essay on Liberty, Chap 1

On Liberty

On Liberty is an essay written by John Stuart Mill published in 1859. It is split into four parts: one regarding the liberty of thought and discussions, one regarding individuality and its importance in achieving well-being, one regarding the limits of the authority of society over individuals, and the last regarding applications of the theory that came beforehand.

Mill was writing at a time when sovereigns no longer really contested their peoples' right to free speech through the press. However, he provides a lucid and logical defence of this principle which is rewarding to read. It is an evil to assert something as undeniably true, he says, because this has been asserted many times in history only for the established opinion to be proved false. So it is just as important that opinions which are generally held to be false are defended with just as much enthusiasm as they are assailed - even if they are not the whole truth, they may contain a portion of it. And because opinions and established truths maintain their vitality only when called to defend themselves (so that their proponents have to constantly re-assess and think about their so-called infallible truths) it is important that established opinion is questioned often also.

As many thinkers who we call "libertarians" are, Mill was a great believer in and defender of individuality. He believed it was a necessary component of well-being not only for each individual man, but for society as a whole. He argues for a heterogenous society in which people are not afraid to be eccentric and creative. Mill's Eurocentricity comes out in this part, as he criticizes China and Asia as a whole for their sterility. He admires the innovations of their past, but says that now they are "ruled by custom". To prevent such a downfall in Europe, men must maintain a sense of individuality, so that nations can progress rather than giving themselves into the mentality of the whole, which is ruled by custom.

In part three, Mill establishes the Principle of Liberty. It is this principle which is repeated again and again by libertarians down the ages, and today: 'No man may encroach on the freedom of action of another, except to prevent him causing harm to his fellows.' No-one has the right to impose their standards on another, or force someone to take or abstain from a certain course of action. The government only has the right to legislate the public sphere - actions taken which affect others. Civil society is clearly justified in encroaching on my liberty to stop me killing another man. Society has the right to try and discourage people from actions which it considers 'wrong' but do not harm others (masturbation, or a particular mode of worship) through social pressure, but it cannot force people to conform. Doing so would harm individuality and curse society to become trapped in the custom of today, hampering its ability to progress.

The last part of the work, entitled Applications, deals with how the principles so far established may be applied to real government. This part is of no less interest than the others, and it is indeed helpful to see Mill's principles considered in the context of real situations. He discusses things such as the institution of marriage, public education, prohibition, taxation and whether a man should be able to alienate his own freedom (by selling himself into slavery).

On Liberty is a great text for an introduction to the libertarian view of political philosophy and society. Nowadays, it is usually published along with some of Mill's other works. Mine came with Utilitarianism, Considerations on Representative Government and The Subjection of Women. Mill is easily understandable to the lay person, and he provides good food for thought to anyone from the amateur to professional philosopher, or anyone interested in public affairs.

NYHW: The Assignment - With Reference to Chapter III of On Liberty, and in no more than one page, what does Mill mean by "experiments in living"? Can you give three examples, past or present, of such experiments?"

Originality, Individuality and Genius

“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others” (Mill 53).

Throughout history there have been numerous cases in which individuals have expressed themselves according to John Stuart Mill’s “Free Scope” theory, however when the restraint of conducting these actions peacefully is applied the number greatly reduces. Mill suggests that originality, individuality, and genius all contribute to the success of these “experiments in living”.

One such individual who contributed to a particularly original revolution of thought, known as transcendentalism, was Henry David Thoreau. In conjunction with Emerson, Thoreau brought up theories of naturalist simplicity which seem to coincide with many of Mill’s ideas, “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown” (Thoreau 138).

Another influential character in the history of free thought was Ayn Rand, whose objectivist theory holds many of the same libertarian ideals as within “On Liberty”. Rand’s emphasis was on selfishness within the individual, and freedom from the conformity of society, which would inevitably lead to its destruction. Rand’s Russian background led her to distrust the ideas of communism, which seems to parallel Mill’s aversion for the nation of China: “We have a warning example in China… (who) have become stationary (and) have remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be further improved, it must be by foreigners” (68-69).

Finally, a revolutionist who seemed to most fully utilize the freedom of speech, through his inspired speeches, was Martin Luther King Jr, whose involvement in the Civil Rights movement led to the abolition of segregation. King’s dream of equal rights was itself a very utilitarian view due to the fact that it would lead to the greatest good for the African American population.

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