On Liberty

On Liberty Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5

In this chapter, Mill enumerates how all of his theories and ideas for humankind can and should be applied in real-life scenarios and explains when liberty has to be sacrificed. He recaps his two main maxims: one, that the individual should not be punished for their actions if they are only affecting themselves and two, that for actions that do adversely affect others, society should hold the agent responsible for his/her actions and take the necessary step to punish them, be it in a courtroom or a social setting.

Mill is careful to explain an exception to punishing someone for inflicting harm. "In many cases, an individual, in pursuing a legitimate object, necessarily and therefore legitimately causes pain or loss to others, or intercepts a good which they had a reasonable hope of obtaining." A person exercising their liberty to do the best they can should not be ostracized because others could not do as well ­ the only scenario in which punishment is justifiable, according to Mill, is when the means used to win are underhanded and deprive others of a fair opportunity.

In the realm of the marketplace, Mill reiterates that trade is indeed, a societal art that involves everyone and should be under the guises of society to a certain extent. However, Mill has ideas about what constitutes the limits of the government's power in this area. He does not believe that the government should have the power of prevention, just the right to warn and punish its citizens. He thinks that giving the government the right to forbid the sale of potentially dangerous items is giving the government too much power over individuals' lives. On items such as poison, Mill asserts that a person could have ill or good motivations in its purchase and that it is not the government's place to assume that there are evil motives. However, for this innocuous person, Mill proposes that precautions should be taken. Dangerous products should be labeled as such, giving the buyer the knowledge they need to make a rational decision, and buyers should be required their personal information such as name, address and why they are purchasing a particular item. This is not an infringement on liberty, according to Mill, but a precautionary measure for the whole of society.

In criminal activities, Mill believes the solicitation of another to commit a crime against humanity is not exempt from society's judgment because the person solicited and the victims of the crime are being harmed by the instigator. He also believes that fornication and gambling cannot be stopped if all parties involved are consensual and reaping the same benefit. However, running a public gambling house or brothel is not within the understanding of society because these things promote bad moral behavior publicly and adversely affect others. Mill doesn't frown upon a so-called "sin tax", although he states that it is a slight infringement on liberty, he sees it as an inevitable one; tariffs are bound to be raised, so why not raise the price on items that people don't need to survive?

Mill decries any sense of a person's right to sell him/herself into slavery. He states "by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act...the principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free." Self-ownership only goes as far as morality and the maintenance of liberty, both of which are severely compromised under slavery. Mill also deals with Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt's assertion that all contracts between individuals should be broken upon either party's dissatisfaction, contracts such as marriage licenses would dissolve upon an exercise of liberty. Mill does not adhere to this ideal, he views von Humboldt's statement as narrow, not looking at the intricacies of contracts in society. Mill takes into consideration that with a contract like marriage, "a new series of moral obligation arises on his part toward that person, which may possibly be overruled, but cannot be ignoredŠ" While Mill thinks that legally, parties should have the right to break contracts if it a self-regarding act, Mill believes that it is morally lacking and a misuse of liberty to frivolously void such a contract.

Mill believes that liberty, along with the state's power, is often misconstrued. Mill thinks that the great disparity in the power held between husband and wife should be fixed by the state by implementing laws that ensure equal protection for women. He also believes that a parent is committing a crime if he/she does not obtain a good education for their child. Furthermore, he thinks that the state should enforce mandatory universal education for all, forcing children to meet comprehension standards after the end of each grade. He argues that this would lessen the influence of factions who argue over what should be taught to whom; religious groups and other minorities would be able to teach their children what they wished in addition to the standard curriculum. Continuing with the idea of parental obligations, Mill points to the decision to have a child as one of an extremely serious one, requiring a lot of rationality and ability. Mill thinks that potential parents should have to prove that they are financially ready to have a child. This requirement, in Mill's eyes, is not an infringement upon liberty because it is a precaution against a child coming into the world with no means to eat or live a happy life - that child would be adversely affected by its parents' decision so that decision is susceptible to public scrutiny.

Even when there is no chance of liberty being infringed upon, Mill thinks that the government interference should be limited overall. If an individual is better suited to perform a task than the government, he/she should certainly be allowed. If the individuals cannot perform a task as well as the government, they should be allowed to do the task anyway, according to Mill, because it will broaden the individuals' knowledge and bring some new perspective to issues. The most important reason to Mill that the government should not be given the freedom to interfere is that it would be harmful to all to bolster the government's power with no laymen to challenge their actions. Mill thinks that it is necessary for society to be competent and able to organize a original, innovative political structure. Under an increasingly empowered government, however, Mill sees no possibility for such a society to develop.

Overall, Mill thinks that government should be centralized and serve in an advisory capacity to localities, whose political leaders would be beholden to the citizenry. Mill thinks that such a system would provide intelligent decisions and ensure liberty for all citizens while maintaining a strong sense of order and consequences. Mill thinks that the worst thing for a government to do is to make its constituency diminutive and reliant, for this passive and ineffectual behavior will breed no great accomplishments or goals for the state.

Analysis of Chapter 5

Mill's overview of his strategy is quite insightful, although at times highly contradictory with the principles he has set forth in earlier points in his work. Through the application of his ideas to everyday events, a clearer view is obtained of what Mill's thoughts are about the direction society should go in.

In this chapter, Mill has a very pronounced sense of paranoia about the government and the dangers of empowering the government. However, he himself makes some broad assumptions about people and their desires that borders on dangerously presumptive. In dealing with marketplace issues, Mill finds himself in a difficult situation, having to deal with the sale of potentially dangerous materials and draw the line between precautionary and preventive. Although Mill calls it an effectual prohibition for some people, he surprisingly endorses "sin taxes", a measure that appears to be at odds with his idea of autonomy and personal freedom. He also endorses warning labels, assuming that everyone who buys poison wants to be warned of its possible effects.

Mill's analysis of selling oneself into slavery is interesting. He believes it to be wrong because it takes away the very liberty that all self-regarding acts invoke. However, it seems to be disingenuous to suggest that a person can harm oneself but cannot sell oneself. Another intriguing analysis deals with education and its necessity. Mill calls it a father's duty to provide education for his child and that there should be universally enforced educational standards. His explanation for this is that a parent has no right to take away the liberty of his child by stripping him of an education that would give him the opportunity to succeed. This is probably because of personal bias, Mill's father was determined to give Mill a great education among the finest minds in the world and Mill felt deeply that every parent should be as committed to education as his own father was.

In this chapter, Mill suggests several protective measures that are used in modern-day society; the foreshadowing of present-day America and the world is definitely notable. He argues that for the sale of items that could possibly be used for criminal endeavors, a registration should take place for the purchaser. Also, he speaks of the advantage of a standardized proficiency test to ensure that all students are learning at similar levels. Mill is definitely ahead of his time in many respects, he also appears to be an advocate for women's rights and legislation, undoubtedly inspired by his recently deceased wife's perspective. Mill's ideas on crime, education, gender issues and government are all based on his ongoing struggle between an individuals' right to liberty and the right of society to restrain those who cannot restrain themselves.