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Can Mill’s ‘Liberty Principle’ be Defended by a Utilitarian?

Is Freedom Compatible with Utilitarianism?

John Stuart Mill is best known for his utilitarian theory of ethical behaviour, i.e., that we should each act so as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Mill was also very active in the arena of political thought – particularly concerning the rights of the individual to personal freedom and the limitations that should be placed on the state in constraining this freedom. Mill’s philosophy of personal liberty and its relationship to the state (and society in general) is founded upon his so-called Liberty Principle. In this essay, we shall first examine the meaning and intent of this principle – particularly its implications for the possibility of a truly utilitarian society. The key question to be answered is whether the Liberty Principle is compatible with utilitarianism as the basis of a just and ethical society.

Firstly, we shall explain the basis of Mill’s Liberty Principle.

In On Liberty [1], Mill sets out his belief in the importance of the freedom of individuals to pursue their own ends within society. The intent is to set out clear principles for limiting the power that society can exercise over an individual in order to maximize individual freedom while minimizing the harmful consequences between individuals.

Mill’s first concern is the potential for oppression of the rights of individuals even within a fully democratic political system. Before the advent of such democracies, absolute monarchs tended to exercise power at the expense of the common people who struggled to gain liberty by limiting such power. In a democracy, that power has passed into the hands of the people and the danger is that the majority denies liberty to individuals, whether explicitly through laws, which Mill calls "acts of public authority," or more subtly through morals and social pressure, which he calls "collective opinion." Such grandiose phrases as "self-government," and "the power of the people over themselves," do not reflect the actual mechanism by which democracy operates.

The "tyranny of the majority" arises because the "will of the people" is in practical terms the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the population. This majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority, may desire to oppress or restrict the freedoms and rights of the minority. For example, if, as seems likely, the majority vote to outlaw fox hunting, then this moral majority could be said to oppress the minority who are field sports enthusiasts. The Women's Suffrage Movement in England, the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, and the Vietnam War are examples of where a minority opinion, which in hindsight now appears right, was suppressed by the majority view prevalent at the time.

Mill argues that precautions are as much needed against this oppression by popular majority opinion as against any other abuse of power. This applies whether this tyranny of the majority is expressed through legal statute and the formal powers of the state judiciary, or purely though social opinion and peer pressure (views on smoking or example). This attack on individual liberty is no less serious than abuses of power by an absolute ruler and it is just as important to limit the power of government over individuals when the holders of power are democratically elected by and are accountable to the community.

So what should determine the extent to which society and its elected government can interfere in the liberty of the individual? In his so-called Liberty Principle, Mill asserts that freedom of the individual to pursue personal ends and desires is paramount and should only be curtailed where such actions entail harm to others:

'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 civilised 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.”

This Principle has implications both for the legal system and for the extent to which popular opinion should impose conformance to modes of behaviour condoned by the moral majority. According to the Principle, I should enjoy freedom to act in any way I choose provided my actions do not harm others or restrict their own freedom to act in turn according to their desires. The only justification for society imposing its influence on an individual is to ensure the self-protection of others. The individual, according to Mill, should be left free to pursue any action, even if it is demonstrably foolhardy or harmful to that individual. The Liberty Principle thus protects and enshrines the autonomy of the individual. Only if such an action is harmful to others should society intervene and restrict the rights of the individual to act in such a way.

The Liberty Principle also denies that society has any grounds for imposing its own moral views (as expressed in the consensus of moral opinion) upon the individual citizen. Just because society believes a particular action is good (for example, giving to charity or helping little old ladies across the road), it cannot be imposed on its citizens. Similarly, an action such as smoking, which is universally acknowledged as harmful to the individual, should not be prevented in a truly free society – the freedom of the individual to pursue self-destruction remains paramount. Considering smoking in particular, any argument for banning it must, according to Mill’s Principle, be based solely upon the harm done to others through passive smoking and on the damage done to the public environment shared by others. Mill is clearly of the opinion that the state has no right to act paternally on behalf of its citizens or prescribe that the individual should only pursue actions that are inherently safe or self-improving. Liberty then means being free to watch gratuitous video nasties in preference to reading Jane Austin with half an ear cocked to Radio 3 – it is the individual and not the state who has the option to ‘dumb-down’.

