Notes on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty

1) Introduction: Mill's primary work on rights is On Liberty, which was published in England in 1859. John Stuart Mill was the student of his father James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, who raised him to defend the theory of Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill was a child prodigy and a genius of historical magnitude. He began reading Greek at the age of three, and Latin at the age of eight - he went on to published important work in a wide range of philosophy, economics, and some of the earliest feminist theory.

2) Overview: a) Not a social contract theory: Mill's theory is not a social contract theory, and he has no hypothesis about the state of nature or natural rights. Rather, Mill states that his theory of rights is justified by his moral theory, utilitarianism. However, it is not necessary to understand utilitarianism in order to understand his theory of rights. Because of this, I will delay most discussion of the connection between the two theories until the end of this section.

b) Basics of the theory: Mill's argues that a just state will provide a strong assurance of negative rights to all of its citizens, and will interfere as little as possible in the daily lives of its citizens. The argument begins with a recognition that there is a danger in a democratic government (one that was mentioned as an objection to Locke). The danger is that, since decisions are made by the principle of majority rule, the majority (or simply the most vocal group) will choose to oppress some minority group.

For example, when segregation existed in the middle of this century in the US, the black people were being oppressed by the majority of voters which were white; and there were even parts of the US in the 1950's where black people were in the majority, but where the white minority was more vocal and powerful so that the blacks were still oppressed. Mill's theory begins with a recognition that even with democracy there is a reasonable fear of a tyranny, the tyranny of the majority over a minority.

To have a just and moral society, there must be safeguards against this potential threat, and Mill's theory is designed to protect against this threat. 3) Details of the theory a) Tyranny of the majority (& paternalism): A tyranny of the majority typically arises when the majority finds some feature of a minority objectionable and the majority decides to use their political power to restrict the minority in some way. For example, you can imagine that the majority of some society felt that people of a certain caste (such as the untouchables of India) were distasteful, and so restricted them by law to certain jobs.

Another way in which it may develop is when a majority finds some practice of a minority to be dangerous or harmful to those who practice it, and so they pass laws to ban those practices. For example, the majority of people in the US are heterosexuals, and many of this majority believe that homosexuality is a sin, and is harmful (at least morally) to those who practice it. So the majority has in many cases made homosexual sex illegal, which the majority may claim to be better for the homosexuals as well. This is called being paternalistic.

Another example of paternalism would be if a town banned bungee jumping from a local bridge because it was concerned that those jumping would be hurt. (The classic modern example of paternalistic legislation is seat belt laws, though it is unclear whether this involves a tyranny of the majority. I also don't mean to imply that this is the best example to use when arguing Mill, it is probably quite a bad example because many people are sympathetic to seat belt laws. ) b) The Harm Principle: This is the central tenant of Mill's political theory.

Why a principle is needed: Mill's theory begins with the observation that a tyranny of the majority is a dangerous and bad thing that must be guarded against. Merely having a democracy is no protection against this danger, so some other measures must be taken. What is needed is a means of keeping the government from legislating in an oppressive manner against minorities, while allowing government enough power to provide the benefits of civil society (e. g. , protection from crime, protection from external attack, enforcement of contracts, etc. ). What is needed is a principle that restricts government.

Mill points out that there are two types of actions that a person can take. First, there are actions which involve a harm to people other than the agent (of the action), and second, there are those actions which do not involve harm to other people. Mill contends that it is obvious that the government must be able to legislate concerning actions which do cause harm to others in order to maintain the existence of a civil society, but that it is certainly not necessary for the survival of civil society to pass laws regarding actions which do not involve harm to others.

