On Liberty

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 11/25/2013

Mill addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual, the individual ought to be free to do as he wishes unless he harms others. Government should interfere when it is for the protection of society.
"The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection."
Where some may object that there is justification for certain religious prohibitions in a society dominated by that religion, he argues that members of the majority ought make rules which they would accept should they have been the minority.

The freedom of thought and speech. He was a supporter of free speech because by forcing other individuals to re-examine and re-affirm their beliefs in the process of debate, these beliefs are kept from declining into mere dogma. The freedom to pursue tastes (provided they do no harm to others), even if they are deemed "immoral",  he argues that this liberal system will bring people to the good more effectively than physical or emotional coercion  Furthermore, he notes the societal obligation is not to ensure that each individual is moral throughout adulthood. Rather, by educating youth, society has the opportunity and duty to ensure that a generation, as a whole, is generally moral.

It is important to keep in mind that the arguments in On Liberty are grounded on the principle of Utility, and not on appeals to natural rights. Mill supported legislation that would have granted extra voting power to university graduates on the grounds that they were in a better position to judge what would be best for society. Also, Mill argues that despotism is an acceptable form of government for those societies that are "backward", like children and "barbarian" nations which are benefited by limited freedom. While Mill admits that these freedoms could—in certain situations—be pushed aside, he claims that in contemporary and civilized societies there is no justification for their removal.

Mill first applies these principles to the economy. He concludes that free markets are preferable to those controlled by governments. His father has said on Socialism:
"These opinions if they were to spread, would be the subversion of civilized society; worse than the deluge of Huns".
Mill continues by addressing the question of social interference in suicide. He states that the purpose of liberty is to allow a person to pursue their interest. Therefore, when a person intends to terminate their ability to have interests it is permissible for society to step in. In other words, a person does not have the freedom to surrender their freedom.

Comments (1)

  1. Commentary by Rev. J. Roland Cole, 10-15-16:
    I have two responses. Regarding possible “religious prohibitions,” Mill said, “Members of the majority ought to make rules which they would accept should they have been the minority”

    This suggests an application of the Golden Rule in social ethical decision-making (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”), is similar to Kant’s categorical imperative (one decides his or her ethical action by determining if s/he could will it to become “a universal law.”), and it anticipates Religious Liberty with its freedoms from coercions re other persons, church’s, and governments’ beliefs and doctrines a-n-d its freedoms to self-expression, autonomy, conscience and the free expression of one’s conscientious beliefs, and the free exercise of one’s God-given rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the rights enumerated in our Bill of Rights and others not so enumerated, such as the right to privacy, etc..

    My second response is a request for clarification. Whereas Utilitarianism (short-handed as “The great good or happiness for the greatest number”) contributed “laissez-faire capitalism” as its economic principle (business, not government, making the rules of the economy), J. S. Mill was quick to deny persons or groups causing real harm to others. Called “Liberalism” in its day (as opposed to the “Conservatism” of the Aristocratic rule in England at the time) and “Conservatism” in our day, calls for “free and unfettered capitalism” have long been shown to harm the health and safety of its workers and transporters, as well as the civilian population which buys its products. Hence, the need for governmental regulations.

    Is it true that J. S. modified his father, James’ and Jeremy Bentham’s original non-socialistic, “l-f capitalism” within its first 10-15 years? That this ethicist, moral philosopher, and defender of Utilitarianism recognized that governments/some agencies have a moral and legal right AND responsibility to protect the health, safety, and welfare of businesses’ workers and product transporters, as well as their consumers, through regulation? I’ve been taught this and have asserted it, but I’ve not seen the footnotes. Can you clarify this issue for us? (Can anybody? Please inform here and at: colejr78@gmail.com.) Thanks!

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