A Critical Assessment of John Stuart Mill's Principle of Liberty

Categories: PhilosophyPrinciples

Critically assess Mill’s principle of liberty.

John Stuart Mill was an English political economist and civil servant born in the nineteenth century. His ideas of liberalism, developed and deviated from his famous father, James Mill’s, far surpassed any that had been popular at the time. Mill was an advocate of complete freedom from societal restraints and universal franchise, a concept alien in Victorian era England where only one in seven men had the right to vote. He was a member of the liberal party and the first to call for women’s suffrage.

Needless to say, On Liberty caused uproar; whether it be the criticism that followed or the plethora of debates that sprung from the piece. In this essay Mill’s harm principle, paternalism, moralism, types of liberty, and tyranny of the majority are critically analyzed.

To discuss Mill’s On liberty necessitates a description of what the author meant when he used the word liberty itself, one so often used throughout literature preceding and following the text.

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He describes it in the first page of his essay as not ‘liberty of the will’ but ‘social or civil liberty: the nature and limits of power which can be legitimately exercised by society over an individual.’ (1859: 59) Mill takes a historical approach while introducing his piece, claiming that initially liberty had meant protection against tyrannical rulers that were more often than not viewed in an antagonistic light. The agreement to be subject under a ruler came as a sort of social contract’: the masses agreed to be governed by one person in return for protection that was offered to them.

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this form of protection was not offered to social outcasts, and thus those that did not conform were shunned. Since absolute power in the hands of one was unfavourable, modes of limitation of power were tried. Mill explains that these were in the form of political liberties or rights’ as well as the ‘establishment of constitutional checks.’ Following this, Mill illustrates the progression of the (especially European people’s mindset into one that did not view themselves as subject to rule but as rulers to be compelled to take heed to their interests. Now, the desirable normal was one where the “..rulers identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation.” Mill takes this form of European liberalism a step further by conceiving one simple principle’ – claiming that people should possess complete freedom to do as they like so long as their actions do not harm anyone directly. “In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence, is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill is careful in highlighting that this is only applicable to the person’s own body, mind, and so forth, granting complete freedom of expression. Freedom of expression ties in with Mill’s view of happiness, seen as something to be strived towards as opposed to something that is hedonistic or simply for pleasure (his own father was a firm believer of the latter.) Happiness, according to Mill, could not be the aim of moral action even whilst being a criterion of it – people did not become happy by simply trying to be so but by doing things they loved and enjoyed. His harm principle entails that as the only actions a person is liable for are the ones that harm society, separations must be made in terms of what affects society, and whether it simply affects it or genuinely harms it.

Only if an action genuinely harms society can ones’ rights actually be curtailed. Gray and Smith (1991: 142) expand upon this Millian concept by explaining why men’s liberties are generally curtailed by other men. It is either because they want to impose power on others or because they want conformity, or lastly because they think there is solely one answer to the question of how one should live. The first two reasons are deemed irrational and discarded by Mill as not warranting sufficient basis (intellectually) to curtail rights; it is only the third one he can take seriously. To this Mill would reply that even if there is one single truth and everyone opposing it is merely spreading falsehoods, it does not mean that they should be stopped from expressing their views. “There is the greatest opinion between presuming an opinion to be true, because with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.” Silencing an opinion, to Mill, means that an immediate assumption of infallibility is made by society, one that is quite injurious as the human capacity for correction of error can only be exercised naturally when an opposing viewpoint is presented. According to Mill, harm prevention is the sole legitimate basis for restricting liberties. Restricting liberties is done in several ways, detailed by the philosopher as either paternalistic, moralistic or democratic. Paternalistic is when one restricts another’s liberties because they believe that they are doing what is best for the other person. Moralistic restriction is namely when the person performing the restriction believes that the action is wrong morally, whilst a democratic restriction refers to the halting of an action because the majority believe it to be wrong. Mill rejects all of these and puts forth the harm principle, stating that it is the only way an individual’s liberties can be rightfully restricted. He calls for complete sovereignty of the mind and body in all ways not harmful to another. However, this is a topic highly contested upon – who is to say whether someone’s actions affects someone else or not? Gray and Smith (147) point towards the numerous critics who find faults with Mill’s principle, claiming that it is difficult to separate a man’s public and private domain and that ‘no man is an island.’ This is to say that every action affects another action in some way and people cannot truly be isolated when expressing the liberties Mill speaks of. Even considering the many ‘eloquent and moving passages’ written by Mill that are ‘admired on all sides,’ the principle Mill advances for cannot do what is expected of it (Gray and Smith, 1991: 171)

