Maarten Maartensz

Text Philosophy - Mill - On Liberty - Chapter IV


Notes to: CHAPTER IV

Note on these notes

These notes are from 2006, based on notes in my paper copy of "On Liberty" that date from 1977.

The format is that I quote the text of Mill that I comment in blue, and write my own notes in black, with a "Back" at the end of every note that moves the reader back - provided he or she is on line, or has downloaded the relevant files in similar directories,or uses a CD of my site - to the beginning of the quotation the note is concerned with. (See also the TOC.)

The result is that my quotations + my notes take more space than Mill's original text, but one advantage of the procedure I use is that the reader can read my quotations + my notes independently from the text, yet be moved thence - provisos as above - with a single click.

[1] "WHAT, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?"

These are the proper questions to pose, though Mill has dealt with them repeatedly in earlier chapters, both for specific subjects (chapter II) and in general (chapters I and III).    Back.

[2] "Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society."

Yes, but there are two things to be noted here.

First, there are many who do not believe that "the individual" has or should have any special rights or personal sphere in which he may and can do what he pleases without harming the interests of others.

Of this I will come to speak below.

Second, there is the difficulty - that rose repeatedly before in my notes - that those who agree with Mill that there both is and there should be some sphere in which individuals are free to act as they please, if this does not harm others, are in a minority, and have been in a minority in any society, including modern Western democracies.

I think it should be admitted that there is a difficulty here, and indeed this chapter is concerned with it, and I think it should be remarked here that Mill in the quoted passage once more somewhat restates his position by speaking explicitly of what "chiefly" concerns the interests of the individual, and of what "chiefly" concerns the interests of the society.

Of this I will also come to speak below, but I note here that Mill in fact has now spoken in three distinct ways of his fundamental principle "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", namely - to consider only individual persons and not society, for which the same threefold distinction holds - (1) of the individual (2) of the interests of the individual and (3) of what belongs chiefly to the interests of the individual.    Back.

[3] "Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest."

Locke, and many others since, have claimed that society is "founded on a contract", and indeed that is simply factually false, at least for anyone born into society.

But it is true society exists because people have agreed to cooperate and to further some shared ends, including notably mutual protection against the misdeeds of others, and that no society is possible at all without some rules of conduct that the great majority mostly respects at least in the sense of behaving according to these rules.    Back.

[4] "This conduct consists, first, in not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights; and secondly, in each person's bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labors and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation. These conditions society is justified in enforcing, at all costs to those who endeavor to withhold fulfilment."

In brief, members of a society should not injure the rights of other members of the society, and should help to defend the society and its members, and contribute to its existence.

This is fair enough but, like Mill's own formulation, it is not very clear in its import, and one important reason is that Mill has not clarified the sense(s) in which he uses the term "society". See [11] in chapter I.

Incidentally, here is another version of Mill's great principle that is well worth pondering. It is by Chamfort, cited after "Products of the Perfected Civilization", which is a translation of his "Maximes et Pensées":

"Enjoy and give pleasure, without doing harm to yourself or to anyone else - that I think is the whole of morality."    Back.

[5] "Nor is this all that society may do. The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law. "

H.B. Acton has a note to this passage which reads in part "To 'punish by opinion' appears to mean (..) 'to censure and excommunicate'."

Acton may be right, but excommunication (banishment, throwing someone out of society) seems to me too strong a measure, unless meant metaphorically, in the sense of 'shunned'.

Also, it should be noted here that Mill, by allowing that "The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others (..) without going the length of violating any of their constituted rights." seems in fact to have again somewhat qualified his fundamental principle, at least if what is "hurtful" is what is "harmful".

And indeed one problem is that, while one may agree that one basic principle of action is to refrain from harming others, it is not at all easy to give a definition of "harm" that makes sense, and applies clearly and with little difficulty to most human conduct.    Back.

[6] "As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. "

Note that Mill seems to try to be careful, for on the one hand he allows that "society has jurisdiction over" "any part of a person's conduct [that] affects prejudicially the interests of others", while on the other hand he insists that this means no more, in principle, than that it opens "the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it".

