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On Social Freedom, by John Stuart Mill (?)

oktober 1, 2011


Attributed to JOHN STUART MILL

Reprinted from the Oxford and Cambridge Review, June, 1907, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1941

”Or: the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our Social Life”

There is perhaps no question upon which it is possible to theorize to so little effect as upon the nature of human freedom; there is perhaps no range of thought in which we may so easily perplex ourselves with so little prospect of reaching a sound and serviceable result. On this field of thought, as perhaps on some others, it is possible, and in a sense easy, to arrive, by what appears to be a process of reasoning, at results which no mortal man can honestly and heartily accept as true—at results which are belied by the inviolable laws of human thought and feeling. I believe that it is not very difficult to set forth what will appear vastly like a demonstration of this proposition:— That human freedom is altogether an illusion or a fiction, that every act of every human creature is absolutely determined by unalterable laws.

I will honestly confess that I am wholly unable to furnish anything like a satisfactory refutation of the arguments that may be urged against the existence of human individual freedom. At the same time I do not hesitate to affirm that there is no sane being who can adopt and consistently carry out this doctrine. It appears to me that every reasonable act of every sane man is a practical assertion of the existence of individual freedom.

But I am not at present concerned with arguments for or against the actual existence of human freedom. What I have now to say is exclusively addressed to those who admit the existence of human freedom, who believe, in fact, that they themselves can, within certain limits, do what they please, and that the same faculty of voluntary action is possessed by their human fellow-creatures. If any man does not know what we mean by doing what we please, I cannot now undertake to explain this meaning; if the phrase ”voluntary action” conveys no distinct conception to the mind of the reader I cannot now undertake to furnish to him or to convey by any means to his mind, a distinct conception which shall answer  to this phrase.

Nor can I undertake to show on what ground men believe themselves to possess this faculty of voluntary action. It seems to me that this belief, like many others which have a wide influence upon the conduct and the well-being of mankind, is not based upon any process of logical argumentation, but upon some immediate or spontaneous sense, on some movement of consciousness. Men believe that they are free, or that freedom, or the power of voluntary action, is a natural feature in their being, in perhaps something the same way as they believe that they are men, and not mere locomotive vegetables, or two-legged beasts-mainly because they cannot help believing it.

I assume not only that men have the power of exercising freedom, but that this power is generally regarded by men as an object of desire. Even if human individual freedom, or the power of voluntary action, should actually prove to be a mere illusion, or should prove to be something totally different in its nature from what it is commonly supposed to be, still, while it is regarded as a reality by so large a portion of mankind, and while its possession is regarded so universally as an object of desire, it seems to me certain that the considerations set forth in this work are not wholly unworthy of attention.

How far the desire of freedom is reasonable, how far the possession of freedom is really beneficial to all mankind, and under what special circumstances it may be more or less beneficial, are questions of which I shall not now attempt the complete solution. It seems to me very certain that, in this age and in this country, the desire of freedom, or of what is supposed to be freedom, is widely prevalent among all classes.

The restrictions upon men’s freedom-or what they regard as such restrictions-may not only occasion suffering or irritation to those who find themselves thus restricted, but may lead to illfeeling and strife between men. If then it should prove that our freedom is necessarily limited—that there are limitations which arise inevitably out of the conditions under which we live, it must surely be important that we should know distinctly what are these limitations, and how they are connected with the circumstances and conditions of our lives. It is probable that men will often struggle vigorously, and sometimes with destructive violence, against those restraints upon their freedom which they believe to be imposed upon them by adventitious circumstances or by the arbitrary will of other men.

It is possible that men may sometimes rebel against those restraints which are necessarily associated with the most valuable forms and modifications of our social life; and in their wild and undiscerning efforts after unlimited freedom, may overturn arrangements and institutions which are essential to the higher moral life of mankind. It is not even impossible that men, by their ill-directed efforts after unbounded freedom, may destroy those very features of our social life which tend to enlarge their freedom, and may thus bring themselves under a more degrading and oppressive bondage than that which they have cast off.

Whatever may be our estimate of the absolute value of freedom, we cannot but profit by gaining a clear insight into the various causes of the limitations which restrict our freedom, by distinguishing those restraints which must be borne for the sake of our moral and social culture, from those which arise from abuses in our social system, and by accurately discerning those limits beyond which we cannot hope to extend our freedom without doing away with those conditions which render life valuable to us.

General Considerations regarding the Nature of Freedom

Whatever special theory we may hold regarding the nature of human freedom, its source, or its foundation, it is certain that by freedom, if we mean any thing at all, we must mean freedom to act. We cannot conceive of any exercise of freedom other than by action. A man who is free, is free to act; the man who is not free to act possesses no such freedom as we can form any conception of. Our notion of freedom is, therefore, based upon our notion of action. What is the precise connection or relation between these two notions, I leave for the determination of those who are more skilful in fashioning definitions than myself. Now, it is certain that no rational being will act without a motive; the motive will either be a desire or inclination, or will arise out of, or be connected with, some desire or inclination.