But surely, this view assumes that all members of society are mature, intelligent, competent and well-adjusted individuals who can be relied upon to make rational choices? Mill himself acknowledges that such liberty should not extend equally to all members of society. Children and those judged incapable of protecting themselves should be subject to appropriate and limited interference by the state. Hence the imposition of laws for the enforced education of children or the incarceration of lunatics for their own protection is perfectly in accordance with the Liberty Principle. Mill himself is very much a man of his time and adopts a somewhat patronising attitude towards undeveloped races – regarding them very much as children that need to be ‘improved’ by society's rules.

What implications does Mill’s Principle of Liberty have for the freedom of speech? Should the individual be perfectly free to express any opinions no matter how abhorrent these might be to the consensus viewpoint or, in particular, to the devoutly held beliefs of others? Does Mill’s principle of harm apply to offence caused to others by the views of individuals?

Mill himself was strongly in favour of complete freedom of speech, saying that to silence the expression of even one opinion is to “rob the human race, now and forever.” If the opinion silenced is right, then we have lost the opportunity to exchange it for error. There is value though even in demonstrably wrong opinions for they offer the opportunity for society to apply rational argument in an attempt to change the mind of the speaker of the opinion. It is through such argument that we are forced to examine the rational basis for our own opinions and, in the process, we are likely both to identify weaknesses or inconsistencies in our own position and to learn from the valid arguments of others. Any suppression of free speech will inevitably be based upon the fallacious belief in the infallibility of the governing body or influential majority that the opinions of are irretrievably right. The suppression of free speech will curtail the originality and spontaneity within society and prevent the discovery of new truths essential to the moral and intellectual development of society. To Mill, people are inherently different and should be allowed to fully explore these differences provided this is consistent with the protection from harm embodied in the Liberty Principle. While strong individuals must be left free to pursue their spontaneous and possible eccentric self-interest, this can never be at the expense of others.

Whilst the Liberty Principle appears at first sight to be a powerful guarantee of personal liberty, the vagueness of Mill’s definition of what constitutes harm to others greatly weakens the practical value of this theory. Mill freely uses terms such as ‘concern’, ‘regard’ and ‘effect’ as well as more obvious terms such as ‘harm’, or ‘evil’ when discussing the terms under which society can curtail individual rights. Such terms are very open and subject to wide interpretation – both by individuals and, more seriously, by corrupt governments. Thus the Liberty Principle is open to being high-jacked. For example, a government may decree that the public expression that the earth is round causes an unacceptable ‘effect’ on individuals in society and that consequently all proponents of the ‘round Earth theory’ must be punished by statute. More seriously, the practice of personal religious or political belief are all open to attack by arguments which, with a little sleight of hand, could be said to be in accord with Mill’s Principle of Liberty.

Above we have outlined the basic principle that restricts the interference of the state in personal affairs. But how does this accord with Mill’s other major theory, utilitarianism – that a moral society is one which maximises the greatest happiness for the greatest number?

Given that the central tenet of utilitarianism is that overall utility is paramount, then surely it is the overriding duty of the state to engender conditions where the greatest number enjoy the greatest happiness? Thus the strict utilitarian might be expected to support laws and social restrictions upon any activity deemed likely to reduce overall happiness. This must encompass the happiness of the individual since overall happiness is simply the aggregate of the happiness of individuals. Thus, in direct contradiction of the Liberty Principle, utilitarianism would seem to expressly preclude acts which produce obvious and immediate harm to the acting individual (such as smoking, self-mutilation, watching television or studying philosophy). Conversely, the Liberty Principle would appear to prevent the state (or well-meaning individuals within society) from intervening in the personal conditions of individuals so as to cause them to act in furtherance of their own happiness.