And of course his underlying conviction remains that if "a person's conduct" does not affect "prejudicially the interests of others" then that person's conduct is wholly and solely up to that person, and to no one else.

My main problem here is with what Mill might mean by "jurisdiction" and by "prejudicially", and my guesses are that he means here by "jurisdiction" no more than "has or may have something to say about it to legally constrain that behavior" and by "prejudicially" no more than "harmfully, according to those effected". And thus read, no reference to an existing body of law is necessary or made.    Back.

[7] "But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences."

H.B. Acton has a note to this passage, and specifically to the phrase "or needs not affect them unless they like", which says that "This is the ancestor of the phrase 'consenting adults' of the Wolfenden Report's proposal (later adopted) to remove legal penalties from private adult homosexuality."     Back.

[8] "Instead of any diminution, there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others. But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good, than whips and scourges, either of the literal or the metaphorical sort. "

I don't know to what extent Mill is ironical here, but I find it difficult to believe that, except perhaps for masochists, anybody really aims to "to promote the good of others", if he treats them with "whips and scourges", "of the literal (..) sort". It is clear to me that quite a few people with sadistic impulses - slave-traders, for example - liked to pretend that they only did what was good for those they maltreated.    Back.

[9] "Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations."

This seems to me to be a bit too idealistic. In any case, there should be two restrictions on the behavior that Mill recommends here: First, sometimes others should be left alone, "to do their own thing in their own way", and second, as Mill himself agreed in the previous chapter that the gifts of average people are not great, and their inclinations often not noble, one should not try to move people to do what his beyond their abilities, and indeed usually also not to do what is very difficult for them.    Back.

[10] "But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being, the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else."

Yes, that seems to me to be all reasonable, but even so, the most common feeling of ordinary men and women appears to be that they do and should have an important voice in what other people in their society do with their own lifes. And as chapter III shows, Mill was well aware of this.    Back.

[11] "In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person's own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise. Considerations to aid his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others; but he, himself, is the final judge. All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good."

Indeed, but again the problem is that the "others", especially if they are ordinary people, tend to feel quite differently about "the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good."    Back.

[12] "There is a degree of folly, and a degree of what may be called (though the phrase is not unobjectionable) lowness or depravation of taste, which, though it cannot justify doing harm to the person who manifests it, renders him necessarily and properly a subject of distaste, or, in extreme cases, even of contempt: a person could not have the opposite qualities in due strength without entertaining these feelings.
It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming.

It would be well "if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault", if also they could do this rationally, reasonably and friendly, but unfortunately it is my experience that there are far more stupid and meddlesome busybodies than there are rational and reasonable persons.    Back.

[13] "We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which directly concern only himself..."

Indeed, but again one should be aware of how far these tendencies also may go. Two good examples of this are Jung Chan's "Wild Swans", about Mao's China, and many stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, notably "The scarlet letter", about American 19th Century Puritanism.    Back.

[14] "What I contend for is, that the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavorable judgment of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interests of others in their relations with him. Acts injurious to others require a totally different treatment. "

Here we have yet another fairly clear statement by Mill of his fundamental principle. I reformulate it as a series of claims:

  • There is, for any - sane, adult, human - individual, conduct that only concerns the interests of that individual only, in the sense that it does not harm the health or the property of any other individual.

  • I shall call this conduct private conduct.

  • Other individuals have and should have no right to interfere with the private conduct of any individual.

  • The only thing others may do to influence the private conduct of an individual is to discuss with the individual.

This is far from clear - since definitions of relevant terms are lacking, and the roles of society and the law are not discussed - but it is noteworthy that in actual fact every society leaves some things to the arbitrary choice of its sane and adult members.    Back.

[15] "Encroachment on their rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights; falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them against injury — these are fit objects of moral reprobation, and, in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment. "

I take it that Mill meant by "moral reprobation" verbal criticism and perhaps social sanctions in the form of avoidance, but I am not sure.

