Monday, November 21, 2016

John Stuart Mill's ON LIBERTY

279 days until the first day of classes.

I have just finished John Stuart Mill's book On Liberty.

I seriously recommend reading it. Consider the views of somebody writing purely from an interest in the public good, some of whose views will agree with your own, and some of which are like those of political rivals you might consider the enemies of civilization. Yet, he gives good arguments for them - showing that "political rivals" are not necessarily villains.

It is surprising how many things said over 150 years ago are no different from assertions made today.

This book is in the public domain, so none of these options cost any money.

I read a copy of the book that I found on

You might prefer a PDF file that you can upload into your favorite reader.

Or, you can get an audio version to listen to.

However it is done, it will take perhaps 4 to 5 hours - and it is a valuable way to be spending 4 or 5 hours out of one's life.

While I was doing this - and other things - I did not make much progress on the "Moral Aversion Theory of Punishment". Or, actually, I did - since I read Mill because I wanted to find out what he might have said on the subject of that paper.

And he did have something to day.

Mill, in his essay On Liberty argued that harm to others not only defined the limits of criminal law, but it also identified the limits of social condemnation. In other words, he argues for a limit to our use, not only of state punishment, but of private social punishments, based on a principle of harm to others. Any behavior that an individual can engage in that concerns only his own legitimate interests is behavior that people have no right to respond to with moral criticism.

In fact, Mill was more concerned with limiting moral criticism than he was with limiting civil punishments. Social criticism, he argued, can be far more powerful - seeping into every corner of a person's life - areas where such a blunt instruments as the criminal law can not hope to enter.

He does not provide a particularly strong example of the type of issue he is concerned with. However, in considering some of his views, I think that a primary set of examples would be those of women who wanted to step outside of her traditional gender roles. Even if the law did not prohibit it, private morality still made it nearly impossible for a woman to become a politician, or a business leader, or a research scientist, or captain a ship. Because the woman who seeks such a life does harm to nobody but herself, if she does harm at all, then it is nobody's business but hers whether she engage in these pursuits. The rest of society should just back off and let her live the life she wants for herself.

In fact, this fits in with the ideas that I wrote into "The Moral Aversion Theory of Punishment." I argued that private punishment be used to promote aversions to lying or breaking promises. With the exception of lying under oath or the breaking of serious contracts, generally we do not give the state permission to become involved in the common promise-breakings and lies that individuals may tell each other. These are not appropriate objects of civil punishments - but they are still the appropriate objects of condemnation and anger.

This same type of moral condemnation is not applicable to matters where people have reason to enjoy a non-obligatory permission. What a person wears, what they eat, the entertainments they enjoy, the peaceful practices of their religion that they engage in - none of these can be made the proper object of moral condemnation.

The same applies to the professions (or hobbies) that a woman might want to engage in . . . or a man, for that matter, since men, too, are limited by a society that considers certain ways of living to be "unmanly" and, thus, subject those who men who pursue those options to condemnation and ridicule.

This does not meant that we cannot criticize decisions such as these. The right to freedom of speech gives us the right to criticize even when we are wrong. However, criticism is possible without condemnation. The claim, "I think you are making a mistake" means something quite different from, "I think you are perverse and deserve to be condemned."

Next, I am going to turn my attention to Mill's Utilitarianism. I once argued that one can give a motive-utilitarian interpretation to his theory of right action. I am wondering if I can find my reasons for that conclusion again, or if it was something I merely imagined.

No comments: