"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
"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.
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.
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
"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.
"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."
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  in
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":
give pleasure, without doing harm to yourself or to anyone else - that
I think is the whole of morality." Back.
"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.
"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
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
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"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
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.
"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..."
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
"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:
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.
call this conduct private conduct.
individuals have and should have no right to interfere with the private
conduct of any individual.
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.
"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.
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.
"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  in Chapter III), and
that men without strong character are far more frequent than men with a
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
"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
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
raises a very fundamental issue that I have discussed several times,
namely whether - in my terminology of  -
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.
"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
Here there are
three objections to consider, which I shall first state and then
First, he may
in fact not harm only himself, but also others, such as a wife or
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.
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
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.
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 )
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
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.
"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
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
"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".
"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
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
previous note. Also, it should be added that most people are not very
intelligent nor very informed, and that most follow fashions and
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
"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.
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
"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. "
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.
"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
The answer to
Mill's concluding question here is in the previous
"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
majority of mankind is much inclined to totalitarianism, and to allow
freedom only if it accords with what they approve and know
"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.
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
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
"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
 and .
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.
"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 
: 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.
"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
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
"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.
"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." "
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
"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
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
"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?
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:
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."
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.
"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."
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  and .
"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.
"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."
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