In any case, it should be noted that "Encroachment on ... rights", "infliction ... of .. loss or damage", "falsehood or duplicity", "unfair or ungenerous use of advantages" and "selfish abstinence" are in many ways very common, and perhaps the modes of behaviour ordinary people find quite moral when done to humans who are not members of their own group, and especially when this behaviour serves the interests of oneself or one's own group.

And because this is so something like the law is needed in any society which is complex enough to have groups that not all members of the society belong to, for any human group and any human being tends to consider and define as 'good' what serves its interests.    Back.

[16] "And not only these acts, but the dispositions which lead to them, are properly immoral, and fit subjects of disapprobation which may rise to abhorrence. Cruelty of disposition; malice and ill-nature; that most anti-social and odious of all passions, envy; dissimulation and insincerity, irascibility on insufficient cause, and resentment disproportioned to the provocation; the love of domineering over others; the desire to engross more than one's share of advantages (the πλεονεξία of the Greeks); the pride which derives gratification from the abasement of others; the egotism which thinks self and its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubtful questions in his own favor; — these are moral vices, and constitute a bad and odious moral character..."

Yes indeed, and one should realize that these faults of character are very normal in men without strong character (see [48] in Chapter III), and that men without strong character are far more frequent than men with a strong character.

Also, I do not believe that men and women have much to say about the strength of their character, since this seems mostly to depend on one's native gifts and early education (and more on the former than on the latter).    Back.

[17] "What are called duties to ourselves are not socially obligatory, unless circumstances render them at the same time duties to others. The term duty to oneself, when it means anything more than prudence, means self-respect or self-development; and for none of these is any one accountable to his fellow-creatures, because for none of them is it for the good of mankind that he be held accountable to them."

Ordinary people tend to incline quite strongly to inflict their own moral norms on everybody in their society they can, and indeed tend to justify this by the claims that this is good and in the - "real" - interest of those they desire to correct.

Mill wanted none of this, and I agree, though it should be pointed out also that there are cases that are somewhat difficult to judge, such as of people who smell because they don't like to wash. The problems this may pose are taken up in the text and selections that follow.    Back.

[18] "The distinction between the loss of consideration which a person may rightly incur by defect of prudence or of personal dignity, and the reprobation which is due to him for an offence against the rights of others, is not a merely nominal distinction. It makes a vast difference both in our feelings and in our conduct towards him, whether he displeases us in things in which we think we have a right to control him, or in things in which we know that we have not. "

Yes, but Mill here presupposes his own standards, as expounded in "On Liberty", which are ideals most do not have, and in fact it seems to me as if the great majority of men have felt it a matter of course to interfere in anything they feel a strong interest in, and indeed also not to do anything wherever they lack a personal interest, even if their lack of care may result in much harm for others.    Back.

[19] "The distinction here pointed out between the part of a person's life which concerns only himself, and that which concerns others, many persons will refuse to admit. How (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them."

Here Mill raises a very fundamental issue that I have discussed several times, namely whether - in my terminology of [14] - there is any place for private conduct; whether it is not always arguable about anything any person may do or refrain from doing that this materially effects the rights, chances, and possibilities of others always.    Back.

[20] "If gambling, or drunkenness, or incontinence, or idleness, or uncleanliness, are as injurious to happiness, and as great a hindrance to improvement, as many or most of the acts prohibited by law, why (it may be asked) should not law, so far as is consistent with practicability and social convenience, endeavor to repress these also?"

Here Mill's own answer is strictly along the lines: If he wants to gamble, drink, be incontinent, idle or unclean, then let him be, for he only harms himself.

Here there are three objections to consider, which I shall first state and then briefly treat.

First, he may in fact not harm only himself, but also others, such as a wife or children.

Second, even if he does not, society expects and demands for its success that everybody actively tries to make the most of himself, and all loose where one individual does not do all he could or should for society's benefit.

Third, modern states, for various reasons, but usually, it is claimed, "for the interests of those concerned", interfere in many things people may do in order to make them do these things not at all, or only in certain ways.

