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Philosophical Dictionary: Tarski-Thoreau
One of Mill's early critics, Joseph Parker, in his John Stuart Mill on Liberty, A Critique (1865) makes a similar point about determining the range of application of the self-protection principle, when he asks how far Mill is prepared to stretch the concept of harm. If, as Mill thought, the state is justified in imposing compulsory education, and this is warranted in that it prevents "harm to others," what policy could not similarly be justified? In the same vein, Leslie Stephen, James Fitzjames Stephen's brother and biographer, makes substantially the same objection, when in the third volume of his great work, The English Utilitarians (1900), he declares that "It is ... the acceptance of this antithesis, put absolutely, the 'individual', as something natural on one side, and law, on the other side, as a bond imposed upon the society, which at every step hampers Mill's statement of any vital truths."
We have seen that for Mill moral wrongs are to be distinguished from merely inexpedient actions, and that a necessary condition of something being morally wrong is that punishing it would be maximally expedient. We have yet to discover what, according to Mill, is in fact morally wrong, and we can do this only by looking at the relationship between liberty and morality developed in the essay On Liberty. For it is there that Mill states his famous principle of liberty, sometimes called the self-protection or noninterference principle. This principle of liberty stipulates
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At this point in stating Mill's doctrine, however, we may profitably raise a number of traditional objections. What, after all, are we to understand by the expression "harm to others"? Judgments about harm are often controversial (think of recent debates about the harmful effects of hallucinogenic drugs): how can we resolve such controversies? Does "harm" designate damage only to a person or property, or is there a class of moral harms, or harms to character, which may legitimately affect the liberty principle? Again, does the liberty principle license us to restrict liberty only where the conduct affected causes or threatens harm to others? Or does the harm principle sanction restrictions of liberty in all cases where harm to others can thereby be prevented? Further, is there really a category of actions which harm only the agent himself but not others? Is there in fact a class of self-regarding acts, whose primary effects are on the agent himself? If not, if all acts affect others through their effects on the agent, then the class of acts protected by the liberty principle would seem to be empty. Finally, even supposing these difficulties are solvable, it is far from obvious that Mill's liberty principle in fact expands liberty in its operations. Making "harm to others" the only good reason for interference, far from curtailing the legitimate powers of the state, might (because we all harm each other all the time in so many ways) indefinitely augment them.
What complicates Brown's revisionist interpretation is that in On Liberty, as in Utilitarianism, Mill recognizes that some, but not all, interests are crucially relevant in determining the self-regarding area and thus in applying principles about liberty of action. When Mill in On Liberty demarcates the area of life in which we may be held accountable to society, he speaks not of determining what are a man's interests but of ascertaining his rights. "This conduct," he says, "consists 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." Here the test is not whether a man's interests have been damaged by other men, but whether his interests ought to be protected as rights. Mill does not think, then, that if a man has an interest, he thereby has any kind of right. His reference to "certain interests" suggests that only some interests can be grounds for rights, but which ones?
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But are we always able to differentiate paternalistic reasons for interference from moralistic ones? Is there, indeed, any determinate area in which paternalism is at all an issue? The controversies surrounding "moral offenses" suggest that judgments both about what is in a man's interests and about the general interest, have an inescapably controversial aspect. Professor Basil Mitchell shows this inherently debatable meaning of "interest" (while accurately reporting on the famous controversy between Lord Devlin and Professor H.L.A. Hart). The ambiguity of "interest" is evident in Hart's argument that much existing legislation that restricts liberty may be justified as protecting men's own interests by paternalistic, rather than moralistic reasonings. This argument, in other words, assumes that we can assess a man's interest without presupposing any evaluation of the worthiness or excellence of his way of life.
What is the nub of the revisionist interpretation? We can concede that these may well be "hard cases for the harm principle," that is to say, cases where Mill's self-protection principle gives, at best, ambiguous guidance to action. But revisionists hold that Mill's theory of happiness and human nature is rich and dense enough to clarify how to apply the principle of liberty across a very wide area. The crucial point to recognize is that Mill's Aristotelian and Humboldtian conception of happiness had moved far enough away from old-fashioned psychological hedonism to allow considerations of individuality and self-realization to enter as constitutive ingredients into the idea of human happiness. It is the theory of the higher pleasures, as elaborated in Utilitarianism, that the exercise of the human capacities of choice, reflective thought, and active imagination is not just a means to human happiness, but a vital ingredient of it.
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By far the most formidable of Mill's nineteenth-century English critics, the jurist James Fitzjames Stephen, criticizes Mill precisely because in On Liberty he illegitimately attempts to derive liberal conclusions supporting individual rights and liberty from a utilitarian outlook. Stephen, himself an avowed utilitarian, saw utilitarianism as having a natural antiliberal, authoritarian implication. In his great book, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (1873), surely one of the world's masterpieces of conservative political thought, Stephen argues against Mill: if the only thing that has intrinsic value for utilitarians is happiness, and we are bound to promote happiness by the most efficacious means, then a consistent utilitarian policy of social betterment will not be especially tender toward individual liberty. In its political agenda utilitarianism will grant no priority to the protection of the classical liberal freedoms. Mill's utilitarian ancestors, such as Hume and Bentham, agree with Stephen in ranking liberty as, in fact, only one (and not always the most important) among the means necessary to security and good government in promoting happiness. Stephen's most forceful objection to Mill at this point of his critique is that, if Mill is truly a utilitarian, then liberty can have no intrinsic or inviolable value whatever: its value or disvalue will depend wholly on its contingent consequences which, given the variety of human circumstances, will be complex. As Stephen puts it:
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We are now in a better position to understand what Mill means, when he speaks of "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being." The permanent interests of any person are those that concern him or her as a chooser, a creature who fashions his or her life by provisionally endorsing but forever criticizing principles and policies. We can turn to the essay on Utilitarianism for further illumination on Mill's notion of interests. We find there that Mill regards security as man's least dispensable interest, the precondition of any valuable form of life. We may suppose that Mill understands by security, security of person and property. The theory of the higher pleasures, in turn, assures us that Mill believed that what was in a person's interests was a choice-environment undistorted by invasive social and legal controls. This freedom of choice is an indispensable condition of the kind of happy life that is distinctive of a person. It is clear that we can secure free choice only by the social and legal protection of an area of individual liberty.
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In this disastrous dissociation of production and distribution, with its implicit "manna from heaven" view of how goods and commodities are produced and with its failure to treat capitalism as a unified system of both production and distribution, Mill propounds the central heresy of modern Social Democracy. For this misleading dichotomy of production and distribution sanctions the belief that productive and distributive arrangements of different sorts may promiscuously be mixed so as to realize some ideal or preferred pattern of distribution. This is a delusion that is justly assaulted both by Marxians and by such neo-Austrian economists as F.A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard. In this belief, Mill fostered a harmful tradition of social criticism of capitalism. We are only lately recovering from this belief's ill-effects in social theory and political practice. At the same time, all who are not exponents of natural rights theory will commend Mill for arguing that property rights are not things settled once and for all, deducible from some supposed axioms of ethics. Mill viewed property rights, no less than political institutions, as creatures of "time, place and circumstance," to be assessed and altered to harmonize with "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."
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