One of the main concerns for Mill was how to live a free and just life. In On Liberty he explores “…the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill, 1991, p. 1). He asserts that human beings, with rational capacity, should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of association; and be free to act to realise them. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he asserts, exemplifying his idea of freedom (Mill, 1991). Mill makes this distinction between rational-beings by stating that it applies “…only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties…” (Mill, 1991, p. 17). The freedom of the individual is only attainable when they’re free from the overly paternalistic-morality of the state – or society – and its laws (Simmonds, 1998). One is only free to act if they’ve sufficient knowledge to know that they have a choice and aren’t arbitrarily choosing an action by rolling a metaphorical dice in their head (Brecher, 2011). A choice is comprised of two components, a decision (based upon knowledge) and an action (dependent on freedom) (Brecher, 2011) and if one is to be free, they need to have mastery of their faculties and have the necessary liberty to execute them. Central to this is the requirement of free speech and free thought to explore the possible realms of individual self-interest and the self-actualisation. Unless you have free speech, thought and association, the transference of ideas and knowledge required to act freely doesn’t exist (Brecher, 2011). So in that sense, his idea of liberty is based heavily around the notion of social and civil liberty. Arguably, this creates a demarcation between the public and private aspects of a person’s life (Held, 2006, p. 81) and that at least some institutions of the state and more specifically those of democracy are compatible with Mills account of liberty (Held, 2006, pp. 79-84).
So what does Mill then propose about what is to be done when faced with conflicting interests, such as when two or more individuals act in a way that limits their liberty – or freedom to act? Do we allow individuals to limit other people’s liberties? Mill argued, “[T]he 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. 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. His own good, either physical or moral, isn’t a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.” (Mill, 1991, pp. 51-52). In this Mill introduces what is commonly referred to as the Harm Principle. As discussed earlier Mill was quick to separate public and private actions and his Harm Principle makes a suggestion as to how the relationship between liberty and harm should function. However, this is not as simple as it might look at first glance. How do you assess the effect of an action? Is there any distinction between public-actions and private-actions? One of the earliest reviews and critiques of Mill performed was by Justice Fitzjames Stephens, who argued that there couldn’t be a distinction between actions that cause harm and actions that don’t (Stephen, 1874). This is because it’s extremely hard to distinguish what constitutes harm. It’s noteworthy that Mill is not primarily concerned with harm to the actor – he who performs the act. For example, should an individual be allowed to set fire to himself, so long as he causes no physical harm to other individuals and their property? For Mill as long as the last two stipulations are maintained at all times, then it doesn’t violate the harm principle. Surely, individuals shouldn’t be allowed to act in such ways and by allowing to do so, it harms others by creating an atmosphere of self-harm. Another common example is that of pornography and censorship. Should the depiction of two consenting adults, designed to cause erotic arousal be censored or banned? Mill would argue that it shouldn’t, even if the pornography depicted, as Caroline West puts it “…Simulated abuse of children (for example, consenting adult actors dressed up as schoolgirls)…” (West, 2004) unless there is a sufficient corpus of evidence that it causes harm such as “…those who consume it to abuse children.” (West, 2004). Stephen seems to reject Mills rampant self-interest by stating that “It’s surely a simple matter of fact that every human creature is deeply interested not only in the conduct, but in the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of millions of persons who stand in no other assignable relation to him than that of being his fellow-creatures.” (Stephen, 1874, p. 71). In the above arguments, it’s apparent that the apparatus applied to the individual to limit harm to others, would be in the form of democratic institutions and legislation. Another theme that runs through this assessment is that of the very nature of man’s desires, his self-interest. Is humankind really the despotic, evil-minded and manipulative creature he is often speculated to be, when given the freedom to fulfil his desires? Next, the essay will explore Maslow’s theory of Self-actualisation and the Hierarchy of Needs to try to understand how Mill could remove the ambiguity in the application and scope of the harm principle in a democracy and still sustain individual interests.
Self-actualisation as Maslow describes as “…the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for him [the individual] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, 1943). This is strikingly similar to Mill’s notion of the liberal-individual. Maslow was keen to depart from the ‘negative’ understanding of human nature and said “…the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy” (Maslow, Motivation and Personality, 1954, p. 236). Whilst his language is definitely archaic it suggests that focusing on negative issues will only yield knowledge steeped in negativity. He saw man and his nature as a series of fulfilments he described as Hierarchy of Needs (see Figure 1).
As represented in the above diagram, Maslow sees the need to fulfil deficits in the most basic needs as being fundamental to progressing onto the next level of needs. This is very similar to themes in Mills works relating to enlightenment ideals of progress and science (Heydt, 2006). The four most basic needs have to be met to self-actualise and realise your potential as an individual. Expressing yourself, as an individual, requires the cooperation of other people, which in turn would require you to help others in satisfying their needs and begin self-actualising themselves. Only when other members of society are able to meet these higher needs. In this way, it may be more preferential to help others self-actualise, rather than create institutions whose sole-purpose is to limit and punish those who inhibit individual liberty.
Mill succeeds in fostering intense debate into the notion of the liberal individual in democracy. On Liberty is a short and accessible essay that challenges the relationship between state and individual. It is sometimes vague and often contradictory about how the relationship between liberty and harm should function but this is mainly due to the fundamental philosophical question of what ‘harm’ should mean. Mill’s liberty is one with rampant individualism that is not compatible with modern societies need for collectivism (to satisfy basic needs). By removing the need for a predetermined form of government, Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation has many of the appeals of liberal individualism but is compatible with other forms of government, such as socialism. The harm principle is, in theory, compatible with Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs and by supporting other individuals collectively in self-actualising, it might not be necessary to use the harm principle in protecting liberal individualism.
Brecher, B. (2011, March 11). Liberalism in Thought: John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Harm. Democracy: From Athens to Baghdad. Brighton, East Sussex: University of Brighton.
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Heydt, C. (2006, October 24). John Stuart Mill. Retrieved March 16, 2011, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/milljs/
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Sandel, M. (Producer), & Sandel, M. (Writer). (2011). Justice: 3 – How to measure pleasure [Motion Picture]. Simmonds, N. E. (1998). Law and Morality. (E. Craig, Ed.) Retrieved March 15, 2011, from Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/T061SECT
Stephen, F. (1874). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Liberty Fund ed.). (S. D. Warner, Ed.) Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Van Mill, D. (2008, April 17). Freedom of Speech. Retrieved March 16, 2011, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freedom-speech/
West, C. (2004). Pornography and Censorship. Retrieved March 16, 2011, from Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2005/entries/pornography-censorship/
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