The first difficulty, that e.g. a person's drunkenness may not only harm himself but also others, such as his dependents, is difficult to solve in principle and in general terms, since much depends on what one precisely understands by "harm".

This is a problem for Mill's general position, firstly because he has not clearly defined "harm", and secondly because most people feel themselves justified in interfering in many things, often merely because they are interested to do so, and find that sufficient justification.

The second objection is easier to dispose of on Mill's principles, and this is of some importance. I do it as follows: Whereas it is much to be wished that every individual tries to develop his talents as much as possible, and uses these for the benefits of both himself and the rest of society, it cannot be made mandatory to make the most of oneself "for the sake of society", because - and here comes the important point - individuals do not exist for society's sake, but society exists to help individuals.

There are many, especially those of strong religious or political feelings, who may disagree, but indeed Mill would be right if he said to them that to try to force other individuals to behave according to one's own principles, is to act as if oneself is infallible and morally justified to decide how another persons life is to be directed. (And while many would like to meddle with the lifes of others, few want that others do this to them. Now see [30])

The third objection, the intrusiveness of the state in many things that people might claim is their own concern, such as relate to drinking, or smoking, or drugs, or dress, or cleanliness, is also an issue that cannot be solved in a small compass, and indeed Mill himself wrote a whole book about it, namely "Considerations on Representative Government". I merely make two general observations here.

Firstly, to the extent that Mill's arguments about liberty hold, they also hold with regard to the state and the church, and indeed the state and the church are the two human organizations that have destroyed more individual liberties, and more human lifes, than any other human organizations, and individuals should be protected from this, and especially from being unconditionally in the power of such organizations.

Secondly, modern states have much to do, and much more power to do this, both because of science and technology, and because modern states have more civil servants in their command, than in Mil's time. This makes the modern states more dangerous than they were in earlier times, when they also were dangerous, but it must be admitted that state interference in some cases is justified and moral. Even so, it must be stressed that also in the cases were such interference is or might be justified, state interference is rarely subtle, often crude, often misdirected, and also often, as with interference with the uses of drink and drugs, not very successful.    Back.

[21] "I fully admit that the mischief which a person does to himself, may seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those nearly connected with him, and in a minor degree, society at large. When, by conduct of this sort, a person is led to violate a distinct and assignable obligation to any other person or persons, the case is taken out of the self-regarding class, and becomes amenable to moral disapprobation in the proper sense of the term. "

This is in accordance with Mill's basic principle, but the problem is here the same as elsewhere: There will be wide divergences about what is "a distinct and assignable obligation to any other person or persons", and most ordinary persons will incline to believe that anything that they believe might harm their interests as they see them is a proper concern of them, and in principle a good reason to correct the behaviour or opinions of others in that respect.    Back.

[22] "Whoever fails in the consideration generally due to the interests and feelings of others, not being compelled by some more imperative duty, or justified by allowable self-preference, is a subject of moral disapprobation for that failure, but not for the cause of it, nor for the errors, merely personal to himself, which may have remotely led to it. In like manner, when a person disables himself, by conduct purely self-regarding, from the performance of some definite duty incumbent on him to the public, he is guilty of a social offence."

Here again enter the difficulties touched last upon in the previous note. Part of these may be indicated by noting that there are wide differences about what is "generally due to the interests and feelings of others", and that ordinary people seem to hold in practice that what touches their interests or feelings is, thereby and therefore, a fit subject for their moral censure or reward.    Back. 

[23] "Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law."

Indeed, and in verbal accordance with both Mill's general principle and the ordinary practices of the law, but again with the difficulties mentioned earlier: What is "a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public" is often not at all clear, and also subject to many interests.    Back.

[24] "But with regard to the merely contingent or, as it may be called, constructive injury which a person causes to society, by conduct which neither violates any specific duty to the public, nor occasions perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself; the inconvenience is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom. "

I agree in principle, and note the "perceptible hurt", which is a good and needed addition, were it only because many feel that their mere feeling of disgust or disapproval, or their Church's teachings against it, are sufficient justification for their intereference in another's life.