Further, Mill claims that there is good reason to believe that it is beneficial to society for the government to have a strict policy of never passing laws which restrict actions which do not involve harm to others. Brief statement of the Harm Principle: Mill formulates what is called the Harm Principle, which goes like this: 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. Or, in other words:

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. (Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 1) Good quote elaborating on the Harm Principle: Mill writes: His own good, either physical or moral, is not 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 opinion 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 anyone 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. (Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 1) Implications of the Harm Principle: This principle is the primary source of Mill's theory of rights. That is to say, according to Mill, the reason that we have the rights that we do is because they are derived from the harm principle, which is justified by utilitarianism. It turns out that according to Mill we have a right to do anything at all that does not involve harm to others.

This winds up allowing us to have a vast amount of negative rights, which tends to limit the amount of positive rights that can be granted. What rights we should have: If you give people strong negative rights that usually includes the right not to be deprived of their money. Positive rights require the mandatory allocation of resources (usually money) to some people, and this money must come from somewhere (i. e. , it must come from other citizens, usually in the form of taxes).

But if those citizens have the negative right to their money, then you cannot take their money away to ensure other people their positive rights, so you cannot grant those positive rights in the first place. Of course, the government will be allowed to take money from citizen to provide the basic services of society such as civil protection, national defense, and other essential services - and the government will be allowed to compel people to do other jobs necessary in civil society (e. g. , jury duty, military service).

This is justified, not because there was any tacit consent by the citizens to give up their negative rights, but instead simply because such sacrifices are necessary for the very existence of civil society. Remember, according to Mill's theory of rights, people don't have any rights aside from those granted by society, so people never give up their right to the money taken in taxes, they never had the right to it in the first place. Postponing two questions: There are two questions that I am going to explicitly put to the side temporarily.

They are: 1) What does it mean to say that something involves a harm to others? (i. e. , how much do I have to harm them for it to count? ) [See part 7 below]; and, 2) Why shouldn't we allow government to keep people from harming themselves? [See part 6 below] I will deal with these issue below. 4) Exceptions to the Harm Principle: Mill does have some exceptions to the harm principle which help to make it a reasonable and plausible principle. It is clear that Mill would allow for all of these exceptions, and his theory should be understood as including them.

I state them here for two reasons, so that you will have a greater understanding of Mill's theory, and so that no one can try to object to Mill by raising a counter-example that falls under one of these exceptions. a) Children and the mentally underdeveloped:

The harm principle is not intended to apply to children (the ages included under the term "child" are not clearly defined, nor are they of particular interest philosophically or in debate) nor does the principle apply to others who require substantial care (e. g. , the elderly, the mentally ill, or anyone whom we have objective evidence to believe is incapable of rational judgment). Children are the primary case, and Mill maintains that we are justified in compelling children in paternalistic ways. b) Necessary social duties: A second exception is that a government may compel its citizens to perform certain tasks that are essential to the preservation of itself as an ordered society.

For example, the government must be allowed to draft people for the common defense of the nation, and must be allowed to compel people to testify in court - since both of these are essential to social well-being. c) Intervention in emergencies where the agent is ignorant: The third exception is that an individual may forcibly intervene and prevent some action if it is evident that the agent does not know the consequences of her action and there is not time to inform her of those consequences and allow her to make a free choice.

For example, if I am talking to a friend while waiting for an elevator and then I begin to walk when the doors open, even though there is no elevator in the shaft, then you should feel free to use physical force to prevent my walking into the shaft and falling to my death. I suppose that if there were time it would be best for you to simply ask me if I wanted to walk into the empty shaft and if I knew that this would surely cause my death, this would allow me to make my own decision and to choose to continue if I really wanted to.

d) Consenting adults: Lastly, if two (or more) people are engaging in an activity to which they both consent, then the activity should not be considered as involving harm to others even if the people are causing harm to each other. For example, if you and I agree to a boxing match, then the government should not forbid it (assuming that we are not harming anyone who is not consenting), even though we are doing harm to each other.

5) Freedom of Speech, Press, Expression, and Thought: Mill has an entire chapter in On Liberty on this topic, which is excellent. Time and energy prohibit me from providing a synopsis at this time. I will, however, provide the following brilliant quote from the second chapter of On Liberty. If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be in silencing mankind.