My essay, written for a philosophy course at Bristol Universtity
In his essay “On 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 happiness” 3.
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 gratification” 5. One of these could be independence. He also says that he is dealing with “utility in the largest sense” 6, 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
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