Welcome to Part Four of this exploration into John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. We looked before at Chapter I, which introduced many of the key ideas and concepts of Mill’s theory, Chapter II, which argued that freedom of thought and discussion was essential to society, and Chapter III, which argued that individuality was central to well-being. This chapter concerns the limits of the authority of state and society over the actions of the individual. The purpose of this chapter is to establish when the public may intervene in the affairs of the individual (though Mill spends much of the chapter emphasising that this should really be done as little as possible). As always, I will give an overview of the argument, and then offer my thoughts.
Chapter IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual
The key principle guiding Mill’s argument here is that the part of life that interests and affects the individual should be governed by the individual, while society should govern the behaviours that affect society. Mill rejects the idea of a ‘Social Contract’, something which citizens agree to and draw obligations from. But, he argues, everyone who receives protection from society owes for the benefits they receive, and each should be bound by rules regarding their conduct towards others. People should not infringe on the rights of others, and all should share in labour and sacrifice (fixed on an “equitable principle”) for defending society and its members from injury and molestation.
Mill establishes two tiers at which society may become involved in the affairs of the individual. First, if an act is hurtful to others, or lacks consideration for their well-being, but does not infringe on their rights, the individual may be punished by opinion, but not by law. In other words, if their actions are prejudicial to others, society will think badly of that person (and they should be reminded that this is a consequence of their actions). This is because others have the freedom to disassociate themselves with people they don’t like, and they should be free to warn others about that person. This is just the natural consequence of people seeking to avoid behaviours that they don’t like. These inconveniences are not a restriction on the freedom of the offending party. Or, in Mill’s words,
If he displeases us, we may express our distaste, and we may stand aloof from a person as well as from a thing that displeases us; but we shall not therefore feel called on to make his life uncomfortable.
Second, if the person encroaches on the rights of others, inflicts loss or damage through actions beyond exercising their own rights, if they trick someone into harm or loss, if they exercise unfair or ungenerous advantages over someone, or if they fail to defend someone against injury through some selfish action, then they are fit for punishment. If they are driven by greed, lust for power, wickedness, and so own, and this leads them to cause harm, they are fit for moral reprobation, retribution, or punishment.
There is no point in punishing someone whose behaviour we simply don’t like, or worse, whose behaviour we think is not good for them. If they are spoiling their own life with their actions, then there is no need to double down on the punishment. Instead, we should do what we can, without infringing on their rights, to alleviate this self-inflicted punishment. They are not an enemy to society; the worse thing we should do to them is leave them alone. Yet society should intervene if the consequences of someone’s evil actions fall on others. Society must administer a punishment in proportion to the crime.
So far, so simple. But how are we to distinguish between the part of one’s life that concerns only oneself, and the part that concerns others? We are all connected, are we not? To harm oneself is to inevitably harm others, is it not? It is true, Mill says, that one’s actions may render a person unable to provide services that others rely on them for. It may even make them a burden on others. Furthermore, they may be injurious by example. If, so the counter-argument continues, we protect children from themselves, might not we also protect those of “mature years” who are equally incapable of self-government from themselves? If vices are known to cause unhappiness, should law or opinion not regulate against it? We have conducted these experiments of living, and we have found that some experiments fail: should we not stop others from repeating past mistakes? Mill sets these questions up, anticipating them as counter-arguments, and continues to address their collective implications.
If a person fails to fulfil an obligation, for whatever reason, it is the failure to fulfil the obligation that should be punished, not whatever vice led to it. If a person fails to repay a debt, say, because they gambled away their money, it is the failure to repay that should be punished, not the gambling. The harm or the failure is judged, not what led to it. If there is no perceptible hurt or violation of a specific duty, then society can afford to bear it “for the sake of the greater good of human freedom”. Further, society has full control over people in the early stages of their lives: children have no freedom. The best means to prevent harm, Mill therefore argues, is a good education and a good upbringing. The duty of society, in its wisdom from experiments conducted, is to make the next generation better than the current. With the power over children, guided by the authority of the “received opinion”, and the ability for adults to disassociate with one another, does society need greater powers to force upon others an adherence to particular behaviours? Yet the greatest argument against societal interference in private matters, Mill asserts, is that when society interferes it is often wrong. People know what’s best for themselves better than others.
Importantly, your offence at someone else’s practice doesn’t trump their right to do it. As Mill states,
There is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it.
Personal taste for a practice of behaviour is as much one’s own as an opinion or a purse. Even if the practice is shown by generations of experience to be detrimental to the individual practising it, allowing society to interfere in these cases will lead to overreach. Society cannot be trusted to limit itself to regulating ways of life proven to be harmful to one’s self. Mill goes on to give some examples that demonstrate that this is no “imaginary evil”. They are specific to the context of his writing, but are worth referring to.
