After a number of posts on the subject of ethics, along with vaguely related topics, PJ suggested we read On Liberty by J. S. Mill. After agreeing, I proposed a format in which we will alternate posts on the five sections of the book. The idea is less to convey the central tenants of essay than to discuss the applications thereof. Should anyone wish to join in, the irony would be too heavy to allow us to do otherwise than to allow it. Here goes:
Mill cuts to the heart of the matter starting with line 442:
This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.
A libertarian would find little in these lines to which he would find reason to object. Nor, I think, would most people, of whatever ideological bent, object to these point--at least in the abstract. Mill is careful to exclude children--he speaks "of full age"--but otherwise asserts a threefold liberty, checked by what strikes one as quite reasonable bounds, the most important of these bounds being that which precludes us from causing harm in the exercise of our liberty of pursuit.
Again, I don't think that this is much to object to, but only in the abstract. Mill admits as much:
Though this doctrine is anything but new, and, to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no doctrine which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice.
Thus it is worth considering why the mass of men prefers to use compulsion to prevent people from engaging in perfectly legitimate freedoms. To take but one example, which seems prescient given the passing of George Carlin, there are certain words one is not allowed to use on television. The FCC, an arm of the federal government, enacts fines for the use of any of a number of "dirty words". Similarly, there was the infamous wardrobe malfunction in which a female breast--the horror!--was exposed for the world to see during the Super Bowl--and which will forever be available on the Internet.
These exceptions, though minor, are the kind of thing that most people will tolerate, even while considering that such toleration is in no ways incompatible with the full support of liberty. The ostensible reason for such intolerance is usually "the children", but even reasonable adults without children might very well object to, say, the airing of hardcore pornography on daylight television--or on roadside billboards.
The reason for the toleration of such exceptions is, I think, twofold. First, people will argue for a mitigation of what they believe to be inessential liberties because they don't see how these violations could ever cause them to forfeit the liberties they view to be essential. Preventing Leno from dropping F-bombs is acceptable because it can in no way prevent people from discussing the candidates running for election. People will even go so far as to insist that the suspension of habeas corpus for enemy combatants in our Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism will never lead to a similar suspension of rights for citizens--despite the fact that this has happened a number of times in U.S. history.
Second, a lamentably large number of people, though convinced of the truth they possess, are less confident in the ability for others to arrive at this truth without resorting to compulsion. There are many examples of this. The terrorists do not have legitimate concerns: "they hate our freedoms". Religious people are inherently irrational; religious belief should be categorized as a mental disorder. The same can be said for liberalism--and probably conservatism. Certain faiths should be spread by the sword, rather than by reason.
The list isn't confined to any particular ideology; human intolerance knows no boundaries. And while some of the above is more rhetoric than anything else, one would could easily envisage violations of liberty which spring from these examples. Ironically enough, those who assert that those who disagree with them are irrational are almost always irrational themselves; and if lovers of liberty will not use compulsion to convince them of their errors, it must be admitted that an appeal to reason is unlikely to produce much in the way of results.
The strength of Mill's tract will, I think, depend on his ability to convince the former group of the fundamental importance of a complete commitment to liberty, since the latter seems unlikely to either read Mill, or be convinced by his efforts.
Thinking more on it, one simply objection to Mill's thesis is that is that while liberty is good and desirable, it is well nigh impossible to construct a government which does not at least occasionally and slightly infringe upon it. The central flaw, then, of this system, is that it a bit impractical. There are some ways around this, I think, and we may perhaps revisit them later; but to give but one example to illustrate this flaw, no nation can maintain a standing army without extracting revenues from its citizens to provide for its pay. We shall have to wait and see if Mill considers this criticism.