Now, there are two kinds of freedom, which perhaps have not yet been sufficiently distinguished, even by those eminent thinkers and writers who have given their attention to this subject. These are -the freedom to do what we wish to do—and the freedom to do what we do not wish to do. If any sane man affirms that it is a matter of indifference to him which of these kinds of freedom he enjoys—that he does not care whether he is free to do only what he wishes to do, or free to do only what he does not wish to do, then I should certainly affirm without hesitation that he does not know what he is saying.

Now, if we should conclude that the freedom to do what one wishes to do is in reality the only sort of freedom which any man seriously desires, or even the freedom which he mainly desires, it will be very manifest that the enfranchisement of the whole human race will be no simple problem. It will be manifest that this kind of freedom-the freedom to do what one wishes-will be different, to some extent, in the case of every human creature.

For all men to be free, in this sense, supposes as many kinds of freedom as there are human beings in this world. It seems quite certain to me that the matter has not generally been looked at in anything like this light. I am almost sure that people have commonly supposed that Freedom is one uniform thing, and that the freedom which one man may possess or may desire is, as a matter of course, the same sort of thing -differing only in degree-as the freedom which another man may possess or may desire.

It may seem an extravagant assertion that there are just a thousand million kinds of human freedom, but I am sure that any thoughtful person will soon convince himself that there are more kinds of freedom, which may be actually desired by human individuals, than can easily be thought of or examined in a brief space of time. One man would be free to get drunk, or to appear drunk in certain special places; another would be free to accost all passers-by with a certain familiarity or insolence; another, to hoot and jeer at persons obnoxious to him.

One would be free to engage in brawls and riots in public places; another, to create public nuisances (a head which will comprise an almost infinite number of different kinds of freedom); some would be free to create obstructions in public thoroughfares, some to shut up such thoroughfares altogether, others to create thoroughfares for themselves, according to the caprice of the moment, regardless of any other consideration. One man would be free to use, according to his pleasure or caprice, any valuable property which he may chance to find in his way; another would be free to exclude all mankind from all use or enjoyment of any property upon which he can anyhow contrive to lay hands. One man’s freedom would be exercised in tilling such a piece of  ground; another man’s freedom would require this land to remain untilled. One man would be free to build a house in a certain spot, another would find his freedom curtailed by such erection.

One man would be free to express his own opinions in his own way, at all times and under all circumstances; another would be free to prevent such expression of opinions, and to choose his own mode of prevention. One man would be free to teach the children of others, another to keep his children untaught. One man would be free to morally pervert, or cruelly treat, his own children; another would be free to beat his wife; another, to torture living creatures in general. One man would be free to have a multiplicity of wives, another to have no wife at all (and this latter kind of freedom is not so universally conceded to mankind, as a superficial observer of human affairs might imagine).

One would be free to have as many children as he pleases, another to have as few (and this also is a kind of freedom which must not too hastily be assumed as the universal birthright of all mankind). Some would be free to utter obscene jokes or to sing obscene songs before miscellaneous company; some, to exhibit obscene pictures in public places; others, to exhibit their own persons without such covering as is demanded by the ordinary notions of decency. One man would be free to wear his hat while ”God save the Queen” is being played or sung; another would be free to ”bonnet” the person exhibiting such a mark of disloyalty. I should think it can hardly be necessary to go on and fill five hundred pages with this catalogue; I should think the reader who has the least fertile invention could easily fill five hundred pages with such a catalogue without any help from me.

The individualist Theory of Freedom

I believe that some persons have been disposed to regard each human individual as occupying, or as having a right to occupy, a certain ”sphere of activity,” in sole and exclusive possession. Within this sphere he is to exercise perfect freedom, unimpeded by the free action of any other human creature.

To this sphere his activity is to be confined, so that he shall in no way encroach upon the spheres of activity which belong to other men, or impede their free action within their respective spheres. According to this theory, a state of perfect and universal freedom may be attained by merely assigning to each individual his own sphere of activity, by securing to him free and unimpeded action within this sphere, and by strictly and absolutely limiting his activity to this sphere. Every man will be perfectly free who has his sphere of action unencroached upon by others. If any man is deprived of his freedom, or if his freedom is in any way curtailed, this must arise from his being expelled or excluded from his own sphere of activity, or from some encroachment being made upon this sphere. To do away with all forms of oppression, and to render all mankind perfectly free, all that we have to do, according to this theory, is to assign to each individual his own sphere of activity, and in some way to shut him up within this sphere.