But it should be admitted it is not at all easy to judge all manner of cases that might arise. One simple example is that of noise: What if your neighbours love to listen to loud music you detest? They will be inclined, if they are ordinary folks, to do as they please, and tell you that you can go live elsewhere if you don't like to hear them, "for the sake of the greater good of human freedom" and especially their personal freedom to hear their music if they please, and anyway you have no right to protest, because there is no "perceptible hurt" at all, and in fact you should be pleased by their choice of music.    Back.

[25] "But I cannot consent to argue the point as if society had no means of bringing its weaker members up to its ordinary standard of rational conduct, except waiting till they do something irrational, and then punishing them, legally or morally, for it. Society has had absolute power over them during all the early portion of their existence: it has had the whole period of childhood and nonage in which to try whether it could make them capable of rational conduct in life. The existing generation is master both of the training and the entire circumstances of the generation to come; it cannot indeed make them perfectly wise and good, because it is itself so lamentably deficient in goodness and wisdom; and its best efforts are not always, in individual cases, its most successful ones; but it is perfectly well able to make the rising generation, as a whole, as good as, and a little better than, itself."

Well, yes - but with some qualification, that mainly has to do with "The existing generation (..) is itself so lamentably deficient in goodness and wisdom", with which I agree, whatever the generation. But if that is the case, then how can one be sure that this same generation, whichever it is "is perfectly well able to make the rising generation, as a whole, as good as, and a little better than, itself"?

And note that my skepticism here not only has to do with my opinion about the gifts of most, with which I concur with Mill, but also with the quite real possibility that a person may well find himself born under a religious or political dictatorship, in which case there is little realistic chance of improving "the rising generation".    Back.

[26] "If society lets any considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to blame for the consequences. "

Perhaps, but "society" is an abstraction, and besides, many of the ills the present generation does only the next generations will feel, when the present generation is dead.     Back.

[27] "Armed not only with all the powers of education, but with the ascendency which the authority of a received opinion always exercises over the minds who are least fitted to judge for themselves; and aided by the natural penalties which cannot be prevented from falling on those who incur the distaste or the contempt of those who know them; let not society pretend that it needs, besides all this, the power to issue commands and enforce obedience in the personal concerns of individuals, in which, on all principles of justice and policy, the decision ought to rest with those who are to abide the consequences."

Yes, but again their easily arise difficulties. One is drug abuse. The problem quite often comes to this: Someone starts using drugs, gets addicted, destroys his health, and then becomes a social problem because "society" does not care to let him die like a beast, or does not wish to do nothing because they fear the acts of desperate drugs-addicts.

Thus, one serious problem for Mill's principle of liberty is that while one may want to leave matters to "those who are to abide the consequences", in some cases, notably that of drug abuse, is that the consequences of quite a few acts only become clear in time, and in such a way that what seemed to the actors to be solely their own concern becomes a social problem because the actors no longer are capable of bearing "the consequences" of their choices and acts.    Back.

[28] "With respect to what is said of the necessity of protecting society from the bad example set to others by the vicious or the self-indulgent; it is true that bad example may have a pernicious effect, especially the example of doing wrong to others with impunity to the wrong-doer. But we are now speaking of conduct which, while it does no wrong to others, is supposed to do great harm to the agent himself: and I do not see how those who believe this, can think otherwise than that the example, on the whole, must be more salutary than hurtful, since, if it displays the misconduct, it displays also the painful or degrading consequences which, if the conduct is justly censured, must be supposed to be in all or most cases attendant on it."

See the previous note. Also, it should be added that most people are not very intelligent nor very informed, and that most follow fashions and leaders.

But the main problem I see here for Mill's principle of liberty is that there are a number of acts and behaviours a person would abstain from if he were not pressurized or if he did not follow fashions or if he were more intelligent or  were better informed or had a stronger character, but which are such as to destroy many of a person's capacities to undo the consequences himself, so that he becomes, e.g. as an addict or a drunkard, a serious liability to "society", because he committed acts which he and others might claim are properly part of his personal liberty.    Back.

