“On Liberty” (1859), Chapter 4: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individuals, by John Stuart Mill

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“On Liberty” (1859), Chapter 4: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individuals, by John Stuart Mill

  • What is the limit of sovereignty of an individual over himself? Where does the authority begin?
    • Individuality should involve the arena of life where the individual is mostly concerned. Society should be interested where it is mostly concerned. Society isn’t founded on a contract. No good purpose comes from one to get social obligations out of individuals. But everyone who receives the protection of society owes something in return in his conduct toward others
      • This obligation involves:
        • 1 – Not harming others’ interests, either through express legal provision or tacitly understood “rights”
        • 2 – Each person bears his share of labors & sacrifices incurred for defending society & its members from injury
      • The acts of the individual may be harmful to others or lacking in due consideration to others, without violating any constituted rights. The offender may be punished by opinion but not law. Once his actions affects prejudicially the rights of others, society has jurisdiction over it
    • No room to entertain a question when a person’s conduct. But they don’t have a say unless that conduct affects others. They have the interest in promoting the good of others but they’ll have to express their benevolence without whips & scourges. Education works on this principle through conviction & persuasion, even compulsion, where virtues are inculcated. Humans owe it to each other to help show good from bad
      • But no one is warranted in telling another what he will & won’t do with his life. He’s the most interested party in his own well-being. Others’ interests don’t stack up to his own interest in it
      • Society’s interference to overrule an individual’s judgment must be grounded on general presumptions. Even if right, they are as likely to be misapplied as not. In the conduct of an individual toward another, there needs to be general rules so that people know what to expect. But with respect to an individual’s own concerns to his own individual spontaneity, he is entitled to free exercise. People may try to help him but he’s the final judge. All errors he’s likely to make are outweighed by the evil allowing others to restrain him. If he’s able to conduce his own good, he’s admirable. If he’s deficient he is not. People will say he’s crazy, tasteless or contemptible. He may even compel others to judge him. Bad opinions may cause him to change his behavior. We ought to warn him that stupid behavior or opinions will lead to social disapproval
      • In the end, we don’t have to associate with him. We can avoid him. We even have the right & duty to warn him & others that association with him will have a bad effect. We can prefer others to him. In these cases, an individual can suffer severely for faults that only concern him but only because they are consequences of the faults, & not punishment. Those with vicious characters can expect a low opinion from others. But they have no right to complain about it
      • The only consequences a man can suffer from conduct & character concerning only his own good, & not others, are the inconveniences coming from unfavorable judgment from others
  • Acts encroaching on others’ rights, inflicting loss or damage, duplicity, even selfish abstinence from defending them from injury are objects of moral reprobation & punishment. These acts & dispositions are immoral. They are only subject to moral reprobation when they involve a breach of duty to others. Duties to the self aren’t socially obligatory unless they are also duties to others.
    • The difference between loss of consideration from imprudence or no dignity & reprobation from offending the rights of others is not a nomination distinction
      • He may displease us & we may express that. We may not make his life uncomfortable. He cannot be treated like an enemy of society
    • Many people refuse to make a distinction between the part concerning an individual alone & that which concerns others. No one is an isolated being. If he injures his own property, does harm to those who directly or indirectly derive support, he puts others in discomfort. He often ought to be compelled to control himself if his vices or follies don’t do direct harm to others. Sometimes an adult may be unable of self-government (drinking, gambling, etc.). Is this right?
      • No question about restricting individuality or impeding the trial of new & original experiments before some truth is learned so generation after generation don’t keep falling into the same trap
      • The trouble a person gets up to may seriously affect those near him & society at large. When his conduct violates distinct assignable obligations to others, he’s no longer in the realm of self-interest & now concerned with others & he’s liable to moral disapprobation. He’s deservedly reproached & could be punished – out of breach of duty NOT extravagance. This includes addiction – disabling oneself by purely self-regarding conduct from the duty incumbent on him. He then is guilty of a social offense
        • No one should be punished for being drunk. But a soldier or policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. When there’s a definite damage or risk of damage. The case is taken out of the realm of liberty & into that of morality & law
        • When the injury is constructive to society – i.e. doesn’t violate any specific duty to the public or hurts anyone but the individual – society can bear the inconvenience. If a grown person doesn’t take care of himself & is punished for it, I’d rather it be for his own sake than under the pretense of preventing harm to society. I can’t allow the point that society had no means to raise his conduct to a rational standard. It had his whole infancy & childhood to try