To this, the Millian response would undoubtedly be one to delve deeper into the original text, rejecting the criticisms for their simplistic understanding of On Liberty. The crux of the criticisms claim that Mill assumes, and wrongly so, that some human actions are completely free of social consequences. They state that no action can genuinely be free of a consequence regardless of how it may seem and that it is impossible to discern the possible consequences. Actions and their consequences are indeed complex and may have surprising outcomes that were not intended by the agent. However, this is where those of Mill’s ilk would point to the question of whether the actions performed by the agent genuinely harm society and another person’s interests or simply affect society. To put it in different words, the argument that they put forth purports that one can affect another without affecting that person interests directly. Riley expands on this by stating that, even if for example one’s actions harm another group indirectly, this turns into “other regarding misconduct, and the person deserves reproach for the consequences but not for the cause itself. Thus, when ‘self regarding faults’ turn into ‘uncharitable conduct the person must be legitimately punished by law (1998: 100.) Mill states clearly that whenever there is definite damage the case is taken out of the principles of liberty and then treated as a case for morality or law (1859: 148.) This does not render liberty itself useless as other-regarding acts and self-regarding faults remain separable, the example of a public servant who remains drunk only whilst off duty is validly put forth by Riley.

Although Mill’s whole conception of the harm principle advocates that one must step in once harm is being caused to another, Mill prohibits ideas of paternalism. If an agent’s rights are curtailed because society believes that it is what’s best for them, this is a paternalistic act. He argues that the majority is far more likely to be wrong than an individual regarding self-concerns. However, the majority is more likely to be right when it comes to other-regarding concerns. In short, mature adults are more likely to do what is best for them and not cause harm to their own interests and what affects them. A logical follow-up of this is that people often are blind to what causes harm to other people’s interests and are not as sensitive to them as they are to their own. Critics point to the inconsistencies in Mill’s standpoint as “anti-paternalistic’ – he expands in later chapters of On Liberty that in some cases paternalism is justifiable and almost necessary, for example it is only right to prevent someone from selling themselves into slavery. Even those whose sympathies lay with Mill such as Sir Richard Livingstone question whether Mill’s viewpoint of human rationality is far too optimistic – uncontained freedom in the hands of those in the maturity of their faculties seems reasonable in theory, but how many people today can genuinely be attributed as such? Additionally, he is rightly criticized for paying too much attention to spiritual obstacles and too little to issues such as poverty and disease and too narrowly on expression of freedom and thought. (Gray and Smith, 1991: 152)

Alongside notions of paternalism, Mill traces out the weakness in moralistic interference in his essay, and why morals should not be valid reasons to stop someone from freedom of expression. He rejects legal moralism categorically. We are to assume that one’s behavior for which he should be subject to social coercion is only that which concerns others without their free and undeceived consent. Only in these terms is calling something ‘wicked’ or ‘immoral’ appropriate, according to Mill. “Where only the agent is involved – where, that is, the other regarding question cannot be asked, or where others are involved only with their free and undeceived consent – the matter is not a moral one; therefore it cannot be a matter involving punishment” (1991: 165.) this applies to the example of homosexuality, used by Mill to differentiate moralistic interference from legitimate interference based on the harm principle. If it is true that homosexuality doesn’t affect anyone beyond the consenting participants, then no punishment is necessary. Legal penalties are thus inappropriate. Critically observing Mill’s passages, it is deduced that Mill attempts to highlight whether or not people actually have grounds to invoke public action to stop an action that is apparently harmful. He also forces us to be much surer of facts: is there concrete evidence that proves that homosexuality will cause harm, or is it simply offensive to someone’s personal tastes? This makes all the difference in Millian philosophy.

