Limits Of Authority Society Should Exercise Over Individual Philosophy
In a lengthy essay, John Stuart Mill answers challenging questions of how much sovereignty a society or an individual should have over human life and if, or better yet, when society has jurisdiction over individual liberty. Published in 1859 and titled On Liberty, the essay argues that society is only justified to enforce an individual to fulfill the following two forms of conduct: first, "in not injuring the interests of one another" (63), and second, "each person's bearing his share..of the labors and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation" (63). At first glance, some may agree when Mill, a British economist, philosopher, and ethical theorist, argues 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," otherwise, "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (8). Although the conduct that should be restricted in order to have individual sovereignty is clear, the issue, however, arises in knowing which of Mill's axioms to "not injure the interests of one another" should be applied. Mill's proposal of individual liberty through what is referred to as the "Harm Principle" (Raz) should be adopted in our society, but not all of Mill's assertions of what conduct allows society to intervene in an individual's liberty should be applied.
In his essay, Mill argues that society should have complete jurisdiction over an individual who either harms another or when an individual does nothing to "protect the defenceless against ill-usage" (9). He mentions that even a society can practice "a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression" and that "there needs to be protection against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose..." (4). He raises questions of how to separate the authority between society and the individual and concludes that "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" (63). To achieve this, Mill asserts "one simple principle...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" (8). To validate this, Mill wrote: "I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility...grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being" (9). With these concepts in mind, Mill defines the boundaries between offense and harm, between society and individual, and between tyrannical opinion and the correct opinion in order to define "the appropriate region of human liberty" (10).
Over and above this lies the principle of utility - Mill states that he regards 'utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions', and therefore that the only time the Harm Principle may be violated is when it comes into conflict with Utilitarianism, that is, the pursuit of pleasure (but this must be along the eudaimonic lines that Mill sets out). Otherwise he feels that his doctrine provides largely clear guidelines for when the state is justified in interfering with conduct.
There are certain problems with Mill's guidelines however that seem to considerably reduce the clarity of the decision between cases when they should and should not be applied. Three main areas of contradiction emerge from Mill's argument. Firstly Mill wishes, reasonably, to argue that offence should not constitute harm, for otherwise we would have to advocate the banning of all competitive activity, which inevitably leads to upset on the part of those that lose out.
Finally, and most importantly, he argues on the one hand that we must be free from the tyranny of opinion, since this is a 'tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression', whilst conversely advocating that opinion should be a check on the freedom of individuals to do themselves harm if this does not affect others.
Therefore, as a satisfactory intermediary between tyranny of opinion and the prevalence of people doing themselves harm, we must mitigate one with the other and have some sort of unclear mix of the two. This seems however to come very close to advocating the tyranny that Mill was so keen to avoid, and there seems to be little in the way of checks to prevent the situation simply sliding into one of tyranny of opinion that is not mitigated by individuality at all.
The difficulty then appears to be irreconcilable. If we swing either way we run into serious difficulties, but an unstable limbo situation is no more desirable. Although Mill would ideally like to say that people acting in a vicious manner that harms themselves should not exactly be tyrannised over by others, merely given recommendations as to the changing of their ways, which raises the worry that perhaps the recommendations will cut both ways and the vice will spread rather than the vicious realising the error of their ways (Devlin 1965:106).
Furthermore, how are we to 'separate the wheat from the chaff' in the sense that some of those being vicious according to the accepted morality of the time may actually be acting with the individuality that yields social progress and the improvement of society's morals.
Society may assume that homosexuality is morally wrong and ban it, when really a more elevated idea of morality will show that there is nothing morally wrong with homosexuality. This is why Mill argues for tolerance, but Devlin seems to argue that the risk of spreading vice (which he considers homosexuality to be an example of) is too great for absolute tolerance. He argues that it is not reasonable to expect people to be tolerant when they believe it to be to the detriment of society; we must act upon what we believe in. This seems to have the unfortunate consequence that we must simply accept the tyranny of the majority, but this seems to be a bullet that Devlin must be willing to bite.