          • Some generations can’t make men wise or good because it’s lacking in goodness & wisdom. If society lets people grow up to be children, incapable of rational thoughts & behavior, it only has itself to blame
          • Those coercing others into prudence or temperance will push them into rebellion. No one will ever feel that others have the right to control him.
          • Puritans felt it necessary to protect society from bad examples. Bad example may have damaging effects, especially acting badly towards others with impunity. But conduct that does no harm to others & really only to himself, we should tolerate it
          • The strongest argument against public interference in personal conduct is that on questions of morality & duty to others, the majority opinion is often wrong but very often right. They’re only required to judge their own interests. But many people see conduct they dislike as an injury & an outrage to their feelings. Religious bigots fall into this category. A person’s taste as much as his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse
          • Antipathies like this are similar to those with differing religious opinions. Christians are subject to hatred from Muslims because Christians eat pork. It’s interesting that they don’t care too much about Christians drinking alcohol. They think pork because its consumption is forbidden & therefore hated by God. But because this a matter of conduct of individuals & the public has no business to interfere
          • The Spanish ban non-Catholic worship – not a matter of social interest
          • If mankind is justified in interfering with each other’s liberty in things that don’t include the interests of others, how can they consistently do so? They can only make a case for prohibiting anything personally immoral & suppress practices that are impious. We must be aware of using a principle we’d otherwise see as a gross injustice
          • Puritans banned any sort of fun because their morality & religion condemn it. They might even wish to impose on pious members of society who are just beneath them on the piety scale. Wouldn’t they wish that the super-pious just leave everyone alone & mind their own business? That is similar to every government & every public. If a principle of pretension can be admitted, no one can really object to the sense of the majority & all people must be ready to conform
          • In these days, there’s a strong movement towards a democratic constitution of society with or without political institutions. No place exemplifies this more than the United States. It happens that having a showy or costly lifestyle is looked down upon. People with large incomes are seen to be the target of hatred. This probably the result of the democratic feeling
            • Also in these days, a socialist wave thinks some having more property than others is bad as is income not earned through labor. This is prevalent in the artisan class. It’s also true that bad workmen form the majority in many industries. They feel that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as the good & no one ought to earn more due to superior skill. They use moral policing to deter higher pay for higher productivity
          • There are cases of usurpations upon the liberty of private life actually practiced, especially when it comes to the successful & a number of things the public consider innocent. Drinking has been banned now & again. It’s an impracticable ban but prosecuted with a strong zeal of professed philanthropists. These alliances often propose legislation to justify bigotry & persecution & wish to make all matters of thought, opinion & conscience subject to a discretionary power vested in the state itself & not in the individual
            • This infringement with respect to buying & selling booze is not only on the liberty of the seller but on the buyer & consumer
            • This attitude displays the imagination of a “social right” to have others behave in a certain way. Violations are seen to be a justification to demand violation of any liberty, except the holding of opinions in secret
          • The illegitimate interference with the rightful liberty of the individual is typified by Sabbatarian legislation. Abstinence once a week of the usual daily occupation.
            • It’s a high beneficial function. But it can’t be observed without a general consent from the industrious classes to suspend operations on a particular day. Furthermore, the amusement of some is just day’s work to others. To undo these laws would mean 6 days of pay for 7 days of work. So, holidays are proposed. But the only reason to defend Sabbatarian laws is that to work on Sundays is religiously wrong. The legislation is to say a man’s duty to another to be religious – the foundation of all religious persecution. It’s a determination not to tolerate others because of their religion
            • Mormons have been martyred – the prophet was put to death by a mob. They were forcibly expelled from their hometowns & chased into the desert. The main point people dislike them for is their sanction of polygamy. We should remember women do have a choice in their husbands. It’s society push the idea that monogamy is superior. Yes, but we can only attempt to persuade them. To force them is a form of tyranny
          • A recent writer proposed, not a crusade but a “civilisade” against polygamy to put an end to a retrograde step in civilization. We can only send “missionaries” to preach against it. If civilization has the better of barbarism, why should it succumb to a vanquished enemy? To do so, it would have to degenerate to the point where no one would or will stand up for it

Author: knowit68

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