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Some, like Bentham, appear to conceive of pleasure as a sensation with a distinctive kind of qualitative feel. Others, perhaps despairing of finding qualia common to all disparate kinds of pleasures, tend to understand pleasures functionally, as mental states or sensations the subject, whose states these are, prefers and is disposed to prolong. Pleasures, understood functionally, could have very different qualitative feels and yet still be pleasures. Insofar as Mill does discuss subjective pleasures, he is not clear which, if either, of these conceptions of pleasure he favors.

Nonetheless, it may seem natural to assume that as a hedonist he conceives of pleasures as subjective pleasures. According to this interpretation, Mill is focusing on pleasurable sensations and then distinguishing higher and lower pleasures by references to their causes. Higher pleasures are pleasures caused by the exercise of our higher faculties, whereas lower pleasures are pleasures caused by the exercise of our lower capacities. But this interpretation of the higher pleasures doctrine is problematic.

One concern is raised by Henry Sidgwick Outlines Hedonism is committed to the idea that one pleasure is better than another because it is more pleasurable. But this sounds like a quantitative relation. If higher pleasures are better than lower pleasures, but not because they involve a greater quantity of pleasure, how can this be squared with hedonism? One answer is that Mill thinks that there are two factors affecting the magnitude of a pleasure: its quantity, as determined by its intensity and duration, and its quality or kind.

On this proposal, one pleasure can be greater than another independently of its quantity by virtue of its quality Sturgeon We can distinguish among pleasures between those that are caused by the exercise of our higher faculties and those that are caused by the exercise of our lower faculties. But why should this difference itself affect the pleasurableness of the state in question? If Mill holds a preference or functional conception of pleasure, according to which pleasures are mental states that the subject prefers and other things being equal would prolong, then perhaps he could claim that pleasures categorically preferred by competent judges are more pleasurable pleasures.

So, even if we can distinguish higher and lower pleasures, according to their causes, it remains unclear how the hedonist is to explain how higher pleasures are inherently more pleasurable. After explaining higher pleasures in terms of the categorical preferences of competent judges and insisting that competent judges would not trade any amount of lower pleasures for higher pleasures, he claims that this preference sacrifices contentment or satisfaction, but not happiness II 6.

Mill does not say that the preference of competent judges is for one kind of contentment over another or that Socrates has more contentment than the pig or fool by virtue of enjoying a different kind of contentment. Instead, he contrasts happiness and contentment and implies that Socrates is happier than the fool, even if less contented. Another problem for this reading of the higher pleasures doctrine is that Mill frequently understands higher pleasures as objective pleasures.

These seem to be objective pleasures. Here too he seems to be discussing objective pleasures. When Mill introduces higher pleasures II 4 he is clearly discussing, among other things, intellectual pursuits and activities. He claims to be arguing that what the quantitative hedonist finds extrinsically more valuable is also intrinsically more valuable II 4, 7.

But what the quantitative hedonist defends as extrinsically more valuable are complex activities and pursuits, such as writing or reading poetry, not mental states. Because Mill claims that these very same things are intrinsically, and not just extrinsically, more valuable, his higher pleasures would appear to be intellectual activities and pursuits, rather than mental states.

Finally, in paragraphs 4—8 Mill links the preferences of competent judges and the greater value of the objects of their preferences. But among the things Mill thinks competent judges would prefer are activities and pursuits. Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties.

II 6; emphasis added. Here Mill is identifying the higher pleasures with activities and pursuits that exercise our higher capacities. First, he claims that the intellectual pursuits have value out of proportion to the amount of contentment or pleasure the mental state that they produce. This would contradict the traditional hedonist claim that the extrinsic value of an activity is proportional to its pleasurableness. Second, Mill claims that these activities are intrinsically more valuable than the lower pursuits II 7.

But the traditional hedonist claims that the mental state of pleasure is the one and only intrinsic good; activities can have only extrinsic value, and no activity can be intrinsically more valuable than another. Bradley Ethical Studies —20 , T. Moore Principia Ethica 71—72, 77— Mill explains the fact that competent judges prefer activities that exercise their rational capacities by appeal to their sense of dignity. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness [on the part of a competent judge ever to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence] …but its most appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher faculties ….

We take pleasure in these activities because they are valuable; they are not valuable, because they are pleasurable. But this meant that their love presupposed, rather than explained, piety and justice. Similarly, Mill thinks that the preferences of competent judges are not arbitrary, but principled, reflecting a sense of the value of the higher capacities.

But this would make his doctrine of higher pleasures fundamentally anti-hedonistic, insofar it explains the superiority of higher activities, not in terms of the pleasure they produce, but rather in terms of the dignity or value of the kind of life characterized by the exercise of higher capacities. And it is sensitivity to the dignity of such a life that explains the categorical preference that competent judges supposedly have for higher activities.