Another commonly highlighted problem with the Harm Principle is that there is a very great difficulty to be found in the attempt to separate the public and private spheres. If a man chooses to lie idly about his house all day, then (assuming nobody is dependant upon him) it would seem that nobody is harmed by his actions. But society as a whole is worse off because he is not working, and therefore (for instance) the economy is suffering because of his inaction.
Therefore it seems that very few actions remain that the state could not justify interference with on the basis of the Harm Principle. Mill would argue that this is a bit strong - for instance he ranks economic hurt similarly to offence, because economic progress in a free market often requires one person to succeed at the expense of another. Once again though there seems to be a grey area emerging because the definition of offence is necessarily vague in order to prevent the sphere of private life being completely or almost completely destroyed.
Considering certain difficult cases highlights this point. Many if not most countries that Mill would have considered in the 'civilised' category (such that the Harm Principle applies to them) have laws that allow adultery but prevent polygamy.
How does the Harm Principle apply in this case? If there is no deception involved, then it seems that other than the actual marriage ceremony there is no difference between the two - a person could choose to live with an adulterous partner in just the same way as if they were married and this would be permitted by law.
It does not seem that there is any clear way in which the Harm Principle can be applied to such a situation. It is possible that in some way the performance of a second marriage ceremony whilst still in wedlock causes especially serious damage to the dignity of the original partner (or possibly both), which does not result from 'mere' adultery, and which justifies the case of polygamy being recognised as causing harm to a separate party.
But the Principle could also be applied such that there is no justification in preventing polygamy - if all involved freely gave their consent it seems that it is possible to argue that although polygamy will almost certainly cause offence, this is not enough to constitute harm. Since the principle can only be applied arbitrarily in such a situation, it does not seem particularly useful, and can hardly be described as 'clear'.
A final problem arises from Mill's insistence on utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions. This is a crucial part of his argument, but one may question as to whether or not this actually justifies his arguments against paternalism. Although individualism may lead to freedom of thought etc. that in the longer run will promote utility by allowing progress, it seems that a degree of paternalism may still be justified.
Admittedly when the state provides for its citizens such things as the National Health Service, unemployment benefit and so on, this restricts people's freedom in that everyone will have to pay higher taxes whether they use the services or not. Nevertheless it seems that this is a minimal limit on freedom that allows for major utility gains, even in the longer run, since a healthy population will also be one that is able to progress faster, be more useful economically and so on. It cannot be proven that some paternalism will yield better outcomes from a utilitarian perspective than none at all, but neither can the reverse be proven, that a lack of paternalism is best for society. Again, the lack of clarity of the Principle makes it difficult to apply.
It would seem then that although certain areas of the guidelines set out in On Liberty are quite clear, still more are not. Although not uncontroversial it seems that we can point to certain areas of morality that are the business of the individual rather than the state; homosexuality for example seems to harm nobody assuming both parties are consenting (it may offend some people but in this case it seems clear that this does not constitute harm) and therefore is rightfully legal.
It also seems acceptable for Mill to argue that some offence must be necessary, otherwise our economy could not function and such necessary aspects of life as competing for a job would be banned by the government on the grounds that the losers would be upset. It seems entirely reasonable to argue that such a situation would do nothing to promote utility, at least the sort that Mill is advocating 'in the largest sense, grounded in the permanent interests of man as a progressive being'.
However, the problem of the ambiguities raised by the attempt to draw the line between offence and harm, between public and private, and between usefully corrective opinion and opinionated tyranny, means that the guidelines are ultimately by no means clear. The possibility of compromise may mean that these ambiguities are not fatal for the Harm Principle, but it is certainly considerably weakened by them. The one simple principle itself may be clear enough, but its applications are not, and for a principle that was designed with application in mind, this is somewhat damaging.