<i>On Liberty</i> and Liberal Indeterminacy

Is liberty good in and of itself? Or is liberty good merely because it produces good consequences? Hang around in libertarian circles long enough, and you'll probably see fisticuffs fly over these questions- Start from axiomatic liberty and find the good society, or look for the good society and find liberty? Over the years, I have come to realize that these questions are ultimately incoherent. The value of a commitment to liberty is invariably tied to the good society it produces. On this 200th anniversary of J.S. Mill's birthday, we can see that he was an early predecessor of these debates and essentially came to the same conclusion in On Liberty, where he employs both axiomatic and consequential reasoning to argue for liberty and why it ought to be adopted by state and society alike.

In the beginning of On Liberty, Mill lays out a number of forthright and basic principles that he says are the pillars of a liberal society:[1]

1. Coercion is only warranted against any given member (or group) in society for the purpose of self-protection/prevent harm to others.
2. So long as any given member (or group) in society are morally competent, it is neither acceptable nor justified for a third party to coerce, compel, or force them to do anything for their own good.
3. Only the conduct of individuals that affects others may be subject to scrutiny by third parties; individuals are sovereign over their own body and mind, and this sovereignty is absolute.

Further along he argues for tolerance of individual eccentricity, contrary opinions, and ultimately that absent some strong and compelling reasons people ought to be left alone on the vast majority of their life decisions. In terms of the state, he called for, at the very least, non-intervention/non-coercion in what we would call ‘victimless crimes’ and a limitation of society’s coercive interests to (for example) enforcing duties voluntarily contracted as opposed to some larger group’s sense of the good and prudential.

This is similar to modern libertarian arguments ala Rothbard or Rand, who put forth absolute starting principles and move forward from there; for example, the Non Aggression Principle is virtually identical to the Millian sentiment against compulsion, though with perhaps less caveats.

Of course, Mill was a rationalist and his godfather (intellectual and actual) was Jeremy Bentham, noted/notorious utilitarian, and so even in On Liberty, despite the straightforward assertion of the rights of individuals against society and state, he leaves the door open for rationalist intervention against custom and other non-reflective practices that might bind an individual. Indeed, it has been the philosophical basis for a number of unfortunate large scale social experiments in the 150 years hence. But in any case the tension can already be seen- following from some base axioms Mill can and does come full circle in saying that since individuals need to be free we must intervene, even though the first step is “respect the individual”- faced with the fact that people are heteronomous and not autonomous, where does one draw the line between tolerance and fostering autonomy when it comes to intermediary bodies like familes, clans, villages, churches, civic groups, etc?

Mill’s own arguments in Chapters 2 and 3, I think, get the question correct with an essentially consequentialist justification for respecting individuals as we find them, and that he successfully anticipates and argues against his later (interventionist) self when he says, “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” Indeed, his own advice in Chapter 2 of interested and persistent argument & persuasion versus compulsion in the face of self destructive or odious-but-legal behavior seems the more successful and prudent road.

And as though acting as his own Hegelian dialectic, he invokes what I think is a synthesis of his axiomatic and consequential reasoning in Chapter 3:

Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this? Doubtless, however, these considerations will not suffice to convince those who most need convincing; and it is necessary further to show, that these developed human beings are of some use to the undeveloped—to point out to those who do not desire liberty, and would not avail themselves of it, that they may be in some intelligible manner rewarded for allowing other people to make use of it without hindrance.

In the first place, then, I would suggest that they might possibly learn something from them. It will not be denied by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow.

Mill’s point here is that we should stick to the axioms even if they don’t yield good consequences in any particular here and now, because in the long run they will- akin to the biological point of toleration of mutation; most mutations are neutral or deadly, but you don’t stomp all mutation out because the small fraction that are good will be preferentially passed on, increasing fitness.

But I digress. Even though Mill is a rationalist, even though he was raised in part by Bentham, even though he was a utilitarian, he still undergirds his whole argument axiomatically, saying straight up that Mankind are ends and not means. So long as you are mentally competent, how you wish to order your life should be respected and uncompelled by state or society:

I have said that it is important to give the freest scope possible to uncustomary things, in order that it may in time appear which of these are fit to be converted into customs. But independence of action, and disregard of custom are not solely deserving of encouragement for the chance they afford that better modes of action, and customs more worthy of general adoption, may be struck out; nor is it only persons of decided mental superiority who have a just claim to carry on their lives in their own way. There is no reason that all human existences should be constructed on some one, or some small number of patterns. If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode. Human beings are not like sheep; and even sheep are not undistinguishably alike. A man cannot get a coat or a pair of boots to fit him, unless they are either made to his measure, or he has a whole warehouseful to choose from: and is it easier to fit him with a life than with a coat, or are human beings more like one another in their whole physical and spiritual conformation than in the shape of their feet? If it were only that people have diversities of taste that is reason enough for not attempting to shape them all after one model. But different persons also require different conditions for their spiritual development; and can no more exist healthily in the same moral, than all the variety of plants can in the same physical atmosphere and climate. The same things which are helps to one person towards the cultivation of his higher nature, are hindrances to another. The same mode of life is a healthy excitement to one, keeping all his faculties of action and enjoyment in their best order, while to another it is a distracting burden, which suspends or crushes all internal life. Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable. Why then should tolerance, as far as the public sentiment is concerned, extend only to tastes and modes of life which extort acquiescence by the multitude of their adherents?

This brings us to, as Jacob Levy puts it, a fundamental philosophical question for liberals: “who is entitled to freedom, and what sorts of lives [are they] entitled to create with their freedom”. One on side of this coin is the idea that the customary, local, and individual should be respected; we should respect people as we find them and we have no right to order them according to our desires. On the other side of the coin is the observation that social customs and pressure can materially constrain freedom and autonomy in such a way that an individual cannot be described as free, and thus these impediments to an authentic, self-directed life should be removed. Taken in a broader view, the two positions are summed up as “pluralist” vs. “rationalist”. I’ll assert along with Levy that this tension is both fundamental and irresolvable as both positions are liberal, and for any given situation can both be more or less true. That is, a proper understanding of liberalism will never banish one or the other from the family. Mill, having argued both sides of the coin simultaneously, would apparently agree.

This divide cuts across the axiomatic/consequentialist axis in an interesting way; while axiomatic libertarians might be considered to be “pluralists” and often end up defending the local and particular against socialists & Jacobin style rationalists, there is just as often folk who see action implied by or demanded by their axioms and thus ultimately are led to a ‘rationalizing’ reformist mode; consequentialists, usually self-describing as rationalists who subject most practices and customs to reason, just as often arrive at a position that due to various problems and structures, the best policy is pluralism and live and let live.

When Mill employs both axiomatic and consequential reasoning in the course of arguing both sides of the liberal equation (pluralism and rationalism), he doesn’t resolve the tension but swims in the middle of it. Much like a quantum particle can be “simultaneously” two mutually exclusive outcomes prior to observation, I think that liberalism is likewise indeterminate- prior to any particular observation, the liberal tradition *is* both plural and rational. It *is* simultaneously based on axioms/ duties and justified by consequences.


fn1. On Liberty, Chapter 1 – “That principle is, that the 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, is not 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 opinions 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. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”

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