On Liberty
by John Stuart Mill

Review by Edward Tanguay
August 3, 1997

There is hardly a matter of public concern that does not, sooner or later, raise the issue of liberty; not casually, peripherally, as one of a number of considerations to be taken into account, but as the basic and decisive consideration.

Mill is of the opinion that individual liberty should not be suppressed, but instead, encouraged. In the age when John Stuart Mill lived, 19th century England, individual liberty was suspect for fear that private individuals would transgress the morality and customs of the time. To be different than the norm was considered sinful or politically dangerous. Mill wanted to change this:

But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Mill believed that "individuality is the same thing with development." Yet many factors in society worked to suppress it. Christian morality is named as one of the supressors of individual liberty:

Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; innocence rather than nobleness; abstinence from evil rather than energetic pursuit of good; in its precepts (as has been well said) 'thou shalt not' predominates unduly over 'thou shalt'.

Today in most Western countries, we generally take the tenets of Mill to be obvious, but imagine the following statement in a pre-Darwinist world, slavery still legal in America, and Christianity, Victorian morality, and political expansion were the order of the day:

It also appears so to me, but I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilized.

The greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of custom is complete.

He directly objects to government interference of private actions on three grounds:

1. Speaking generally, there is no one so fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it.

2. Inidviduals should do the thing as a mode of strengthening their active faculties.

3. We should avoid the great evil of adding unnecessarily to the government's power.

However, Mill was not a moral relativist. His purpose was to ensure that society be neutral in respect to private acts of immorality. A private individual may decide an issue for himself and make a bad decision, but it was important that it was his decision and not the governments:

. . . nor is it only persons of decided mental superiority who have a just claim to carry on their lives in their own way. There is no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or some small number of patterns. If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode.

But Mill's moral philosophy does not give a free ticket for someone to do anything he wants, for Mill puts the qualification on his defense of personal liberty that one does not cause harm to others. "This protection of individual's liberty is the only way to keep our conception of truth active and moving." Mill further makes the necessary distinction of what it means to "cause harm to others." An action that someone performs may cause physical harm, mental harm, social harm, etc. A fundamental Christian may be believe that homosexuals actually cause harm to others and society simply by living out their lifestyle. Mills hints that the right of a person to have his own opinion is the same right to have his own piece of property:

There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct to which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings . . . But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it, no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse and the desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person's taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse.

But we all know it gets stickier than this. Mills opened a big can of worms in the middle of the 19th century by stating that everyone has a right to his own personal liberty. You have to chuckle at one of the reviews of his work back then:

. . . beards are being flaunted, "unprotected females" are stalking across Europe, tobacco is breaking through the "decorum of heavy respectability," and in dozens of other ways eccentricity is becoming so commonplace it is "ceasing to be eccentric"

Today, one hundred and fifty years later we stand before the global outbreak of a new medium which places hardcore pornography and bomb recipes at your child's keyboard in his bedroom, all in the name of personal liberty. What Mill started, we cannot stop. It even seems that the Supreme Court Justices had read their Mill before deciding on the CDA. It is hard for a respectable western government or court to make a law which transgresses personal liberty in any way. An article came over Poincast the other day about how child pornographers are now using computer graphic technology to create composite pictures of naked children from legal pictures of naked adults. This process neither involves nor harms any children in any way. Should these people be allowed to do this? Does it harm anybody else if they produce these pictures on their computers at home and pass around the pictures among themselves? Because of Mill, it is hard to demand that we have a right to stop them. These are our "undecorous tobacco users" of today. If we accept Mill, we have to live with them.

All I know is I wouldn't want to be a Supreme Court Justice in the 21st Century.

Edward Tanguay

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