What Freedoms Should We Be Allowed?

In ‘On Liberty’ J.S. Mill asserted 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.” He used this statement to argue that power can only be exercised over another, if against that other’s will, in order to prevent harm to others. So in other words preservation/protection is the key to liberty.

JS MillOn the face of it this seems reasonable, and in fact most of this essay was spent logically and rationally explaining how we judge the difficult border cases i.e. because no priestly class can judge the ‘truth’ absolutely, how do we judge where and when the action of one person might harm another?

However preservation/protection is a questionable principle upon which to base all interventions, even despite the importance that we, collectively, place on self-preservation. The support for animal welfare in zoos pales in comparison to support for species protection. The right of someone who lives in constant agony, to die, is disputed based on the importance of survival. Talking about the plight of the homeless, the downtrodden, the depressed, and those living in extreme poverty, will often earn that person rolled eyes, a joke and a change of subject. But talk about those same people dying, and all of a sudden it’s a tragedy that the state should never have allowed. Which is the most desirable end? Survival? Or positive well-being? Would you rather live a long life with lots of pain, or a short and happy life?

Mill did recognise this difficulty, for he was himself a self professed Utilitarian. Indeed later on in the essay he tried to amalgamate the concept of happiness into his ideas. For instance he said that so long as there has been “some length of time and amount of experience, after which a moral or prudential truth may be regarded as established, and it is merely desired to prevent generation after generation from falling over the same precipice which has been fatal to their predecessors”, then individuality can be restricted. In other words he used collective Utilitarian tools to measure what protection of others actually involved. Thus the principle of protection upon which his ideas were based, is not as clear as would otherwise be imagined.

But the more contentious problem of Mill’s argument was the fact that it was all based on his personal view of truth. Just like Hegel and Marx, Mill saw the history of the world to be steadily progressing from lower to higher stages in our social evolution. This meant that for Mill a society had to be ready for representative democracy and liberty. And furthermore, individuals too had to be ready. Mill made the right to liberty dependent on our level of maturity (sanity and the above principle relating to protection were a part of this argument).

To explain further, Mill argued that liberty only applies to those “in the maturity of their faculties” i.e. excluding children, the insane, and generally those unable to learn and engage productively in a discussion. Ignoring the obvious implications here, by making such an exclusion Mill was in fact simply carving out the biggest weakness within his argument. Instead of ignoring this most difficult topic, the question should be raised: why do different rules apply to some? As a parent it is not possible to always explain your reasons when you tell your children to do something. It’s something we can try, but for example with my 20 month old son he simply doesn’t have a big enough grasp of vocabulary yet to understand all explanations – sometimes I’m not even sure if he understands when I say “No wires/sockets. Danger Danger!” Am I only limiting Owen’s liberty when his safety depends upon it? Not really, no. But there are still rules. And just because they don’t always tally with those who Mill defines as being able to engage productively in a discussion, it doesn’t mean they should be excluded from the analysis.

Furthermore, what does it mean to be mature? Mill speaks of those who can be excluded below:

“We may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. […] Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.”

Mill believed in being as objective as possible in approach. And yet this argument here could not be more subjective. For following Mill’s argument, what would happen were we to contrast it to Herbert Marcuse’s ‘Repressive Tolerance’? Marcuse follows all of Mill’s conditions, but has a different opinion about how mature people are in civilised societies. In fact he claims that the modern system perpetrates a “systemic moronization of children and adults alike… the mature delinquency of a whole civilisation.” Continuing, Marcuse contended that “a false consciousness has become prevalent in national and popular behaviour. [Thus…] In a world in which the human faculties and needs are arrested and perverted, autonomous thinking leads into a ‘perverted world’ […] the pre-empting of the mind vitiates impartiality and objectivity.” Thus according to Marcuse the very freedoms that Mill advocated are at best fraudulent, and at worst, an instrument of indoctrination, manipulation and servitude in and of themselves.

FreedomWhat’s your take? What freedoms do you think we should be allowed? Are there any principles such as those discussed above, which explain how much liberty we should be allowed, and under what circumstances?

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