[29] "But the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place. On questions of social morality, of duty to others, the opinion of the public, that is, of an overruling majority, though often wrong, is likely to be still oftener right; because on such questions they are only required to judge of their own interests; of the manner in which some mode of conduct, if allowed to be practised, would affect themselves. But the opinion of a similar majority, imposed as a law on the minority, on questions of self-regarding conduct, is quite as likely to be wrong as right; for in these cases public opinion means, at the best, some people's opinion of what is good or bad for other people; while very often it does not even mean that; the public, with the most perfect indifference, passing over the pleasure or convenience of those whose conduct they censure, and considering only their own preference. "

I quite agree, but the problem is that "the public" tends to be "the democratic majority" - and groups acting as "the public" tend to present themselves as speaking for the ("silent") majority, even if they are not really doing so.

This is a serious problem for someone defending a position like Mill's, for what it amounts to is often in fact an appeal based on reason, to a majority not well-equipped to reason, to leave the minorities and individuals that stand out amongst them, alone and free to live as they please, whenever they don't clearly harm others.

In fact, majorities often tend to act as if anybody who differs from the average of the majority thereby offends it - as if totalitarianism of a Maoistic kind is quite ordinary among human beings, and indeed is the ordinary version of what morality is: Be like us, or be punished. If in Rome, act as the Romans do; if amongst cannibals, act as the cannibals do; in all things act, and think, and feel, as the majority does, for this is the law and principle of what the majority think is Good.    Back.

[30] "There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. "

Precisely, and here lie many problems, also because "a religious bigot" very seldom is capable of recognizing himself as such, and instead tends to see himself as a good and noble man doing the Lord's ordained holy work.

Hence we need a principle here to the following effect: Whatever one cannot prove to the satisfaction of most intelligent and learned men, one certainly has no right to enforce upon others.

And this holds for all religious beliefs, all political ideologies, all health fads, all superstitions, and many of the ideas and values many ordinary people sincerely believe and practise.    Back.

[31] "And a person's taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse. It is easy for any one to imagine an ideal public, which leaves the freedom and choice of individuals in all uncertain matters undisturbed, and only requires them to abstain from modes of conduct which universal experience has condemned. But where has there been seen a public which set any such limit to its censorship? or when does the public trouble itself about universal experience. In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom thinking of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from itself; and this standard of judgment, thinly disguised, is held up to mankind as the dictate of religion and philosophy, by nine tenths of all moralists and speculative writers. These teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so. They tell us to search in our own minds and hearts for laws of conduct binding on ourselves and on all others. What can the poor public do but apply these instructions, and make their own personal feelings of good and evil, if they are tolerably unanimous in them, obligatory on all the world?"

The answer to Mill's concluding question here is in the previous note.    Back.

[32] "And it is not difficult to show, by abundant instances, that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities."

Precisely: The majority of mankind is much inclined to totalitarianism, and to allow freedom only if it accords with what they approve and know already.    Back.

[33] "As a first instance, consider the antipathies which men cherish on no better grounds than that persons whose religious opinions are different from theirs, do not practise their religious observances, especially their religious abstinences."

At present - I am writing in 2006 - this has become again very common, with spokespersons for "religious communities" of many kinds who demand "respect" for their practices and beliefs, as if it should be a matter of course to respect the wishful thinking and quaint uses of anyone, if only he claims that his pet superstitions are "religion" or "faith", and, therefore and thereby, beyond the pale of rational criticism, and worthy of respect simply because someone desires to believe something.

This is delusional if it is not fraudulent, but since the religious people who perpetrate this scam are usually quite capable of seeing that people of a different religious belief than they have, may well be fraudulent, it seems fair to hold this scam is one of the common fraudulent ploys religious people try and have tried through the centuries to impose on others.

In any case, the brief answer here to all faiths and all religions is that there is no merit whatsoever, and therefore no reason for any respect, in wishful thinking, and that all faiths and all religions are variants of wishful thinking, and based upon it, and have no proofs nor evidence for their teachings that is of more than very doubtful credibility for anyone not already deluded by that particular superstition inspired by that specific kind of wishful thinking and ignorance.    Back.

