On Liberty
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On Liberty Summary and Analysis

by John Stuart Mill

Chapter 4

Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual

Mill contends that there needs to be a clear distinction between where individual liberty takes precedence and where society has the right to intervene. He refutes the Lockean argument that society is based upon a mutual contract but he concurs that once entered into society, an individual has an obligation to not violate others' rights, to contribute to the community, and not to hurt others in exchange for the protection and benefits that society offers.

For people who injure others in ways that cannot be punished by law, Mill believes that society's opinion and judgment will serve as punishment. In fact, Mill encourages public scrutiny and criticism of a harmful individual. He explains that society has the duty to use their impression of an individual and warn others of a person's potential danger. This is one of the rare instances where Mill permits coercion.

However, when a person is only hurting himself or herself, Mill says that people can advise him/her to adopt self-regarding virtues but ultimately, each person has the complete freedom to make their own decision. If a person does not adopt self-regarding qualities, society cannot publicly denounce him/her, although they can hold their own personal negative opinions. These private opinions are what ultimately may hurt a person who is not pursuing what society perceives as his/her own best interests. This is referred to as a natural penalty that is incurred by bad self-regarding interests. In addition to that natural penalty, Mill states that in a harmful self-regarding action, the only harmed person is the perpetrator who in effect, is giving and receiving his own punishment.

Mill agrees in part to the counterargument against his philosophy stating that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to believe that any action can solely affect the agent and will not be relevant to the community. However, he asserts that only when the action brings on the risk or actuality of public damage does society have the right to punish the perpetrator. Mill gives the example of a drunk man who shouldn't be punished for his intoxication unless he is a policeman or similar protector of society on duty and unable to fulfill his duties. In Mill's opinion, if a person's actions have little significance to society, then it is in the best interest of society to allow basic human liberties to prevail.

Mill places the burden of responsibility on society for the development of its members. Since society is responsible for children during their developing years, Mill believes that a significant number of immoral, irrational citizens reflect poorly and largely on society itself. In addition, Mill utilizes some real life examples in the illustration of his principles. He draws the line between selling and consuming; he points to consuming as a self-regarding act while selling affects the society it is catering to and can be regulated by that society under rational reasoning. He also asserts that workers should not be forced to take Sundays off, all workers should be able to choose one day to take off rather than adhere to the religious ideal of Sunday as a day of rest. To the Mormon tradition of polygamy, Mill, while denouncing the practice as a contract that acts against a person's liberty, concedes that all members of the contract are parties under their own will, so they should not be interfered with.

Analysis of Chapter 4

In this chapter, Mill anticipates and addresses some arguments against his theories. After his initial hard-line stance, Mill softens a bit as he attempts to clear up inconsistencies regarding his ideal of liberty and individuality. He finally makes a dependent connection between society and man, after denouncing the relationship in the early parts of the book. He makes people partially beholden to society and society responsible for the early development of their citizens ­ a strange thing for a man who sings the praises of autonomy.

Mill preempts the obvious question: "aren't all individuals' actions assured to have some effect on society? "by affirming that indeed they are. He doesn't deny the fact that some overlap is unavoidable but refutes the fact that this overlap has to be impactful. This, while perhaps a weak argument, is based on his idea that the danger of society's imposition upon individual liberty is much greater than the danger of individuals' deeds. Mill is much more eager to accept small ramifications of individual actions than to have society impose its will on individuals just to please society's moral standards and ideal of rationality.

It is a slight paradox that Mill places the responsibility of raising responsible children in society's hands while cowers at the idea that that same society could set the standards for all its citizens. In addition, Mill places more pressure of conduct on the individual as he opens the door for society to pass judgment on a person who doesn't have sufficient regard for him/herself and regards this judgment as the natural penalty for irrational self-regarding acts.

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