The philosophy of John Stuart Mill

The nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that for man to be truly free the rights and liberties of the individual must be guaranteed. Mill was concerned with what he called “Civil or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised over the individual” (Mill 13). Mill argues that there are two distinct parts of a person’s life; that part of a person's life that “concerns himself only," and that part “which concerns others" (74).

Mill believes that a person has the Liberty to do what he wants as long as he does not harm others. If he does not harm others that is the part of his life that “concerns himself only,” but if a person’s actions are harmful to other beings then that is the part of his life “which concerns others”(74). Mill states that many people would object to his arguments about individual Liberty:
How (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them. (Mill 74)

Mill notes that it may be further objected that a person may set a bad example for others by his actions and in that way do harm to others (75). Therefore, we should be concerned with everyone’s actions for the good of society. A man who is a drunkard or gambler hurts his family and those that depend on him for services, therefore shouldn’t we also be concerned with his actions (75)? A person may be so self degrading that he is doing harm to himself and deserves the help of others even if he does not want their help or advice (76).

Mill answers these objections brilliantly. The part of the person’s actions others should be concerned with is the damage the actions do to others. A person who is a drunk and fails to meet his family obligations, therefore hurting his family, should be punished. The punishment, however, is for failing to meet his family obligations not for being a drunk. Mill writes:

No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law. (76)

Mill believes a person should never be punished because his actions set a bad example or because the public feels they can not act responsibly concerning their own being(76).

Currently Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” is trying to alter the way people think and behave according to their own agenda. The “Moral Majority” believes its way to behave is correct and all other modes of behavior or actions are false and evil and should be censored.

Mill argues the problem is that we can never be sure that anything is totally false (18). Falsehoods are often sprinkled with specks of truth. If we censor a person’s actions completely, we would lose those specks of truth that are sprinkled amongst the falsehoods. According to Mill by censoring the actions of others:

They are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if they are wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. . . . Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question of all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. (18)

Mill argues that society has control over a person’s liberty when they are a child (77). It is society's job to educate a young person and make “them capable of rational conduct” (77). If society fails to educate a person to its mode of proper conduct, society as a whole is guilty, and the individual, as long as he has not harmed others, does not deserve to be punished (77).

Today, there is a big push in this country to limit individual freedom/liberty for the good of society. People fear crime and the diminishing of what is called family values. The problem is whose speech should be limited? Atheists may argue that all religious speech should be censored because it is false. Theologians may argue that atheism should be censored because it is false. Family values differ from family to family. The moral values taught to Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Catholic children are not identical. Who is to decide which set of values we should follow? The individual (or the individual's parents) has to make that decision themselves without interference from well intentioned others. No one has the right to interfere with a person’s individual Liberty to choose what is best for them.

The best argument against interference of the life of an individual is made by Mill: “the strongest of all arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct is that, when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place” (78). The United States currently has many laws governing personal behavior that have failed miserably. The attempt to control drug use is a perfect example of the government “interfering wrongly in the wrong place." The use of drugs by individuals should not be of anyone’s concern unless the user fails to meet his responsibilities to his family or others. We now live in a society where violent criminals are released early from jail punishment so that we can punish people for their individual behavior even though they have harmed no one. Mill is right we must stop punishing people for actions that harm no one but the individual performing the action. Man must quit being the judge of man when it comes to personal behavior. Individual Liberty must be guaranteed if we are to live in a truly free society.