J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty”: The Case Against Paternalism

A note before the reading: This entry is pure philosophy. Once I am able to better wrap my mind around some bewildering events that recently transpired with a certain someone, I’ll try to write about it. For now, there are fewer answers than ever, and I’m more confused by this person than I ever was when studying perdurantism v. endurantism. So here is a fine piece on antipaternalism in the mean time. Enjoy.

In John Stewart Mill’s, On Liberty, we are introduced to a defense of individual autonomy through a passionate argument for antipaternalism. Paternalism is the limiting of a persons liberty in an effort to protect them from some self-regarding harm, either through laws, or other forms of coercion. It does not apply to other-regarding behavior where it is assumed that society has the authority to justifiably intervene. In this paper, we will evaluate Mill’s two primary supportive theories for antipaternalism; the Harm Principle (HP), and Utilitarianism (UT), as well as determine if there are justified instances of paternalistic interference (PI), and if those justifications create internal tension within the text. Overall, we will determine if Mill’s antipaternalism as presented in On Liberty is successful.

Mill holds the view that individuals know their own interests best, and that others are invariably likely to misapply their good intentions toward that individual, so it is best to avoid paternalistic interference in general. Mill says, “He [the agent] is the person most interested in his own well-being… the interference of society to overrule his judgment … may be altogether wrong.” (Ch. IV, §4) But there are particular instances where Mill does believe that some type of PI is justified. He argues that the only circumstances to which paternalism might be justified relies on the reason of the agent. Specifically, Mill’s “Bridge Scenario” (Ch. 5, §5) elucidates these two scenarios as being either, or both, of the following: (1) the agent does not possess the rational faculties (or is not of the age of reason) to know that his actions are dangerous, or (2) that there is no (obvious) evidence that the individual is aware that his actions are dangerous, or that it is clear that the person does not have the faculties to make such judgments.

But Mill also presents the “Slave Scenario” wherein a person willingly contracts himself into slavery. Here we see that an individual is protected not only by paternalism, but that his liberty does not even extend as far as giving him the right to alienate himself from his rights. He says, “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free.” (Ch. V, §11). Aside from him not even possessing the liberty to sell himself in such a way, but paternalism additionally protects him by not recognizing the contract in the first place, so that at any time, should he change his mind, he is free to quit the agreement. In fact, paternalism in this sense even goes as far as protecting the slave from the slave master by virtue of application of the harm principle; if the slave master is attempting to harm the slave who reneges on the deal, the authorities can (and must) step in to prevent the slave master from inflicted other-regarding harm against his former slave. Here we see, through the Bridge Scenario, the argument for a general prohibition against PI, while the Slavery Scenario makes allowances for very specific, or particularized, allowances for PI.

Mill’s antipaternalism is supported by both his HP, and by UT. To clarify, HP states that ones actions should go unencumbered by the law or other individuals so long as they are self-regarding harms that the agent is aware of. (Ch. V, §6). PI would only be allowed in scenarios that involved other-regarding harms, or harms inflicted by one onto another. For UT, the autonomy of the individual is considered by Mill to be very nearly the ultimate good, so when weighing “the good” in any situation, individual autonomy is to be automatically included in the considerations of what constitutes the most good. Because of the importance that Mill places on individual autonomy, both intrinsically and extrinsically, UT defaults to judging in favor of antipaternalism. But surely reasonable people can imagine limitations, or exceptions to these doctrines, and as it turns out, so did Mill.

It is clear that Mill is of the mind that so long as the acting agent is rational, and fully understands the consequences of his self-regarding actions, then PI is plainly unjustified. However, those who do not understand the consequences could justifiably be intervened upon (as in the Bridge Scenario). It is here that we see the first equivocation of Mill’s antipaternalism, but it is not the only exception that exists within his presentation. The Slavery Scenario also presents a problem for Mill.

The first problem comes from the application of the HP. If it is the case that an agent’s self-regarding actions will, either invariably or merely possibly, cause him a tremendous deal of harm, up to and including death, then one may think that the HP actually provides justification for PI by preventing harm to the agent. But this interpretation ignores the important crux of the principle, namely, that self-regarding actions should remain immune from PI. Further, the kind of reading that would expand the provisions of what is covered by the HP ignores Mill’s efforts to be quite specific about its applications, namely that the rational agent ultimately knows what constitutes goods and harms for himself. In this case, Mill’s view demonstrates that PI would be the greatest harm because of the persons inability to act in accordance with what he judges to be his own good (intrinsically valuable), and that the consequences he would have suffered could have allowed him to learn a great deal, and thus cultivate his intellect and character (extrinsically good).