We can begin to see the possibility and the appeal of reading Mill as a kind of perfectionist about happiness, who claims that human happiness consists in the proper exercise of those capacities essential to our nature. For instance, Mill suggests this sort of perfectionist perspective on happiness when early in On Liberty he describes the utilitarian foundation of his defense of individual liberties.

It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. OL I Mill apparently believes that the sense of dignity of a properly self-conscious progressive being would give rise to a categorical preference for activities that exercise his or her higher capacities.

This concern with self-examination and practical deliberation is, of course, a central theme in On Liberty. There he articulates the interest that progressive beings have in reflective decision-making. He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold his deliberate decision.

And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one.

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But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? OL III 4. Even if we agree that these deliberative capacities are unique to humans or that humans possess them to a higher degree than other creatures, we might wonder in what way their possession marks us as progressive beings or their exercise is important to human happiness.

There he claims that capacities for practical deliberation are necessary for responsibility. If this is right, then Mill can claim that possession and use of our deliberative capacities mark us as progressive beings, because they are what mark as moral agents who are responsible.

If our happiness should reflect the sort of beings we are, Mill can argue that higher activities that exercise these deliberative capacities form the principal or most important ingredient in human happiness. Any interpretation faces significant worries about his consistency.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (Audiobook)

Part of the problem is that Mill appears to endorse three distinct conceptions of the good and happiness. Hedonism is apparently introduced in the Proportionality Doctrine, when Mill identifies happiness and pleasure U II 2. In introducing the doctrine of higher pleasures, Mill appears to want to make some refinement within hedonism II 3—5. But the higher pleasures doctrine appeals to the informed or idealized preferences of a competent judge and identifies higher pleasures with the object of their preferences II 5.

Moreover, he treats this appeal to the preferences of competent judges as final II 8. But competent judges prefer higher activities, and not just subjective pleasures caused by those activities, and their preference for higher pursuits is based on their sense of the dignity inherent in a life lived that way II 6. We could reconcile either hedonism or perfectionism with the desire-satisfaction claim if we treat the latter as a metaethical claim about what makes good things good and the former as a substantive claim about what things are good.

On this reading, what makes something good is that it would be preferred by competent judges, and what competent judges in fact prefer is pleasures, especially higher pleasures according to the hedonist claim or higher activities and pursuits according to the perfectionist claim. But the dignity passage implies that the preferences of competent judges are evidential, rather than constitutive, of the value of the object of the their preferences.

It says that happiness consists in the exercise of higher capacities, that the preferences of competent judges are evidential of superior value, and that higher pleasures are objective pleasures. There is no doubt that his initial formulation of his conception of happiness in terms of pleasure misleadingly leads us to expect greater continuity between his own brand of utilitarianism and the hedonistic utilitarianism of the Radicals than we actually find. But exactly how Mill thinks duty is related to happiness is not entirely clear. To understand the different strands in his conception of utilitarianism, we need to distinguish between direct and indirect utilitarianism.

So formulated, direct and indirect utilitarianism are general theories that apply to any object of moral assessment. But our focus here is on right action or duty. Act utilitarianism is the most familiar form of direct utilitarianism applied to action, whereas the most common indirect utilitarian theory of duty is rule utilitarianism. The right act is the optimal act, but some suboptimal acts can be more right and less wrong than others.

Similarly, this conception of rule utilitarianism assesses rules in both maximizing and scalar fashion. We might expect a utilitarian to apply the utilitarian principle in her deliberations. Consider act utilitarianism. We might expect such a utilitarian to be motivated by pure disinterested benevolence and to deliberate by calculating expected utility. But it is a practical question how to reason or be motivated, and act utilitarianism implies that this practical question, like all practical questions, is correctly answered by what would maximize utility.

Utilitarian calculation is time-consuming and often unreliable or subject to bias and distortion. Mill says that to suppose that one must always consciously employ the utilitarian principle in making decisions. It is the business of ethics to tell us what are our duties, or by what test we may know them; but no system of ethics requires that the sole motive of all we do shall be a feeling of duty; on the contrary, ninety-nine hundredths of all our actions are done from other motives, and rightly so done if the rule of duty does not condemn them.

U II Later utilitarians, such as Sidgwick, have made essentially the same point, insisting that utilitarianism provides a standard of right action, not necessarily a decision procedure Methods If utilitarianism is itself the standard of right conduct, not a decision procedure, then what sort of decision procedure should the utilitarian endorse, and what role should the principle of utility play in moral reasoning?

