20 May 2006 - Saturday

Mill at 200

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the brilliant John Stuart Mill, the preeminent thinker of liberalism. Chances are, whether you think you agree with Mill or not, you have absorbed some of his political philosophy.

The object of this Essay is to assert one simple principle ... 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 civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
His essay On Liberty (1859), quoted above and below, is remarkable as a defense of individual liberty against even the most democratic of governments. Few thinkers, before or since, have pressed individual autonomy as far as Mill did in this essay. Yet the rule he used to define the limits of freedom is used today by people of many different political perspectives to justify some of their positions.
But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance; for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself. ...

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.

Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.

Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others; the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. [Paragraph breaks added]

I have seen people of all sorts of political backgrounds use Mill's rule selectively to support their own opinions. But I have rarely seen anyone apply it consistently. (Mill himself had trouble.) There is always some point at which we find others' conduct so disgusting that we cannot bear to let the conduct continue, however little it interferes directly with our own freedom. And of course we can argue forever about indirect consequences, which are a perfectly real danger; very few individual choices are entirely without involuntary effect on other individuals. We can argue about how much harm is done by problems like inequality or broken families or secondhand smoke.

But as the basic test of a state interest, "Does that action harm other people, or just that one idiot?" is a fundamental part of the way most of us, whether we consider ourselves conservative or liberal or something else, talk about government.

This page has a long list of links to online John Stuart Mill texts, including The Subjection of Women, a plea for gender equality. Mill seems to have collaborated with his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, on some of his writing.

By the way, last year, On Liberty nearly made Human Events' list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries." It came in at number 14.

Update: The incomparable Brandon also has a birthday post; he provides links to two newspaper articles printed for the occasion. Particularly worth noting is the OpinionJournal article, in which Roger Scruton explains why he finds Mill's work badly flawed.

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