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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

Chapter 5: “Applications”

Mill spends four chapters explaining his theory of liberty then rolls up his sleeves and gets down to business. How do these theories apply in real life? Mill summarizes his beliefs in two maxims. “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…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 legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one (social punishment) or the other (legal punishment) is requisite for its protection.” To summarize Mill’s summary the first maxim is this: if what I do is my own personal business, then it’s none of your business. The second maxim is this: what I do with my liberty must not interfere with your liberty.

So how does Mill’s theory of liberty play out in real life? It sounds simple when you read his maxims but becomes more complicated when you try to apply them to real-life situations. Let’s look at one example: the law requiring people to wear protective helmets when riding motorcycles. Mill acknowledges that “it is a proper office of public authority to guard against accidents…” so you might assume that Mill would agree there needs to be a law that motorcyclists should wear protective helmets. This will help protect them from grave injury or death in case of an accident. But Mill also says “Nevertheless, when there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk…” In this case the danger of mischief is the risk of having an accident while riding a motorcycle. The reader is led to assume that Mill believes the risk should be left entirely up to the individual riding the motorcycle. The government has no right to prevent him from riding the motorcycle simply because he may have an accident. If believes he won’t have an accident then it’s his personal decision. The government has no right to force him to wear a protective helmet.

Sometimes liberty remains a fuzzy concept under Mill’s theory. Loitering is a fuzzy example. Mill says that “Idleness…cannot without tyranny be made a subject of legal punishment.” Many places have loitering rules or laws. Would Mill approve of loitering if women felt threatened by gangs of men hanging out on street corners with no apparent purpose? It comes down to this: which is more important, my liberty to hang out on street corners or a woman’s liberty to walk about downtown without feeling threatened? How does Mill’s theory of liberty decide this issue?

In some areas of modern life Mill’s theory will be perfectly clear. Mill says that “offences against decency” may be prohibited because they fall within the category of offenses against others. Here he’s in agreement with modern America law. I can legally watch X-rated movies in the privacy of my own home but I can’t legally project them onto the side of a building in downtown Nashville. Society won’t let me. But if we want to retain our civil liberties then there are certain things society is powerless to stop. “Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling…” says Mill because “…society has no business, as society, to decide anything to be wrong which concerns only the individual.” Besides, as a practical matter we may as well tell the wind to stop blowing. Men have been fornicating and gambling for several thousand years now. They won’t stop just because some folks think it’s wrong to fornicate or gamble. Mill accepts these limits on liberty and thinks we should too.



Blogger SMJ said...

Mill is right to limit areas where government can interfere with a private citizen. However, it is, in practice, very difficult to draw that line separating private from public conduct. How are we to judge what kinds of behavior will adversely affect the public? After all, morality is, by its very nature, a public way of defining the sort of values that distinguish good behavior from bad. If we lived alone in a desert, we wouldn't have to worry about offending other people. Of course, ultimately, we all might have to answer to a higher power for the way we live. But, in the meantime, most of us believe that our private affairs are nobody's business but our own. This includes any behavior that does not impinge upon the freedom of others.

But is there really any action that does not affect others? Whenever you live within a community of people, there seems to be almost nothing that does not, in some way, affect everyone around you. The smallest community possible is a marriage between a man and a woman. No man (or woman) can really say that riding a motorcycle without a helmet does not affect anyone else. If you have an accident while on a motorcycle and sustain a serious head injury, chances are you will end up in the morgue or the emergency room. Either way, your spouse will be significantly affected. What about your neighbors? How could they possibly be affected? Well, if your corpse is lying on a public highway, that might affect how other people use the road. Then again, if no one wears a helmet, that means more people will suffer serious or fatal head injuries, which tends to drive up insurance rates for everyone else riding a motorcycle. Should that stop me from risking my life if I so desire? Maybe, maybe not.

Many things in life which we assume to lie solely within the private sphere of influence turn out to have public consequences, whether it pertains to our sexual preferences or our proclivity towards drinking and gambling. Our actions may seem innocent but if they are examined from a larger perspective we see that everything we do occurs within a region governed by social values. Either we agree with those values and act accordingly, or we do not, in which case it may be time to relocate.

As children, we live under the tyranny of our parents who have absolute power over us. The only place where we can feel entirely free is in the privacy of our own room. But even there we can never be sure that our privacy will not be violated. Responsible parents don't allow children to do whatever they please just because they do it in the privacy of their own room. Parents impose their own standards of morality on their children, as they should. Is it fair? That depends on your idea of fairness. No one claims that the family home is a democracy.

Even when we leave our parents and go out into the world on our own, we never enjoy absolute freedom. To do so, we would have to live as hermits miles away from the nearest town. Most of us do not want to live as hermits, but neither do we want the government looking over our shoulder every minute of the day. The best we can hope for is a compromise between what our ego desires and what society demands from us. Mill comes down on the side of individual freedom, but even he realizes that every act of freedom brings a cost. Without morality and law society cannot exist; yet without some measure of freedom, the soul of man cannot prosper.

2/21/2008 1:32 PM  

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