In his first example, he refers to the practices of Islam. His audience is a Protestant nation: how would they feel if Muslims, should they be the majority, banned the eating of pork? As Mill explains, Muslims are offended by the practice, seeing it as unclean; it would not be religious persecution on their part, because no religion makes it a duty to eat pork. The only grounds of objection is the preference of non-Muslims to eat pork, and their only justification is that whether they eat it or not is no matter for public concern. A second example, and one closer to home for nineteenth-century Britain, concerns European Catholics. They might interfere in private life, for example regulating whether or not one might be allowed to marry. Would a Protestant people want that? Why should that be a matter for regulation? Third, and closer still, the Puritans, who controlled Britain following its Civil War, and who set up colonies in the Americas, would seek to repress public amusements. Even if the Puritans were less powerful at the time of writing, there were people in the middle class, Mill asserts, who still think like this; they may become a majority in Parliament. These examples demonstrate Mill’s principles: if we say we can persecute others because we believe we are right, “we must beware of admitting a principle of which we should resent as a gross injustice the application to ourselves”.
There are other, nonreligious cases too. At the time of writing, the Socialist movements were gathering steam. Mill warns of those hostile to people with large incomes, who would seek to restrict incomes not earned by manual labour, and who would want all incomes to be the same. “It is known”, Mill states, “that the bad workmen who form the majority of the operatives in many branches of industry, are decidedly of opinion that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as good”, and that no one should earn more by superior skill. Mill was also aware of the growing temperance movement that sought to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol. They would restrict what is a private and personal affair, and though they argue that trade is a social act, forbidding the sale of alcohol as a social act is as bad as forbidding its private consumption. What of the restrictions of trading laws that prohibit work on Sundays? While this is done to ensure that people are kept on equal footing with those who observe the Sabbath for religious reasons, some should be permitted to work, even if just in amusements. This would give people something to do on their day off.
Finally, society is not just at risk of persecution, but actively persecutes others. The Mormons, for example, were driven from their land into the desert for practising acts that others find abhorrent, namely polygamy. Mill doesn’t like it – it is unfair for women, amongst other things – but people should be free to practice it if they choose. People should be allowed to establish religious communities, or other kinds of communities where they observe particular rules, as long as those living there are given “perfect freedom of departure”. In this way, experiments of living become not just individual affairs, but group experiments. To those who argue that society must persecute practices which are uncivilised, like polygamy, Mill asserts that “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised”.
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After explaining why individuality is important, Mill now situates the individual within society, laying down the limits of societal authority. In doing so, he builds on the ideas of other philosophers, just as he has before. Specifically, he rebuts the idea that society should be founded on a ‘Social Contract’, instead arguing that it should be built around individual freedoms and individual rights, with limitations on such freedoms placed around those rights, preventing actions that infringe on the rights of others. This therefore indirectly addresses Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers. Mill does not necessarily place himself in direct opposition to the idea of a ‘Social Contract’, but rather reformulates the starting principles – there should be no contract between the people and the state from which to deduce obligations. Rather, the starting point should be the respect of individual freedoms, and the building of the state around this to protect individual freedoms. Any obligation should go only so far as to contribute to the common defence of these rights and freedoms from crime within, and from enemies beyond.
Just as Mill revisits Enlightenment philosophy, not just to build on it, but to challenge it, so too does he again use religion as an explanatory point. He uses his examples differently this time. Instead of drawing on England and Britain’s long history of Protestant and Catholic struggles, he brings up examples of religions that had, at that time, little influence within Britain. The example he uses of Islam is particularly interesting, given its importance now to contemporary discourse. For Mill, it is a good example to prove his principle: no Christian would want their freedom to eat pork restricted because it offended Muslims, so why should Christians force rules on others that restrict practices that they find offensive, but otherwise have no impact on their lives? For the present day, this example has a particular salience, though it is not pork that stands at the centre of debate. It is the right of non-Muslim artists and cartoonists to draw historical and religious figures, and to publish and distribute these images. This practice stands in contravention with Islamic teachings, which forbid creating images of their prophet, Muhammad. Needless to say, we know what Mill’s stance on this is: the right to freely publish one’s opinions trumps any claims to the rights of others to avoid offence. The context of expressing these images may, of course, be open to restriction: it may be inappropriate in some workplaces or state institutions. But if a publisher wants to publish those images, the state should have no grounds to intervene, and society has no grounds to punish those individuals with anything more than their opinion. Of course, as Mill argues in this chapter, they have the right to dissociate themselves with such individuals. But they cannot silence them.
Building on this idea, Mill suggests that people could form different communities in which to enact their experiments of living. In this case, Muslims may seek to live together, and amongst themselves agree not to publish within that space images that they find offensive. But, and this is central to Mill’s idea, they must have the freedom to leave whenever they choose. Quite how this would work in practice is another matter – this idea is not central to Mill’s theory, and, indeed, it comes as quite an offhand suggestion towards the end of his discussion of Mormonism. It also seemingly contradicts one of his objections from an earlier chapter, namely that free movement and free communication will lead to the erosion of individuality as it promotes assimilation. Free movement is essential to the idea that communities can form experiments of living, so this further complicates the practicality of the issue. Unless I have misconstrued Mill here, which is entirely possible – please feel free to correct me if I have – then this idea will need further development beyond the essential principles as Mill lays them out.