As we will see, Mill thinks that much moral reasoning should be governed by secondary precepts or principles about such things as fidelity, fair play, and honesty that make no direct reference to utility but whose general observance does promote utility. These secondary principles should be set aside in favor of direct appeals to the utilitarian first principle in cases in which adherence to the secondary precept would have obviously inferior consequences or in which such secondary principles conflict U II 19, 24— The question that concerns us here is what kind of utilitarian standard Mill endorses.

Is he an act utilitarian, a rule utilitarian, or some other kind of indirect utilitarian? Chapter II, we saw, is where Mill purports to say what the doctrine of utilitarianism does and does not say. But not everyone agrees. Urmson famously defended a rule utilitarian reading of Mill We will examine that rationale shortly. But Urmson also appeals to the Proportionality Doctrine as requiring a rule utilitarian interpretation of Mill.

Recall that the Proportionality Doctrine says, in part, that utilitarianism holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness U II 2. Token actions produce specifiable consequences; only types of actions have tendencies.

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So interpreted, the Proportionality Doctrine would espouse a form of rule utilitarianism. But it was common among the Philosophical Radicals to formulate utilitarianism, as the Proportionality Doctrine does, in terms of the felicific tendencies of individual actions. For instance, Bentham does this early in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government. I 2; also see I 3, 6. The general tendency of an act is more or less pernicious, according to the sum total of its consequences: that is, according to the differences between the sum of such as are good, and the sum of such as are evil.

VII 2; also see IV 5. He seems to believe that secondary principles often satisfy two conditions. When these two conditions are met, Mill believes, agents should for the most part follow these principles automatically and without recourse to the utilitarian first principle. However, they should periodically step back and review, as best they can, whether the principle continues to satisfy conditions 1 and 2.

Also, they should set aside these secondary principles and make direct appeal to the principle of utility in unusual cases in which it is especially clear that the effects of adhering to the principle would be substantially suboptimal and in cases in which secondary principles, each of which has a utilitarian justification, conflict II 19, 24— I do not mean to assert that the promotion of happiness should be itself the end of all actions, or even all rules of action.

It is the justification, and ought to be the controller, of all ends, but it is not itself the sole end. There are many virtuous actions, and even virtuous modes of action though the cases are, I think, less frequent than is often supposed by which happiness in the particular instance is sacrificed, more pain being produced than pleasure. But conduct of which this can be truly asserted, admits of justification only because it can be shown that on the whole more happiness will exist in the world, if feelings are cultivated which will make people, in certain cases, regardless of happiness.

SL VI. Far from undermining utilitarian first principles, Mill thinks, appeal to the importance of such moral principles actually provides support for utilitarianism. If he defines right action in terms of conformity with principles with optimal acceptance value, then he is a rule utilitarian.

But if the right action is the best action, and secondary principles are just a reliable though imperfect way of identifying what is best, then Mill is an act utilitarian. Mill appears to address this issue in two places. In Chapter II of Utilitarianism Mill appears to suggest that in the case of abstinences or taboos the ground of the obligation in particular cases is the beneficial character of the taboo considered as a class II But in a letter to John Venn Mill claims that the moral status of an individual action depends on the utility of its consequences; considerations about the utility of a general class of actions are just defeasible evidence about what is true in particular cases CW XVII: Unfortunately, natural readings of the two passages point in opposite directions on this issue, and each passage admits of alternative readings.

Moreover, it is clear that Mill thinks we need to depart from otherwise justified secondary principles in an important range of cases. Though Mill does not treat secondary principles as mere rules of thumb in utilitarian calculation, he does not think that they should be followed uncritically or independently of their consequences. He thinks that they should be set aside in favor of direct appeal to the principle of utility when following them would be clearly suboptimal or when there is a conflict among secondary principles.

However, Chapter V of Utilitarianism introduces claims about duty, justice, and rights that are hard to square with either. For the truth is, that the idea of penal sanction, which is the essence of law, enters not only into the conception of injustice, but into that of any kind of wrong. We do not call anything wrong unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it—if not by law, by the opinion of his fellow creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience.

This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency. Here Mill defines wrongness and, by implication, duty, not directly in terms of the nature of the action or its consequences but indirectly in terms of appropriate responses to it. He appears to believe that one is under an obligation or duty to do something just in case failure to do it is wrong and that an action is wrong just in case some kind of external or internal sanction—punishment, social censure, or self-reproach—ought to be applied to its performance.

This test distinguishes duty from expediency V 14, Not all suboptimal or inexpedient acts are wrong, only those to which one ought to apply some sort of sanction at least, self-reproach. Justice is a proper part of duty. Justice involves duties that are perfect duties—that is, duties that are correlated with rights V Someone has a right just in case she has a claim that society ought to protect by force of law or public opinion V Notice that these relationships among duty, justice, and rights do not yet introduce any utilitarian elements.

He does not say precisely what standard of expediency he has in mind. In particular, he does not say whether the relevant test for whether something is wrong requires that sanctions be optimal or merely beneficial. To fix ideas, let us assume that an action is wrong if and only if it is optimal to sanction it. Because this account of duty defines the rightness and wrongness of an act, not in terms of its utility, as act utilitarianism does, but in terms of the utility of applying sanctions to the conduct, it is an indirect form of utilitarianism.

Because justice is a species of duty, it inherits this indirect character also see Lyons Because it makes the deontic status of conduct depend upon the utility of sanctioning that conduct in some way, we might call this conception of duty, justice, and rights sanction utilitarianism. Because sanction utilitarianism is a species of indirect utilitarianism, it is inconsistent with act utilitarianism.

In articulating sanction utilitarianism, Mill claims that it allows him to distinguish duty and expediency and claim that not all inexpedient acts are wrong; inexpedient acts are only wrong when it is good or optimal to sanction them. This suggests that sanction utilitarianism may be preferable to act utilitarianism, because it has a more plausible account of the relation among different deontic categories.

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The act utilitarian seems unable to account for this fourfold distinction. It implies that I do wrong every time I fail to perform the optimal act, even when these suboptimal acts are very good. Because it makes the optimal obligatory and the suboptimal wrong, it appears to expand the domain of the forbidden, collapse the distinction between the permissible and the obligatory, and make no room for the supererogatory. By contrast, sanction utilitarianism does not appear to have these problems. It offers a distinct account of each category. In this way, sanction utilitarianism appears to respect this common deontic categorization and, in particular, to make room for the supererogatory.

However, the direct utilitarian can and should distinguish between the moral assessment of an act and the moral assessment of the act of praising or blaming that act. Each should be assessed, the direct utilitarian claims, by the utility of doing so. But then it is possible for there to be wrongdoing a suboptimal act that is blameless or even praiseworthy.

But then the direct utilitarian can appeal to the same distinctions among praiseworthiness and blameworthiness that the sanction utilitarian appeals to, while denying that her own deontic distinctions track blame and praise. So, for instance, there can be acts that are wrong, because suboptimal, that it would nonetheless be wrong to blame, because this would be suboptimal. If so, it is unclear that sanction utilitarianism enjoys any real advantage here over act utilitarianism. Moreover, sanction utilitarianism appears to have disadvantages that act utilitarianism does not.

One such problem derives from its hybrid structure. Sanction utilitarianism is impurely indirect. For while it provides an indirect utilitarian theory of duty, the account it provides of when sanctions should be applied to conduct is direct—it depends upon the consequences of applying sanctions. Sanction utilitarianism provides an indirect utilitarian account of the conditions under which an action—any action—is right or wrong. This general criterion is that any action is wrong to which one ought to attach sanctions. But imposing sanctions is a kind of action, and we can ask whether the imposition of a particular sanction would be right or wrong.

The general criterion implies that we should answer this question about the rightness of applying sanctions in sanction-utilitarians terms, namely, by asking whether it would be right to sanction the failure to apply sanctions. This introduces a second-order sanction, whose rightness we can now ask about.

We seem to be off on an infinite regress of sanctions. Sanction-utilitarianism avoids the regress because it provides a direct utilitarian answer to the question when to apply the first-order sanction. It says that a sanction should be applied iff doing so is optimal. Though this avoids a regress, it appears to render sanction utilitarianism internally inconsistent. In his central exposition of the utilitarian standard in Chapter II, Mill commits himself to act utilitarianism in multiple passages. In that same chapter, he focuses on the felicific tendencies of actions and assigns a significant role to rules within moral reasoning, both of which have been taken to commit him to a rule utilitarian doctrine.

However, these claims are reconcilable with direct utilitarianism and so provide no good reason to depart from a traditional act utilitarian reading of that chapter. But in Chapter V Mill does introduce indirect utilitarian ideas in the doctrine of sanction utilitarianism. Mill claims that the utilitarian must claim that happiness is the one and only thing desirable in itself IV 2. He claims that the only proof of desirability is desire and proceeds to argue that happiness is the one and only thing desired.

He then turns to defend the claim that happiness is the only thing desirable in itself, by arguing that apparent counterexamples e. These objections seem so serious and so obvious that they should make us wonder if there is a more plausible interpretation of his proof. For one thing, Mill need not confuse desire and desirability. He recognizes that they are distinct, but says that desire is our only proof of desirability IV 3.

