Critical Account Of Mill’s Liberty Principle

1406 words - 6 pages

There are essentially two polar views in relation to the liberty of people within society. Anarchist fundamentally believe that the state should have no power to impose limits on its people, whilst those in favour of total government control, believe that liberty should be disregarded and the state allowed to implement any law or policy that it so chooses. In his work ‘On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill outlines an alternative, which is a mix of these polar policies. He produced a formula which allows freedom of the individual with some limitations, which is now known as the ‘Liberty Principle. He disregards tyranny as a suitable form of government, but reasons that total freedom would allow abuses to occur. However, Mill’s work was criticised from the onset, primarily on exactly what was constituted as ‘harm’; individualism and the basis upon which ‘rights’ were developed. Nonetheless Mill’s principle appears to allow its citizens to achieve the most happiness, which is generally good for the betterment of society (Levene, 2010). (Wolff, 2006)

There are many components in Mill’s Liberty Principle. It applies to all members of civil society with the exception of children and ‘barbarians’ who are thought to be too young or too uncivilized to make decisions on their own. In a civil society which is capable of free and equal discussion, the individual has autonomy, that is, each individual makes his or her own choices essentially governing themselves. It is Mill’s view that as long as the choices made do not cause any harm to anyone else, then that state should not intervene in these decisions. This will be generally good for society as individuals will make choices that result in their own happiness, thereby increasing the overall contentment of society. By allowing people govern their own lives, different types of lifestyles are nourished which then allows society to discover the best way to live. However, this can only exist under the conditions of free speech and expression, limited only by the potential harm that may affect another. If society adheres to these measures then it would effectively be following the Liberty Principle. (Mill, 1984)

Throughout the text, Mill makes it clear that the only time government can intervene in individual lives is to prevent harm that they may cause to others. In chapter 5 he raises some examples that rank as ‘harm.’ He states explicably that using drugs or owing poison should not be banned as long as the individual does not place anyone in harm’s way. The police can limit certain actions that can cause harm, such as forcing violent drunks not to drink. Notably, he claimed that there are acts which performed in private are acceptable, but if those actions where performed in public they may be offensive to others which allows it to fall within the sphere of harm, such as sexually activities. (Mill, 1984)

However, this then begs the question, how offensive must an action be to fall within harm’s...

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