Even to this there is considerable reproach. Rees quotes Bosanquet and Barker and reaffirms a common approach taken by critics: one that argues that Mill attempts to ‘separate the inseparable.’ Sir Ernest Baker claims that the “conduct of any man is a single whole: there can be nothing in it which concerns himself only, and does not concern other men: whatever he is, and whatever he does, affects others, and therefore affects them” (1991: 173.) Dworkin questions whether Mill implies that a person cannot be held accountable for their negligent conduct, and how this can be practically employed. (1982: 149.) Others such as R. P Anschutz claim that there is nothing to be gained from making a distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding acts. This may be so, but Mill remains firm in his viewpoint by stating that he does not defend every single liberty but specific individual liberties. As outlined in On Liberty, human liberty consists of three subparts, demanding liberty of thought and feeling, liberty of tastes and pursuits, and liberty of a combination of individuals. he states specifically that the only freedom deserving of the name is one where every individual chases their own good and does not attempt to deprive others of theirs. (1858: 71.)

What Mill attempted to discuss and put forth for discussion with this controversial piece is often misunderstood. Whilst his proposal of a ‘one simple principle’ may seem to be a tautological argument when considering his dislike for a stringent way of living life throughout his piece, this is mainly to pave way for the (hopefully) rational choices Mill believes people will make with complete freedom – when given adequate education. He is continually averse to any retrenchment of freedom of expression. This is confirmed in his letters to Pasquale Villari in 1858, as repeated by Alan Ryan: Mill states that the subject matter of On Liberty is not legal or political freedom but ‘social, psychological, and religious freedom,’ all forms of freedom that were neglected in England at the time (1991: 163.) The entire text reflects this precise concern. Furthermore, Mill explains that this self-termed tyranny of the majority’ is one where the public ‘may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are much needed against this.’ This is when society itself evolves into the tyrant, a role that so long ago the rulers took up. Mill remains consistently hostile towards the silencing of free speech, exemplified in Mill’s view of Mormons. Ten describes that although Mill found their institution of polygamy distasteful and personally disagreeable, a ‘retrograde step in civilization,’ he acknowledged that all direct parties seemed to be satisfied and there was no sufficient warrant to compel them to act otherwise. (1969: 51.) Education was likely to ensure that men made more rational and mature decisions overall which were bound to be good for society as a result. Moreover, he certainly did not envision a tyrannical role for educated men; they did not have the power to coerce or compel others. He desired an introduction of sensible discussion as to how far society ought to govern the private lives of its members, and purported reasoning as opposed to force when concerning matters that were disagreed upon.

The single truth that Mill seeks to maintain, as reestablished by Ten, is the importance of individual freedom – a doctrine that is bound to be more complex and many-sided than simply one system of thought. On Liberty discusses a myriad of issues, including concerns of the private-public domain and how society will progress in marking its distinction, as well as the individual liberties and freedoms people must possess to be happy. There are many a rebuttal (as aforementioned) to Mill’s beliefs, primarily concerning self-regarding and other-regarding acts. Regardless, Mill puts forth relevant topics of discussion deliberated upon in this essay, including the harm principle, paternalism, moralism, types of liberty, and tyranny of the majority. Even though Mill remains influential in the history of liberalism, acting as a bridge between old and new liberalism, the criticism of his disappointingly narrow focus of human freedom as well as his lack of focus on issues plaguing the world (such as disease and poverty) ring true to this day. 

 

REFERENCES

  1. Dworkin, G. (1982). Mill on Liberty by C. L Ten. Political Theory, 10(1), (pp. 149-151).
  2. Mill, J. S. (1859) On liberty. Middlesex: Penguin Classics.
  3. Gray, J. and Smith, G. (1991). J.S. Mill, On liberty in focus. London: Routledge.
  4. Gray, J. (2006). Mill on liberty. London: Routledge.
  5. Riley, J. (1998). Mill on liberty. London: Routledge.
  6. Ten, C. (1969.) Mill and Liberty. Journal of the History of Ideas, 30(1), (pp 47-68).

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A Critical Assessment of John Stuart Mill's Principle of Liberty. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-critical-assessment-of-john-stuart-mill-s-principle-of-liberty-essay

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