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On Liberty

John Stuart Mill

Chapter 5, Applications

Chapter 4, Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual

Study Questions

Summary

In the final chapter of On Liberty, Mills tries to clarify his general argument. He writes that his essay can be broken down into two basic principles. First, people are not accountable to society for actions that only concern themselves. The only means society has to express disapproval of such actions is through "advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good." Secondly, the individual is accountable for actions that hurt others, and society can punish a person socially or legally as is deemed necessary for such actions. Mill observes, though, that sometimes when an action causes harm to others, such as when a person succeeds in a competitive job market, the general social good is positive, and there is no right to punish people for the harm caused. Similarly, free trade is allowed because of its socially beneficial effects.

In the rest of the chapter Mill looks at particular examples, and explains how his argument should be properly applied to each one.

Mill first looks at how liberty relates to society's right to guard against crimes and accidents. Mill says that the police must be careful not to restrict things that might only potentially be done for evil, and must respect people's right to potentially harm themselves. For example, a person should be warned about the danger of crossing an unstable bridge, but should not be forcibly prevented from crossing if he understands the risks. In the case of a poison that could be potentially used for a crime, there should be regulations such as taking down the name and address of the purchaser, but the poison should not be banned. Mill also observes that the right to prevent crimes makes it legitimate to limit conduct in the interest of prevention. For example, a person who becomes violent when drunk could be compelled not to drink. He also mentions that public violations of "decency" are an affront to others, and can therefore be restricted.

Mill then turns to the issue of whether people should be free to "counsel or instigate" others to act in a particular way. He says that they should, because of the importance of exchanging opinions. A more complicated situation is when someone profits from acting against the public good, such as in owning a gambling house. On the one hand, society does not have the right to keep a person from trying to persuade people to do something bad. On the other hand, Mill does not think it unreasonable for society to say that people should not be allowed to benefit from prompting others to make bad decisions. Rather, a bad decision should reflect only the individual's will. Mill acknowledges that persuading people to act badly for profit is an evil, and accepts that society could impose restrictions on such people. Another issue is whether the state should discourage vices through powers like taxation. Mill rejects this, saying that it represents a punishment. Since it is not acceptable to ban vices it is not acceptable to punish people for them either.

Mill addresses the question of whether people should be held to agreements that cause themselves harm, such as selling oneself into slavery. Mill says that a person should not be held to this agreement, because he is thereby permanently giving up his freedom, and thereby undermining the very significance of freedom. However, Mill does recognize that since agreements often create expectations and obligations, these factors must be taken into account in determining whether it is acceptable to nullify a particular agreement.

Mill also complains that certain actions affecting other people are currently seen as being protected by a right to liberty. In particular, Mill writes about the case of "family relations." In these cases actions can harm other people, and it is in the State's authority to make sure such harms do not occur. For example, the State should be allowed to legislate compulsory education for children (while allowing for different modes of education), regardless of the desires of the parent. To leave children uneducated is a crime against society and the child, and the state should be able to test that children have general knowledge of facts. Mill also contends that the State should be allowed to restrict marriage to those people capable of supporting a family, given the dangers of over-population and the duty to give children a chance at a normal existence.

Finally, Mill examines the issue of whether the government should intervene to help people, instead of letting them do things for themselves. This is related to his discussion of government action, but does not directly deal with the issue of liberty. Mill gives three objections to such interference. First, the person most qualified to perform an action is usually the person with a direct interest in it. Second, it is useful that people do things themselves for their personal development. Third, it is bad to add to the government's power. A powerful bureaucracy will stifle reform as a means to preserve its own interests, and thus goes against the interests of free people. Drawing the line where big government becomes dangerous is one of the most important political questions. Mill's answer is to decentralize power as much as possible, but to centralize the dissemination of information. He warns about the evils of giving the state so much power that it stifles human development, because ultimately this lack of development will stifle the state itself.

Commentary

This chapter is significant because it provides a much clearer sense of what kinds of actions Mill believes should be respected by society. Most of his examples deal with legal requirements and the role of the state. Why might he have chosen to focus on government action in this chapter? In particular, think about how this approach might work as a rhetorical strategy. It is important to remember, however, that in general Mill does not limit compulsion to state activities. It is likely that in most of his examples he would also say public judgment would be inappropriate.

In general, Mill's applications seem to reinforce the view of liberty of action previously developed. Some examples, however, may be surprising. For example, Mill's statement that gambling houses can be limited reflects an imposition of social values on the business activities of others. Given his argument about the fallibility of social values, Mill's willingness to restrict "bad" businesses might appear inconsistent. In thinking about the significance of such examples, it may be useful to think about two ways of interpreting them. First, such examples might show a depth of Mill's theory that was not previously apparent. Indeed, this is why Mill provides a chapter on applications of his theory. In fact, this example does reinforce the point that while society must not punish behavior, it does not have to actively promote vices. A second interpretation of difficult examples is that Mill himself failed to appreciate the full significance of his theory. It is possible that Mill simply did not see the full logical implications of his previous discussion. When looking at his examples, think about which category Mill falls in to.

Another interesting point is Mill's insistence that parents do not have full ownership over the lives of their children. The good of society requires certain behavior on the part of parents and potential parents, and society is fully justified in compelling that behavior. In thinking about Mill's argument, consider whether he gives an adequate account of the rights that parents have to raise their children as they see fit.

Finally, Mill ends with a discussion about the importance of people having the freedom to develop their capability to make choices. Mill uses the example of a government that is trying to help people make the right decision through institutionalized means. But this help, according to Mill, is no beneficial to either the individual or to society. Mill adheres to his principal that it is only through dissent, only through disagreement and conflict of ideas, that society can be bettered and an individual can gain the perspective to help himself. The freedom that Mill wants for the individual is a freedom to make mistakes, to assert falsehood. Mill is committed to the idea of progress, his theory of the hierarchy of civilization demonstrates his belief that man can improve himself. But Mill sees this progress as only able to emerge from an open culture, one free from conformity; the utility Mill promotes is not one of comfort in the present, it is one designed to create the ultimate good in the future, human progress.

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Mill & Truth

by JustMeandMyBalls, December 06, 2013

In the last paragraph of the commentary there is a discussion of Mill's belief in the existence of truth. It is my opinion that the way this last paragraph was written does not adequately represent Mill's understanding of truth. The commentator confuses moral truth and utilitarian truth. The commentary assumes truth on the basis of simple right or wrong, but Mill was a utilitarian. I believe Mill's understanding of truth is one where the 'trueness' of an idea is weighed by its ability to serve the greater good. (The effectual utility that th... Read more

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