[34] "Yet, if mankind are justified in interfering with each other's liberty in things which do not concern the interests of others, on what principle is it possible consistently to exclude these cases? or who can blame people for desiring to suppress what they regard as a scandal in the sight of God and man?"

This is a good question, that touches upon much of Mill's basic arguments for his general principle. I have to remarks here, apart from a reference to [30] and [38].

First, generally people interfere "with each other's liberty" on the pretext or in the belief that they do so in "the interests of others", and indeed often in the belief that the others have a moral duty to behave, think and feel as they are told to.

Second, there is a "principle" that sometimes goes quite far in argueing against religious or political impositions, force, threats etc.: In so far as these depend on beliefs that are not already encoded in existing laws, they cannot be based on law, and cannot be compulsive.    Back.

[35] "No stronger case can be shown for prohibiting anything which is regarded as a personal immorality, than is made out for suppressing these practices in the eyes of those who regard them as impieties; and unless we are willing to adopt the logic of persecutors, and to say that we may persecute others because we are right, and that they must not persecute us because they are wrong, we must beware of admitting a principle of which we should resent as a gross injustice the application to ourselves."

The basic problem is, of course, that most who desire to prosecute others for their opinions or behavior "are willing to adopt the logic of persecutors, and to say that we may persecute others because we are right, and that they must not persecute us because they are wrong", usually followed or preceded by a declaration that the prosecutors have the one true faith and also the true interests of all mankind as their inspirations.

The brief answer is in [30] : Whatever one cannot prove to the satisfaction of most intelligent and learned men, one certainly has no right to enforce upon others.

And it should be noted that such a proof may take many generations of discussion by the best minds.    Back.

[36] "Wherever the Puritans have been sufficiently powerful, as in New England, and in Great Britain at the time of the Commonwealth, they have endeavored, with considerable success, to put down all public, and nearly all private, amusements: especially music, dancing, public games, or other assemblages for purposes of diversion, and the theatre.
How will the remaining portion of the community like to have the amusements that shall be permitted to them regulated by the religious and moral sentiments of the stricter Calvinists and Methodists? Would they not, with considerable peremptoriness, desire these intrusively pious members of society to mind their own business? This is precisely what should be said to every government and every public, who have the pretension that no person shall enjoy any pleasure which they think wrong.

Indeed, and the books and stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne are quite instructive as regards Puritanism - which is not only a common sickness of Protestantism, but also of many political ideologies.

Much of the teachings of religion and of politics have sought to destroy many or most of the ordinary means of enjoying one's life on earth.    Back.

[37] "The Secretary, however, says, "I claim, as a citizen, a right to legislate whenever my social rights are invaded by the social act of another." And now for the definition of these "social rights." "If anything invades my social rights, certainly the traffic in strong drink does. It destroys my primary right of security, by constantly creating and stimulating social disorder. It invades my right of equality, by deriving a profit from the creation of a misery, I am taxed to support. It impedes my right to free moral and intellectual development, by surrounding my path with dangers, and by weakening and demoralizing society, from which I have a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse." A theory of "social rights," the like of which probably never before found its way into distinct language — being nothing short of this — that it is the absolute social right of every individual, that every other individual shall act in every respect exactly as he ought; that whosoever fails thereof in the smallest particular, violates my social right, and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance. So monstrous a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty; there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever, except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret, without ever disclosing them; for the moment an opinion which I consider noxious, passes any one's lips, it invades all the "social rights" attributed to me by the Alliance. The doctrine ascribes to all mankind a vested interest in each other's moral, intellectual, and even physical perfection, to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard."

Mill here gives a case of one of his contemporaries, concerning the abuse of alcohol, which indeed in many societies, especially among the lower classes, has been endemic and horrible.

There are quite a few problems here, for while one may agree with Mill that everyone should have the right to go to hell in his own preferred way, if he can pay for it and doesn't trouble others, one problem with alcoholism is that it often touches many more interests than the interests of the alcoholic, such as those of his children or his wife.