In saying this, he need not presuppose that desiring something confers value on obtaining it. Our desires often reflect value judgments we make, explicitly or implicitly. If so, our desires will be evidence of what we regard as valuable, and our reflectively acceptable desires may provide our best defeasible test of what things are objectively valuable. Mill first applies this test to what each of us desires for her own sake. His answer is that what each of us desires for her own sake is happiness IV 3. Rather, he is saying when each of us does focus on her own ends or sake, we find that each cares about her own happiness.

But we need not suppose that Mill is attributing a psychology, much less an egoist psychology, to humanity as a group. On this reading, Mill is not trying to derive utilitarianism from egoism see Hall Rather, he is assuming that the moral point of view is impartial in a way that prudence is not. Indeed, later, in Chapter V, Mill identifies impartiality and its progressive demands with both justice and morality.

It [impartiality] is involved in the very meaning of Utility, or the Greatest-Happiness Principle. The equal claim of everybody to happiness in the estimation of the moralist and the legislator involves an equal claim to all the means of happiness …. And hence all social inequalities which have ceased to be considered expedient, assume the character not of simple inexpediency, but of injustice.

The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being supposed a primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of universally stigmatized injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex.

Here we see Mill identifying utilitarian impartiality with the demands of justice and morality itself also see Crisp 79— One might wonder if utilitarianism is the only or the best way to understand impartiality. Indeed, this is one way of understanding now familiar worries about the implications of utilitarianism for issues of distributive justice and individual rights. Mill recognizes a potential worry about the sanctions of utilitarianism that apparently has its source in prudence or self-interest.

He [an agent] says to himself, I feel that I am bound not to rob or murder, betray or deceive; but why am I bound to promote the general happiness? If my own happiness lies in something else, why may I not give that the preference? III 1. For this reason, Mill seems to think that it poses no special problem for utilitarianism III 1, 2, 3, 6.

Is Mill right that there is no special threat to utilitarianism here? One might wonder whether utilitarianism makes greater demands on agents than other moral theories. Contemporary writers have argued that utilitarianism seems to be potentially very demanding, much more so than commonsense morality. For instance, reformist utilitarians, such as Peter Singer , have argued that utilitarianism entails extensive duties of mutual aid that would call for significant changes in the lifestyles of all those who are even moderately well off.

And critics of utilitarianism have treated the demandingness of utilitarianism as one of its principal flaws. Rawls has argued that the sort of interpersonal sacrifice that utilitarianism requires violates the strains of commitment in a well-ordered society.

And Bernard Williams has argued that the demandingness of utilitarianism threatens the sort of personal projects and partial relationships that help give our lives meaning. This worry about the demands of utilitarianism is not easy to assess. One might wonder how to interpret and whether to accept the psychological realist constraint.

If the constraint is relative to possible or ideal psychology, then it is not clear that even a highly revisionary moral theory need flout the constraint. Then there is a question about how demanding or revisionary utilitarianism actually is. Mill and Sidgwick thought that our knowledge of others and our causal powers to do good were limited to those near and dear and other associates with whom we have regular contact, with the result that as individuals we do better overall by focusing our energies and actions on associates of one kind or another, rather than the world at large U II 19; Sidgwick, Methods — On this view, utilitarianism can accommodate the sort of special obligations and personal concerns to which the critics of utilitarianism appeal.

But it is arguable that even if this sort of utilitarian accommodation was tenable in nineteenth century Britain, technological development and globalization have rendered utilitarian demands more revisionary. Our information about others and our causal reach are not limited as they once were.

So even if Mill was right to think that the motivational demands of utilitarianism were not so different from those of other moral theories at the time he wrote, that claim might need to be reassessed today. He begins by distinguishing old and new threats to liberty. The old threat to liberty is found in traditional societies in which there is rule by one a monarchy or a few an aristocracy. Though one could be worried about restrictions on liberty by benevolent monarchs or aristocrats, the traditional worry is that when rulers are politically unaccountable to the governed they will rule in their own interests, rather than the interests of the governed.

In particular, they will restrict the liberties of their subjects in ways that benefit themselves, rather than the ruled. It was these traditional threats to liberty that the democratic reforms of the Philosophical Radicals were meant to address. But Mill thinks that these traditional threats to liberty are not the only ones to worry about.

John Stuart Mill: Ethics

He makes clear that democracies contain their own threats to liberty—this is the tyranny, not of the one or the few, but of the majority OL I 1—5. Mill sets out to articulate the principles that should regulate how governments and societies, whether democratic or not, can restrict individual liberties I 6. The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion.

That principle is 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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a 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 opinions 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.

A Civilized Approach to Prostitution: Re-reading John Stuart Mill - ABC Religion & Ethics

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. In this passage, Mill distinguishes paternalistic and moralistic restrictions of liberty from restrictions of liberty based upon the harm principle and claims that the harm prevention is the sole legitimate basis for restricting individual liberties. Later, Mill distinguishes between genuine harm and mere offense. In order to satisfy the harm principle, an action must violate or risk violation of those important interests of others in which they have a right I 12; III 1; IV 3, 10; IV 12; V 5.

These distinctions allow Mill to defend a categorical approach to liberal rights. Mill seems to permit or forbid restrictions on liberty by category, claiming that the only restrictions that are permissible involve harm prevention. Of course, a given regulation might fall under more than one category. Many provisions of the criminal law, such as prohibitions on murder and assault, might be designed both to enforce fundamental moral provisions and to prevent harm to others.

Mill does not object to moralistic or paternalistic legislation that can also be defended by appeal to the harm principle. Rather, the objection is to restrictions that can only be justified in these ways and cannot be justified by appeal to harm prevention. Harm prevention is a necessary but not sufficient ground for restricting individual liberties. Harm prevention is sufficient to establish a pro tanto case for regulation I 11 , but whether regulation is all things considered appropriate depends on a utilitarian calculation of whether the benefits of regulation exceed its costs.

But even if harm prevention is not sufficient to justify restricting liberty, Mill does appear to claim that it is necessary. Sometimes Mill suggests that the harm principle is equivalent to letting society restrict other-regarding conduct I 11; IV 2. On this view, conduct can be divided into self-regarding and other-regarding conduct. Regulation of the former is paternalistic, and regulation of the latter is an application of the harm principle.

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So on this view it is never permissible to regulate purely self-regarding conduct and always permissible to regulate other-regarding conflict. But, as Mill himself concedes, very little conduct is purely self-regarding IV 8. Some other-regarding conduct causes mere offense, not genuine harm IV 3; IV So Mill cannot equate harmful behavior and other-regarding behavior and cannot think that all other-regarding behavior may be regulated.

It is generally thought that by applying this categorical approach to liberty and its permissible restrictions Mill is led to offer a fairly extensive defense of individual liberties against interference by the state and society. In particular, it is sometimes thought that Mill recognizes a large sphere of conduct which it is impermissible for the state to regulate. On this reading, Mill is deriving his conception of liberal rights from a prior commitment to the categorical approach and, in particular, to the harm principle see Jacobson for an alternative reading. Utilitarianism treats the good as prior to and independent of the right or duty—defining duty as the promotion of good consequences.


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Perhaps certain kinds of actions tend to be good or bad, but, according to direct utilitarianism, the moral quality of a particular action depends on its own consequences. By contrast, the deontological and natural rights traditions treat duty or the right as prior to and independent of the good. Sometimes one has a duty to do an act that is suboptimal, and sometimes it is wrong to do the optimal act.

Deontologists recognize moral constraints on pursuing the good. These constraints usually take the form of categorical rules to perform or refrain from certain sorts of actions e. A special case of this perceived conflict between categorical rules and utility is the perceived tension between utility and rights.

For, on a common view, individual rights just are a special case of categorical rules. The apparent conflict between utility and rights poses an interesting test for Mill, because he wants to defend liberal rights that have utilitarian foundations. We need to ask if Mill is able to reconcile his defense of utility and liberty without compromising either his utilitarianism or his defense of a right to liberties.

Mill begins his defense of basic liberties with a discussion of freedom of expression. He thinks that there is general agreement on the importance of free speech and that, once the grounds for free speech are understood, this agreement can be exploited to support a more general defense of individual liberties I 16; III 1. So his defense of expressive liberties is important not only in its own right but also insofar as it lays the foundation of his liberal principles.

He mentions four reasons for maintaining free speech and opposing censorship. It is natural to group these four considerations into two main kinds: the first two invoke a truth-tracking defense of expressive liberties, while the second two appeal to a distinctive kind of value that free discussion is supposed to have. The first two claims represent freedom of expression as instrumentally valuable; it is valuable, not in itself, but as the most reliable means of producing something else that Mill assumes is valuable either extrinsically or intrinsically , namely, true belief.

It is not hard to see how true beliefs would possess at least instrumental value, if only because our actions, plans, and reasoning are likely to be more successful when based on true beliefs. Of course, the most reliable means of promoting true belief would be to believe everything. But that would bring a great deal of false belief along too. A more plausible goal to promote would be something like the ratio of true belief to false belief. Freedom of expression might then be defended as a more reliable policy for promoting the ratio of true belief to false belief than a policy of censorship.