To take an extreme and ridiculous example, the Liberty Principle would seem to condone inaction on the part of a government of a society of miserable wrist-slashers. In contrast, a utilitarian government would advocate the infringement of some individual liberties in order to engender overall happiness – in this case, the enforced re-education of the unfortunate wrist-slashers in the appropriate use of knives around the kitchen.

The Liberty Principle and utilitarianism would initially appear to be mutually contradictory. The achievement of maximal utility can only (at first sight) be achieved if society (and its government) takes an active role in guiding the actions of individuals so that their personal happiness (and thus of society as a whole) is maximised. Conversely, personal liberty and freedom can only be achieved within a society where individuals are free to cause themselves great unhappiness, pain and even death – provided this is not at the expense of the well being of others. How then can Mill accommodate both these theories in a consistent manner?

Mill’s response is that utilitarianism and personal liberty are entirely consistent. Qualitatively valuable happiness, as reflected in the achievement of one’s ultimate potential and goals, is only possible, claims Mill, within a society which reflects one’s personal liberty to pursue those goals. True happiness then cannot be achieved by imposing normative constraints from above or by trying to achieve a uniform society of identical drones who all adhere to an agreed recipe for happiness. Only by allowing individuals to exercise their right to achieve happiness in their own personal style, free from the unwarranted constraints of government or public opinion, can the actual goals of utilitarianism be achieved. Mill believes that a society that is free to circulate new ideas and challenge the majority's opinions will give rise to more developed citizens. A happier society will be the result, where people are allowed to follow their desires rather than being forced to settle for some watered-down consensus view of what constitutes happiness. While utilitarianism could be achieved through the suppression of impulses toward spontaneous actions or personal and eccentric desires, Mill believes that this would merely redirect such energies towards less constructive ends – ultimately subverting the overall happiness of society. Individuality then, as protected by the Liberty Principle, is the safeguard that prevents society from lapsing into some over-regulated and sub-optimal status quo which stifles the further development and enlightenment of society.

Although the Liberty Principle advocates that each person should have complete freedom to follow the goals that maximise their happiness, society should restrain that spontaneity and individuality where it adversely affects others. Here though we again have the ambiguity as to what is judged as an adverse effect and as to who is justified (and qualified) to make such a judgment. Is it the responsibility of the state (through social legislation), the individual (surely not), or of informal society as a whole to make such judgments in the shape of a moral framework of acceptable behaviour?

How realistic is Mill’s response? My personal view is that Mill is quite correct in advocating that a free society of enlightened and self-interested individuals is more likely to prosper and create the economic, artistic, scientific and moral conditions necessary for true happiness. However, I believe Mill to be overly optimistic in his view of human nature and that a purist application of the Liberty Principle would result not in an intellectual utopia but ultimately in a decadent and hedonistic society ripe for collapse. Given a social environment rich and stable enough to support the true application of the Liberty Principle, the majority of humanity is quite likely to regress into the pursuit of essentially negative and unproductive ends. Whilst there exists a sizable and influential minority intent on raising the level of human existence, the Liberty Principle would prevent the enshrinement of their ideals within social legislation. I doubt whether merely appealing to one’s better nature via logical argument would ultimately be sufficient to wean the mass of humanity away from plugging into the nearest available ‘pleasure machine’ or its chemical equivalent. Only where the majority of citizens is as enlightened and well motivated as Mill himself can his Liberty Principle be seen as a pragmatic route to human happiness.

Having said this, any pragmatic framework of social legislation and justice should embody the spirit of the Liberty Principle within its intent and application. However, given the current less than enlightened state of human nature, the balance must perhaps be towards a more paternalistic and constrictive framework than that advocated by Mill. The problem here of course is that because of the need to protect a sizable minority of the population from their own self-damaging desires, the majority of the population must suffer a restriction in liberty. The other danger is of course that a more paternal approach leads ultimately both to the ‘nanny state’ and to rampant hypocrisy among those responsible for setting the moral rules that others are expected to follow. It is this balance between liberty as advocated by Mill and constructive and well-meant social control that western society is still struggling to find.


1. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Everyman Library, 1996.