In any case, Mill is right that the "The doctrine ascribes to all mankind a vested interest in each other's moral, intellectual, and even physical perfection, to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard." is widely adopted by humans as a matter of course, and as sufficient and good reason to impose their own values and practices on others, supposedly in the interests of others.    Back.

[38] "The only ground, therefore, on which restrictions on Sunday amusements can be defended, must be that they are religiously wrong; a motive of legislation which never can be too earnestly protested against. "Deorum injuriae Diis curae." "

Precisely, and the Roman principle, that translates as "What hurts the gods should be cured by the gods" - and emphatically not by humans pretending or believing they act in the name of some god - is one that should be part of the civil law of any civilized society.

You may believe what you please, but the gods you believe in should help themselves to set the world right, and cannot and should not have any force or power over anyone not believing in them.

Indeed, a god who needs more than mere faith to survive in society may be safely assumed to be not a god but an imposture of humans seeking power.    Back.

[39] "The notion that it is one man's duty that another should be religious, was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and if admitted, would fully justify them. "

Indeed, and - as the 20th Century showed so clearly, in the cases of fascism and communism, also with regards to politics, race and background - this is the normal human inclination of normal humans. Here is Voltaire, on tolerance - and note Voltaire was himself a deist, who believed in the existence of a god, but believed not in the teachings of any religion:

"One does not need great art and skilful eloquence to prove that Christians ought to tolerate each other - nay, even to regard all men as brothers. Why, you say, is the Turk, the Chinese, or the Jew my brother? Assuredly; are we not all children of the same father, creatures of the same God?

But these people despise us and treat us as idolaters. Vey well; I will tell them that they are quite wrong. It seems to me that I might astonish, at least, the stubborn pride of a Mohammedan or Buddhist priest if I spoke to him somewhat as follows:

This little globe, which is but a point, travels in space like many other globes; we are lost in immensity. Man, about five feet high, is certainly a small thing in the universe. One of these impercetible beings says to some of his neighbours, in Asia or Africa: "Listen to me, for the God of all these worlds has enlightened me. There are nine hundred million ants like us on the earth, but my anthole alone is dear to God. All others are eternally reprobated by him. Mine alone will be happy."

They would then interrupt me, and ask who was the fool that talked all this nonsense. I should be obliged to tell them that it was themselves. I would then try to appease them, which would be difficult." (Quoted from Runes, "Treasures of Philosophy".)    Back.

[40] "It is a determination not to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it is not permitted by the persecutor's religion. It is a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless if we leave him unmolested."

Unfortunately, this seems to be the common urge of the majorities of most religions and political ideologies. In Voltaire's satire, quoted in the previous note: "There are nine hundred million ants like us on the earth, but my anthole alone is dear to God. All others are eternally reprobated by him."

See [30] and [38].    Back.

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

Indeed, but there have been many who felt otherwise, and indeed have made such a feeling or belief the basis for subjecting others.

Also, while in some cases this was clearly a pretext to further one's own interests at the costs of others in the name of civilization, sometimes there can be something said for it, and one may ask at times whether a given community has not a duty to try to keep another community from being destroyed, by ethnic conflicts, civil war, or religious persecutions.

Such, at least, is part of the practices and ideals of the United Nations, who also have a standard for this, which seems - as men are and have been on average, in human history - quite reasonable, namely the Declaration of Human Rights.    Back.

[42] "If civilization has got the better of barbarism when barbarism had the world to itself, it is too much to profess to be afraid lest barbarism, after having been fairly got under, should revive and conquer civilization. A civilization that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it. If this be so, the sooner such a civilization receives notice to quit, the better. It can only go on from bad to worse, until destroyed and regenerated (like the Western Empire) by energetic barbarians."

Unfortunately, the 20th Century has clearly shown that all that "barbarians" need is free access to the media and to the ballot boxes. Hitler was elected by democratic majority, and at some point something like a thousand million people, including some who were the most gifted and learned, believed that atrocious dictators like Stalin and Mao were the greatest and the best that humanity could produce.    Back.