This rationale for freedom of expression is echoed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States when he claims that the best test of truth is free trade in the marketplace of ideas. Notice that this instrumental defense of freedom of expression does not require the mistaken assumption that the censor must assume his own infallibility OL II 3.

The censor can recognize that he might be mistaken, but insist that he must act on the best available evidence about what is true. This instrumental rationale may justify freedom of expression in preference to a policy of censorship whenever the censor finds the beliefs in question implausible or offensive. But it does not justify freedom of expression in preference to more conservative forms of censorship.

If the question is what policies are likely to increase the ratio of true to false belief, we would seem to be justified in censoring opinions for whose falsity there is especially clear, compelling, and consistent or stable evidence. We would be on good ground in censoring flat-earthers both literal and figurative. Another way to see the weakness of the truth-tracking justification of freedom of expression is to notice that this instrumental defense of freedom of expression cannot explain what is wrong with censorship that is successful in truth-tracking terms.

The truth-tracking argument would provide no argument against censorship in such circumstances. This shows that the truth-tracking argument condemns only unsuccessful or incompetent censorship. For some, this may be the biggest worry about censorship. But many would have residual worries about successful or competent censorship. They would object to censorship, even by philosopher-kings. Answering this worry requires a more robust defense of expressive liberties. For instance, Mill appeals to a familiar distinction between true belief , on the one hand, and knowledge , understood as something like justified true belief , on the other hand II 22; cf.

Scanlon ; Ten — Progressive beings seek knowledge or justified true belief, and not simply true belief. This is because justification involves comparison of, and deliberation among, alternatives II 6, 7, 8, 22—23, If so, censorship, even of false belief, can rob both those whose speech is suppressed and their audience of resources that they need to justify their beliefs and actions II 1.

This deliberative rationale can explain why it is often wrong to censor even false beliefs. This kind of self-government requires both positive and negative conditions. Among the positive conditions it requires is an education that develops deliberative competence by providing understanding of different historical periods and social possibilities, developing cultural and aesthetic sensibilities, developing skills essential for critical reasoning and assessment, and cultivating habits of intellectual curiosity, modesty, and open-mindedness V 12— Among the negative conditions that self-government requires are various liberties of thought and action.

If the choice and pursuit of projects and plans is to be deliberate, it must be informed as to the alternatives and their grounds, and this requires intellectual freedoms of speech, association, and press that expand the menu of deliberative options and allow for the vivid representation of the comparative merits of options on that menu. Indeed, liberties of thought and action are importantly related. This is apparent in the pre-eminent value Mill assigns to diversity and experimentation in life-style.

Indeed, in his Autobiography Mill describes this as the central truth of On Liberty :. The importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions. Autobiography Diversity and experimentation in life-style are important not only insofar as they are expressions of self-government but also insofar as they enhance self-government.

For experimentation and diversity of life-style expand the deliberative menu and bring out more clearly the nature and merits of options on the menu OL II 23, 38; III 1. Despite this robust rationale for liberties of thought and action, it is also important to see that Mill is not treating liberty as an intrinsic good or endorsing an unqualified right to liberty.

First, we should note that Mill does not defend liberty per se , but only certain basic liberties. His defense focuses on three basic categories of liberty I Though these liberties evidently include quite a bit, there is no suggestion here that any and all liberty deserves protection. Why not? Insofar as Mill defends individual liberties by appeal to deliberative values, he can distinguish the importance of different liberties in terms of their role in practical deliberation.

But some liberties seem more central than others to the selection of personal ideals. Second, even the exercise of basic liberties is limited by the harm principle, which justifies restricting liberty to prevent harm to others. An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justifiably incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

There are interesting questions about the correct interpretation of the harm principle, which we will examine later. Third, it is important to be clear about how Mill values basic liberties. To account for the robust character of his perfectionist argument, it is tempting to suppose that Mill thinks these basic liberties are themselves important intrinsic goods see Berger 41, 50, , —32; Bogen and Farrell — So, for instance, the prohibition on paternalism does not extend to children with immature deliberative faculties or to adults with very limited normative competence, whether due to congenital defects or social circumstance.

Instead, Mill claims that these liberties have value only when various necessary conditions for the exercise of deliberative capacities—in particular, sufficient rational development or normative competence—are in place. First, recall that Mill distinguishes between harm and mere offense. Not every unwelcome consequence for others counts as a harm. Offenses tend to be comparatively minor and ephemeral. To constitute a harm, an action must be injurious or set back important interests of particular people, interests in which they have rights I 12; III 1; IV 3, 10, 12; V 5.

Whereas Mill appears to reject the regulation of mere offense, the harm principle appears to be the one justification he recognizes for restricting liberty. Second, Mill envisions that the harm principle is something that we can apply prospectively to prevent someone from acting in certain ways and causing harm.

