On Liberty

John Stuart Mill.

I bought John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Utilitarianism from the Fujian Foreign Languages Bookshop the other day. I seem to have this peculiar interest in philosophy which, perversely enough, I largely attribute to Bruce the Philosopher’s Song from Monty Python. Mill’s essay will be slow-going and I probably won’t see the end of it because of its somewhat convoluted style. I’d describe it as parenthetic in that Mill would write something and then add various riders, the result often being the separation of the subject and predicate. Mill also liked to insert asides such as “it is hoped”, “generally speaking”, “I hope” etc. which tend to retard the progress of the essay and further obfuscate the arguments. (It’s worth comparing Mill’s style with that of Varney the Vampire, which is also from about the same era.)

Mill says

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. 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.

The hypothesis is minimally constrained, but “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” leaves tyrants and the right wing groups a large loophole to abuse by claiming that interference in the life of one is for the self-protection of others.

Mills adds

It is perhaps hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.

Quite right, but I can see several issues arising here. If we are obliged to ensure the safety of our children, what excuses the state from ensuring the safety of the adult population even against themselves? Most people shouldn’t need such protection once they’re legally adults because they should be capable of being responsible for themselves. Of course, this is a utopian ideal. Nanny would, no doubt, argue that her interference in the lives of the populace is a matter of self-protection to ensure the continuance of the so-called harmonious and stable society, although in truth, it’s merely to ensure the continuation of the present rulers in power. Should society not help addicts whose self-destructive behaviour is a consequence of addictions which they can at best resist but may never be able to conquer? It would seem remiss of humanity if, in the name of liberty, it abrogates responsibility to those who are in the metaphorical chains of addiction.

Once we legally cease to be children, then we are responsible for ourselves and make our own choices. We might be persuaded by others, but we should not expect others to be persuaded by us. There may be apparent agreement between two parties, but that may be to avoid conflict on the part of one of them. Similarly, though I am an atheist, I don’t seek to persuade believers to abandon their faith, although they would seek to persuade me to their point of view. In fact, these days, the only sort of believers that you’re likely to meet are the ones who are least likely to respond to argument.

Once people are legally adults, they should be free to choose their own paths in life. When someone ceases to be a parent or guardian of another in anything but name, that person no longer has any authority over their children and should never expect to have such again. In other words, just as Mill is arguing against the interference of the state in the lives of individuals, except where the stated proviso applies, so, too, can his thesis be extended to individuals who have formerly had a relationship analogous to that between the state and the individual.

I sometimes wonder how liberal I actually am. Let’s say that I have a son or a daughter who is still legally a child and has a blog. I still have legal authority over my offspring and, by extension, the content of the blog. Though I may be the parent of the blogger who is, in turn, a minor, what right do I really have to interfere in a record of a personal nature? What would my policy on the blog be? I might sigh despairingly at the style, but I should hold my tongue on that matter; I might have reservations about the content – what was said or not said – but I’d probably permit a degree of licence since parental interference can be highly injurious to intergenerational relationships. Actually, there’s a good chance that I’d be unaware of the blog, although I might suspect its existence.

Once my children were legally adults, I should no longer expect to control them or dictate the content of their blogs. It would be remiss of me to attempt to continue exercising any control over them, and the morality of such behaviour would certainly be rather dubious. Just as they would grow as people, so I should also grow as a person, ceasing to live in a past that has long since gone.

The third section of Mill’s essay (Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being) starts with the observation that it is one thing to express an opinion, but another to act on it because the result may be that one person or several end up making a nuisance of themselves to others. Mills observes

But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgement in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that she should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.

He continues by saying

It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself.

In an echo of the title of this section, Mill says

[T]he free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being…

It’s this notion of individuality which contrasts Occidental and Oriental societies. I don’t know exactly what the current regulations are, but I know that there are certain cities from which it is possible for individuals to travel to destinations such as Hong Kong. It’s possible that some Chinese people do travel alone, but mob mentality prevails. The Chinese understand the notion of privacy, but probably don’t understand why all the foreign teachers don’t all live together and go about as a group. From a Western perspective, the Chinese are clingy to a degree that would have us committing acts of violence against each other without the slightest feeling of compunction.

Similarly, the question about what our pupils want for themselves has arisen in class on more than one occasion. It’s not that they don’t want things for themselves, but the correct answer in their minds is that they want what their parents want, which is never the answer to the question. Such an attitude must also contribute to cheating in tests which is often the result of active collusion between the pupil who has the answers and the one who wants them. Even my two best pupils in Class 14 were comparing answers in the recent test. When I was at school, we were aware that our classmates might try to cheat off us (although I don’t recall this ever being a likely possibility) and would guard our answers accordingly. The ethos was that our work was our own and not done to falsely benefit someone else.

Mill adds tellingly

One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.

But it would be wrong to think that the Chinese are an undifferentiated mass with no individual personalities because that would be inimical to human nature for a start. Instead, they repress their individuality, supposedly for the greater good.

Actually, Mill has something to say about China on the subject of progress.

We have a warning example in China—a nation of much talent… They are remarkable, too, in the excellence of their apparatus for impressing, as far as possible, the best wisdom they possess upon every mind in the community, and securing that those who have appropriated the most of it shall occupy the posts of honour and power. Surely the people who did this have discovered the secret of human progressiveness, and must have kept themselves steadily at the head of the movements of the world. On the contrary, they have become stationary—have remained so for thousands of years; and if they are ever to be farther improved, it must be by foreigners.

Mill concludes the paragraph by noting that unless individuality asserts itself, “Europe … will tend to become another China”. Of course, China hasn’t remained stationary for thousands of years, but Confucianism has been inherently stultifying, and the Party has continued the tradition of repressing the people. The Chinese themselves would not be especially impressed by the final part of the quote above, although there is a belief in some quarters that the country should imitate America to be successful. I’ve been told by Chinese people themselves foreign things = superior; Chinese things = inferior. I’m not sure, though, whether this is because they believe that or they think that because I’m foreign that’s the opinion I hold.

Mill ends the section, oddly enough, implying that egalitarianism is leading to unformity in society. I think this is an overly pessimistic assessment of society either in the 19th or 21st centuries, but is an accurate description of politics in the 21st, where the political parties are like identical twins, differentiated by a mole here and a scar there, but really just arguing over whether twelve eggs is a dozen.

Overall, from what I’ve read of Mill’s essay, his position is extreme and dangerously open to abuse. I may term myself a liberal, but that shouldn’t be confused with the libertarianism for which Mill is arguing. Nonetheless, even after 150 years, On Liberty still has something to say about society and the nature of the social contract between the state and people, especially when politicians are using protection of the individual as an excuse to abuse civil liberties.


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