May 17th, 2009 by Hafiz Noor Shams
John Stuart Mill in his introduction to On Liberty writes:
It is proper to state that I forgo any advantage which could be derived to my argument from idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is a rule; to make his answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet, there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception. In all things which regard the external relations of the individual, he is de jure amendable to those whose interests are concerned, and if need be, to society as their protector. There are often good reasons for not holding him to the responsibility; but these reasons must arise from the special expediencies of the case: either because it is a kind of case in which he is on the whole likely to act better, when left to his own discretion, than when controlled in any way in which society have it in their power to control him; or because the attempt to exercise control would produce other evils, greater than those which it would prevent. When such reasons as these preclude the enforcement of responsibility, the conscience of the agent himself should step into the vacant judgement-seat, and protect those interests of others which have no external protection; judging himself all the more rigidly, because the case does not admit of his being made accountable to the judgement of his fellow creatures. [On Liberty. Chapter 1. John Stuart Mill. 1859]
First of all, wow. Look at that. That is one paragraph. But at least, it is more readable than Kant’s impossible Critique of Pure Reason.
Secondly and more importantly, it is beyond doubt this particular paragraph of Mill is filled with utilitarian idea. He justifies compulsion by society on individual by doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Gee, what am I talking about. This is Mill after all.
I am not quite sure if I agree with Mill when he writes there “are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform.” This may refer to externality but reading the whole paragraph within the context set by the introductory chapter by Mill, his idea may go beyond mine. While do believe certain negative externality requires action — for instance carbon emissions with respect to climate change — Mill mentions common defense, which may or may not mean conscription. I do have certain distaste for free riders; yet, I do have problem utilizing compulsion in against free riders. Mill suffers no such issue by reverting to utilitarianism.
Nevertheless, I am relieved to read that a “person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former.”
Mill writes further immediate after that paragraph. and it is more agreeable if I might add. I am reproducing it for the benefit of the readers here:
But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. 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. [On Liberty. Chapter 1. John Stuart Mill. 1859]