Another potential point of conflict that Mill does yet not fully explore is the right for individuals to disassociate from one another, and his argument in an earlier chapter that no individual should be sacked for expressing their opinion. Does the right to disassociate extend to employers who no longer wish to be associated with their employees? Mill doesn’t argue that there should be any protection for employees, of course, only that society should be more tolerant of conflicting viewpoints. Tolerance can only extend so far, so perhaps this is a balance that will naturally find itself within society. The expression of both of these principles will result in some employers standing by the controversial views of employees, and some not, and vice versa. Some consumers will judge companies by the views of their CEOs, and some won’t, and so the market for goods and jobs will simply play out along these lines without state interference. Yet the tyranny of the majority, as Mill argues, can express itself without state interference, so this is a point that will need further elucidation.
A final point of contention is Mill’s assertion that no society has the right to force its idea of ‘civilisation’ upon any other. Yet in his introductory chapter, Mill asserts that despotism is a legitimate form of rule over barbarians. So what is it? Can a ‘civilised’ society force itself upon a ‘barbaric’ society and rule over it despotically until the ‘barbaric’ society is no longer barbarous? Or does no society have the right to decide itself ‘civilised’, and use that to justify intervention in other societies? This contradiction may have something to do with Mill’s framing – the assertion in his first chapter concerned the history of mankind as it emerged from despotism into civilisation (though I have pointed out how this could be used to justify British colonial rule), while his latter concerned the actions of American and British citizens as it concerned Mormons, who were living within the United States. Even still, the principle should be applied consistently.
There are other points that could be expanded on further. The issue of harm prevention, as opposed to punishing actions that cause harm, is one of these, especially if we try to relate it to the present day. The example of harm prevention that Mill gives is when the behaviour leads to a direct dereliction of duty when a policeman is drunk. Here, Mill argues that it is not drunkenness that is the problem, but being drunk on duty. The modern parallel that immediately came to my mind is drunk driving – our laws make this illegal to prevent harm. Within Mill’s principle, is this justifiable because everyone driving has a duty to keep others safe? Or does this fall under the other case, that it should be the harm itself (crashing a car) rather than the behaviour leading up to it (drunkenness) that should be punished? Does this reflect the idea that it should be failure to pay the debt, rather than gambling, that should be punished? Because this could equally be framed under both principles: it is a duty to repay one’s debts, and gambling will impair that duty, much in the same way that drunkenness will impair the abilities of the police officer and the driver. And because so many behaviours can, in theory, impair people’s duties in this way, it may be difficult to draw the line. This theory needs an explicit definition of what constitutes a duty, and the degree to which impairment of one’s ability to perform said duty should result in punishment. It would not be illegal to be drunk if one were not to get in a car; therefore should it only be illegal to gamble if one has debts?
Much of this may well be addressed in Milk’s final chapter, “Applications”, so little more need be said on this point until we have finished his book. I would like to, at this point, consider how some of Mill’s ideas relate to the modern day. The idea that people should not be punished for actions that are ruining their own lives, because the negative consequences of their actions on themselves is punishment enough, is a particularly elegant way of framing the debate over drug laws. Why punish people for using drugs if they are harming only themselves? How will imprisonment help them – what is it that the law aims to achieve here? Building on Mill’s principle that I raised concerns with in the previous paragraph, the actions of drug users should only be punished should they rob or steal to pay for their habit – and in this case it is the stealing that is illegal, rather than the drug use. I feel confident in asserting that Mill would not agree with the preventative banning of drugs (my contention with the definition of ‘duty’ notwithstanding), even if it were to indirectly harm those around the drug user. This is something that society should bear for “the greater good of human freedom”, after all. Where society gets the right to intervene in the case of addiction is another matter – a case not yet defined by Mill.
Another particular case that Mill does not adequately address, though he brings it up as part of his counter-argument, concerns those who are of “mature years” but who are “incapable of self-government”. Mental health issues and learning disabilities are real problems that affect adults. Despite the best efforts of parents and educators to raise their children, it won’t prevent these problems completely. What then? At what point does society have the right to forcefully intervene to prevent actions that cause harm upon the individual? I don’t want to labour this point, again because I’ve covered it elsewhere, and also because I am conscious that the following chapter may well address these problems. With that in mind, I look forward to finishing this series off with Mill’s chapter about the application of his principles. Will he define what particular rights should be protected, and what duties people have? Will he elaborate more upon the ‘harm principle’? Find out with me in our exploration of Mill’s fifth and final chapter of On Liberty.
Have I got anything wrong here? What have I missed? Let me know what you think in the comments.
The copy I’m reading is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, with a forward by John Gray, published first in 1991, and reissued in 2008:
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 83-103.