In many cases all we could reasonably know is that a given action risks harm. Fortunately, this seems to be all that Mill requires IV There are interesting and important questions about what threshold of risk must be met for purposes of the harm principle, which Mill does not address. Presumably, the threshold should vary inversely with the magnitude of the harm risked, so that the probability of harm required to justify regulation is lower the greater the harm risked. Third, Mill wants the harm principle to have wide scope.

He insists that the harm principle regulates more than relations between government and individuals. Its application should include the family, in particular, relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children V Here, he prefigures some claims he will develop in The Subjection of Women discussed below.

Fourth, though Mill often focuses simply on harm, it appears that his real focus is on non-consensual harm I 2; see Saunders It is not that one cannot be hurt by something one has consented to or freely risked. Rather, when one has knowingly and willing risked something harmful, one cannot legitimately complain when that harm comes home to roost. Having my nose broken surely counts as a harm, but if you broke my nose in a boxing match, I cannot fairly complain about the harm, because I consented to the risk.

Does Mill really treat the harm principle as the sole legitimate basis for restricting the liberties of individuals? As we have seen, Mill cannot think that harm prevention is sufficient to justify restricting liberty. OL IV 3. Later, Mill makes clear that harm prevention is necessary but not sufficient to justify restrictions on liberty.

These claims demonstrate that Mill is not committed to a simple version of the sufficiency of harm for restrictions on liberty. However, these claims are compatible with Mill endorsing a weaker version of sufficiency. If anyone does an act hurtful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him by law or, where legal penalties are safely applicable, by general disapprobation.

If the regulation is more harmful than the behavior in question, it may be best not to regulate, despite the pro tanto case for regulation. This suggests that we should distinguish stronger and weaker versions of the idea that harm is sufficient to justify regulation. Once we distinguish these options, there is a pretty compelling case for thinking that Mill rejects strong sufficiency but embraces weak sufficiency. But notice that if Mill rejects strong sufficiency then this compromises his one very simple principle.

For only strong sufficiency shows that the harm principle is a complete guide to the regulation of liberty, telling us both when regulation is impermissible and when it is required. Even weak sufficiency implies that the harm principle must be supplemented with some other principle, such as the utilitarian principle, in order to determine if regulation is permissible, much less required.

In rejecting strong sufficiency, Mill claims that actions that cause losses in a fair competition should not be regulated V 3—4. Unfortunately, Mill is not entirely clear about the basis for the free-trade exception. After all, losses, even in a fair competition, can be harmful. If I have a successful business selling widgets and then you move into the area selling widgets at a big discount and drive me out of business, forcing me into bankruptcy, I suffer a significant loss, making me worse off than I would otherwise have been. If Mill accepts weak, rather than strong, sufficiency, then he might claim that though there is a reason to regulate harmful economic competition the costs of interfering with free markets are too great.

His official position seems to be that the harm principle should not be applied to such economic harms IV 4. It is hard to see why Mill embraces this sort of free-trade exception. A different and better reply would not suspend the operation of the harm principle in such cases but rather claim that such losses should not be understood as harms, in the relevant sense. Mill might make either of two related arguments for not treating such losses as harms. First, he might invoke the volenti principle and insist that the harm principle targets only non-consensual harms.

He could then argue that in a market economy that ensures fair terms of cooperation economic losses of the sort described are freely risked and so consensual, in the relevant sense.


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  • Second, Mill can and does claim that competitive losses are not harms, because they do not deprive economic actors of something to which they have a right OL V 3. You may beat me out in a fair competition for a job. Instead, what I have is a right of fair opportunity to compete for the job. Is harm necessary to justify regulation? These two sorts of exception present somewhat different issues. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.

    No cover image. Read preview. Synopsis Mill on Liberty was first published in and has become a classic of Mill commentary. The second edition reproduces the text of the first in full, and in paperback for the first time. To this, John Gray adds an extensive postscript which defends the interpretation of Mill set out in the first edition, but develops radical criticisms of the substance of Millian and other liberalism.

    The new edition is intended as a contribution to the current debate about the foundations of liberalism, and it looks closely at the recent seminal contributions to liberal thought by Raz, Feinberg, Rawls and Berlin. Central to its argument is Gray's contention that, like other liberalisms that ground themselves on an ideal of autonomy or individuality, Millian liberalism has a Eurocentric bias that cannot be given rational justification. Gray addresses the question of whether any form of liberal theory, can, in fact, avoid the bias, and concludes that it cannot.

    This book will be indispensable both to those familiar with On Liberty and to those coming to it for the first time.