The application of UT presents the greatest problem because of the requirement to maximize the amount of good for the agent. Normally it would be the case that because the individual agent knows what’s best for himself, he maximizes his own good by acting in whatever self-regarding he chooses. But as we saw in the case of the “Slavery Scenario,” PI is justified on UT grounds because the long-term good of the individual in preventing the contract outweighs the short-term good that would have allowed him to make such a near-sighted decision. This is not to say that Mill has forgotten about the paramount status of individual autonomy as perhaps the highest good of all; rather, Mill is trying to say, iff, in the exceptionally rare cases that the only way to achieve the most good in a given situation is to restrict the liberty of an individual, then PI would be justified.
It is apparent, then, that Mill is outlining two different kinds of PI, one where the authorities have general license to interfere with the self-regarding conduct of rational individuals, and one where the authorities would have license to interfere in only particular situations. It can be said that the HP is the best defense against the “hard” paternalism that allows for governmental authority to interfere with individual liberty based on what it thinks is a harm, and what is a good for the individual. Mill even says as much in chapter IV; “All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem is his good.” (Ch. IV, §4). This includes the permissibility of what may be considered crude, or improper behavior. For example, if an individual wanted to attend a giant week-long music and art festival in the middle of the desert called, “Burning Man,” where people engage in risky self-regarding behaviors such as drug use and promiscuous sex with other consenting partners, then those people should be allowed the perfect freedom to do so without legal intervention. The reason for this justification of liberty, even of self-destructive behavior, is because the individuals in attendance are all mutually consenting to kinds of salacious activities that are the hallmark of the event, and further, because the event is out in the middle of nowhere, far away from the more sensible and easily offended eyes of the general public. In this way, the impropriety is made “non-public”, and so becomes self-regarding harm that does not permit PI. The same would go for the drunkard; as long as the man drinks himself into oblivion in the privacy of his own home, and while doing so he strips naked, dances around, and eventually passes out, peeing himself, he is perfectly within his rights to do so. Neither the government nor his neighbors have any grounds to interfere. However, limitations are justified once harm to others becomes possible, or probable. If, before he passes out, he decides to run outside onto his front lawn fully nude and flash the school children walking home, his behavior is then other-regarding, and can rightfully incur the sanction of the law, and of opinion. Or what about the raver at Burning Man? Would a person, who has had multiple convictions for sexual assault under the influence of methamphetamines, be permitted to take ecstasy? Would his history of harming others make his self-regarding use of the drug without certainty that he would repeat his past offenses justify PI against him? Here, Mill would say yes, PI would be justified. (Ch.V, §6-7). The critical feature in these instances of justified PI is that other-regarding harm is being prevented or punished, not merely self-regarding harm. Society, nor the law, has any place in interfering with a person’s reasoned, self-regarding behavior, and therefore, the “hard” paternalism is rejected. However, this is some danger of exploiting the exceptions, as in the Slavery Scenario, and thus creating a slippery slope; for if PI is justified in that case, why could it not be justified in myriad others with similar characteristics? In Mill’s defense, adherence to the basic principles, as he describes them (HP, UT, and liberty itself), mitigates the dangers of the slippery slope exploitation evidenced by the tension of the Slavery Scenario.

The other type of PI, or “soft” paternalism, is only concerned with ascertaining if the actions are, in fact, the desired result of rational consideration by a person capable of making such judgments; if they are, then the person must be allowed to continue so long as the actions are self-regarding. Mill is far less concerned with this form of PI because it poses far less of a threat than “hard” paternalism because the intervention lasts only long enough to ascertain if the agent is knowingly and willfully performing some action or omission. An argument can likely be made that this is not even PI at all, but is rather some form of concern, which, proving no harm by way of preventing (albeit potentially delaying) the other individual from anything, may even be considered a net good on the UT position.

Despite the attempts at capitalizing on the UT position to defeat the argument via a slippery slope, I find that Mill’s antipaternalism prevails nevertheless. The exploitation of UT to justify all sorts of PI is only successful when one ignores the very basic principle that Mill repeats throughout On Liberty, namely, that individual autonomy is arguably the paramount intrinsic good, and so it must be included in any weighing of goods to determine which course of action maximizes the good. The HP similarly calls upon the good of individual autonomy in that it avers that any diminution of such would automatically be a harm that outweighs the consequences of self-regarding behavior. However, as soon as harm to others becomes possible, Mill acknowledges, and accedes to the necessity of PI for the protection of society, and other individuals.

Yours in Contemplation,


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2 Responses to J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty”: The Case Against Paternalism

  1. Pingback: On Liberty: Chapter 2 « Ramble. Focus. Ramble

  2. anonymous says:

    I would first like to take a moment to thank you for writing this piece, as it is a truly thought provoking and leaves the reader contemplating the bigger picture in a world where humanity seems to have lost common sense. So here is my question to you…

    The basic question is: Can the same rules be applied in the circumstance of a criminal that is a repeat offender and taking away their civil rights?

    Going further, I ask: Can the same rules be applied for an individual who has had repeated chances to be “reformed”, yet always returns to crime?
    For example, an individual committing armed robbery in which the victim was caused serious physical harm?
    In this case, one might argue that offender never “previously” harmed anyone or that the victim was “accidentally” harmed. However, in my mind I find this appalling, that fact that they have made a “choice” to continue to commit crime shows a pattern. I argue that the pattern of choices made by a criminal make a clear painting of the bigger picture. The picture I see is that the offender most likely has been escalating over time, and that his or her were not an “accident or unintentional” but that of someone who has become “morally bankrupt” over time.

    Awaiting your thoughts,


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