On Liberty – Chapter 4 Summary – Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual

In Chapter 4 of On Liberty, Mill tackles the limits to the authority of society over the individual:
  • Mill is concerned about where society’s control begins and how much of individual life should be assigned to individuality vs society.
  • That society is not based on a social contract but that nevertheless one should give back from what one takes advantages from, and that “the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest”
  • that “this conducts consist of 1) 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 2) 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”
  • Mills thus add that behavior that is not bounded by a duty to society or steps over someone else’s right, can be justly punished by opinion but not by law.
  • Mill doesn’t mean to say that people should only interact with each other if there is self interest. He does encourage mutual disinterest when it is for promoting the mutual good but doesn’t think force or coercion should be used.
  • Self regarding values should only be inculcated by education (such as temperance, prudence, courage and industry. Other-regarding virtues are generosity, conscientiousness, honesty, veracity and justice)
  • Mill actually wants people to help improve each others. He says: “human being owe to each others 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 exercises of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations”
  • Ultimately however, each man has infinitely more knowledge about what makes him better. The interference of society in his judgement would be grounded on general assumptions altogether wrong and even if right, might be misapplied to individual cases.
  • Mill provides some hints as what can be done to help people with their conduct: “considerations to aid his judgement, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him , by others, but he himself is the final judge”
  • For Mill, there is an ideal perfection of human nature, embodied by self-regarding qualities, and the men do use them to regard others according to that scale, because it arouses admiration in one. This “lowness or depravity of taste”, Mill says, “which though it cannot justify doing harm to the person who manifests it, renders him necessarily and properly a subject of dictate, or, in extreme cases, even of contempt.”
  • Mill thus justifies social reprobation because it will eventually benefit that individual. “Though doing no wrong to anyone, a person may so act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a fool, or as a being of inferior order: and since this judgement and feeling are a fact which he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a service to warn him of it beforehand, as of any other disagreeable consequence to which he exposes himself”. Mill would just wish that something else that politeness would be used to deliver the message, without being unmannerly or presuming.
  • Regarding such person Mill says, we are not bound to seek his society, we have a right to avoid him, we have a right to caution others against him. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices (except those which tend to his improvement). In all these cases, Mill argues that one should expect to be lowered in the expectation of others when their behavior is characterized by rashness, obstinacy, self conceit, all hurtful to other people.
  • Some other acts that Mills think can be punished are “act injurious to others, 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 object for moral reprobation and in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment”. Not only the acts, but also the dispositions that lead to these acts are fit subjects of disapprobation: “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 price 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 its own favor. These are moral vices and constitute a bad and odious moral character”.
  • Mill then takes on the opposing side that argues that the distinction between one’s life that only concerns oneself and that which concerns other is non existent. These people, Mill says, argue that it is not possible for people to be indifferent to other’s behavior, that people are not so isolated, that anything they do hurtful enough to themselves will be also felt by others, at least their closest connections. If one hurts himself, he affects his dependents, may even become a burden. So they justify that “if by his vices or follies a person does no direct harm to others, he is nevertheless injurious by, his example, and ought to be compelled to control himself, for the sake of those whom the sight or knowledge of his conduct might corrupt or mislead”. Those people Mill says, argue that society should take care of all even those manifestly unfit for it. Society should police vices and conducts that have established themselves as better than others from the beginning of the world until now.
  • Mill himself does concede 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 minor degree society at large”. However, what has to be punished is not the extravagance of the behavior, but the breach of duty. He stresses that for those cases, one’s behavior leading to some failure can be a subject of moral reprobation but not be considered as the cause of failure.  To illustrate this point, he says “no person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty”
  • Mill restates his point: “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
  • Mill in his defense, argues that society should not claim a power to punish grown ups when it had all the time it needed to encourage a new generation of kids to be morally good. Their fault lie in that society itself, as he says, is “so lamentably deficient in goodness and wisdom”, but it only has itself to blame, if it lets considerable number of its children grow up without the ability to be rationalized with. Society will also fail to act on those who have strong character. Finally, bad example is bad because it leads to bad things for that individual. Society therefore in that individual has an example to show that it is in the right and should not therefore act to remove it, but let by its display, be its own lessons taught.
  • The most important of all arguments that Mill raised to interfering with one’s individuality is the misplacement and wrongness of the interference. The real goal is shutting down opinions and behavior which society doesn’t agree merely because they are different. “public opinion means, at the best, some people’s opinion of what is good or bad for other people; which 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”. “In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom thinking of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from itself”. Mill believe 9/10th of moralist to be using this standard of judgement that “teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so”
  • In the next section, Mill go through examples of moral policing: religious opinions between christians and mohammedans, married clergy in southern europe, the efforts of temperance to control music, dancing, public games and other diversions. Sabbatarian legislation, actions against mormonism because of their sanction of polygamy. In all these, the case is made of an intrusion in the liberty of other which society or others have no business in doing.
  • These examples seems to suggest a view of the world centered around social rights that can be invaded by others, where social right is that which can be affected by anything that other people can do and also the expectation that everyone else should do the same as one.  For Mill, there is no violation of liberty which that principle would not justify because “ it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever, except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret, without ever disclosing them

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