Discussing John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). For Wes Alwan’s summary of this book, go here).
If we disapprove of certain behaviors, when is it okay to prohibit them legally? What about just shaming people for engaging in them? How much shaming is too much? Mill’s famous “harm principle” says that we should permit anything unless it harms other people. But what constitutes “harm”? If I call you by a racial slur, have I harmed you? If I teach your children ideas or behaviors you don’t approve of, without your permission, have I harmed you? Or them?
Mill was not just concerned with paternalistic laws, but with other kinds of social pressures. We should not let the tyranny of custom make us all into meek conformists. We need to promote individuality, diversity, eccentricity. This is the only way to allow genius to flourish. Individuals’ “experiments in living,” even though most of these may just be foolish, ultimately serve to help us progress.
And of course, central to this freedom of living is freedom of thought, and what’s very closely related, freedom of speech. Even if nearly all of us find some ideas objectionable, we need to let them be stated, not just out of principle, but because we want bad ideas to be engaged, to be actively refuted. If we all agree on something, we take it for granted and forget why we believe it; having to defend it makes us understand it better. Ideas need to compete in daylight if we expect truth to prevail over time.
Mark, Wes, and Dylan bring this debate to current issues and explore some of the less expected aspects of Mill’s view, such as his views on public education (he’s for universal education, but against government providing it), imperialism (maybe it’s OK to be paternalistic when dealing with illiberal cultures), and economics (because economic activity by definition involves others, it does potentially fall under the harm principle; Mill’s “libertarianism” doesn’t leave companies to deal with employees and customers however they see fit).
To hear the other famous part of Mill’s thought, check out our ep. 9 on utilitarianism.
Mill image by Charles Valsechi.