I will not now attempt to show just how far this theory of freedom-which I will take the liberty of calling the Individualist Theory-is now prevalent amongst men. I cannot help thinking, for my own part, that the ideas commonly prevalent amongst men concerning human freedom, and especially concerning practical modes of extending human freedom, are greatly muddled and confused. I have a strong conviction that, if men generally would reduce their ideas upon this question to something like order and clearness, it would be found that something like this theory of independent spheres of activity is at the basis of all attempts to attain a perfect state of human freedom, or even to effect a large extension of human freedom, by means of mere legislative arrangements. So far as human freedom can be attained by the mere fencing off of human beings, each into his own sphere of activity, so far it is conceivable that men should look to the agency of civil governments for the enlargement of their freedom. Whatever step can be taken by civil governments towards the general enfranchisement of mankind, can only be effectual by more accurately ascertaining the sphere of activity of each individual, or by more securely guarding each person’s sphere of activity from the encroachments of others.

But let us consider what sort of sphere of activity it is which can be assigned to each human individual for his exclusive occupation, and within which he is to exercise perfect freedom. I have referred to the necessary connection, in the case of every rational being, between action and some desire, inclination, or motive of action. If the action of a human being is to be limited to a certain sphere, he must find, within this sphere, desires, impulses, or motives of action, or the objects which give rise to such desires, impulses, or motives.

Now, there is a certain class of human desires or impulses which have exclusive reference to the objects of inanimate or brute nature. Let us try and conceive this material universe, animate and inanimate, parcelled out into provinces or districts, one of which shall be assigned to each voluntary agent as his sphere of activity, within which he shall exercise perfect freedom of action so long as he does not encroach upon the sphere of any other voluntary agent. We need not now inquire precisely how these  provinces, districts, or spheres of activity shall be marked out or divided.

Whether such a division would be barely possible in the nature of things, whether any rule or principle could be found which would guide us in carrying it out-whether any human ingenuity or sagacity would ever be sufficient accurately and justly to parcel out this universe of inanimate and brute nature into such districts or spheres of activity, to find a sphere for every rational or conscious being, and rigidly to pen up or confine each free agent within his own sphere-are questions upon which I am not now inclined to enter.

But let us assume, for the sake of our present argument, that all this would be possible, that every human creature might be securely penned up within his own sphere of activity, and that he might have absolute and undisturbed possession of this sphere; our present question is, how far would such an arrangement afford men Freedom-that is to say, what they would feel to be freedom-such freedom as they would in any way desire, or as any one would suppose to be desirable for them.

Let us look at those desires and impulses which most immediately and most exclusively relate to the external material world. These are clearly the animal appetites. Now, let us consider how far the province or sphere of activity which could be assigned to each human individual will comprise all those material objects to which a man is drawn by his animal appetites-how far, that is to say, supposing men to be mere animals, each human individual could be furnished with a ”sphere of activity” within which he may exercise all the freedom which his animal appetites will lead him to desire.

There are but few objects in nature which in their crude or native condition are such as to satisfy any desire or inclination of man. We can pen up a tame ox upon a piece of pasture land, and if it be sufficiently large and sufficiently luxuriant, and if he be unmolested by tormenting insects or other causes of irritation, he will be, for a time at least, perfectly satisfied. But we cannot easily find a piece of pasture land upon which we can pen up a man, to his own perfect satisfaction, let him be ever so ”bovine” in his tastes, disposition, or habits. We cannot now find, or even imagine, any Garden of Eden whose natural products will satisfy the wants of the most simple and unsophisticated of men. Whether there may be lands where the soil is so fertile, and the sky so genial, that the natural products will amply supply the wants of some small section of humanity, is not a question which we need now discuss. We may easily  convince ourselves that the great mass of mankind have animal wants and desires which can only be satisfied by the products of human labour. Thus, supposing each human individual fenced off in his little district or ”sphere of activity,” supposing the most favourable state of circumstances, this province or district can only afford him satisfaction for his desires through the results of his own labour.

Thus, if we could establish a perfect state of freedom by merely dividing the material universe into ”spheres of activity,” and by penning up each human individual (voluntary agent) in his own sphere, this freedom could only be enjoyed by any human creature, by means of a certain measure of toil. Whether this measure of toil would be such as most human beings, or as any human beings, would find agreeable -whether this toilsome freedom would not be more burdensome than a moderately easy servitude, is a question which we cannot undertake to settle on the present occasion to the satisfaction of all persons. If any one of my readers has any doubt upon the matter, I only wish he could try the experiment, and be fenced off for a year and a half in some ”sphere of activity” where he should be unmolested, but also unaided, by any human creature, and where he should have no material means of enjoyment, or of  satisfying any of his desires, save what might be the spontaneous production of nature or the exclusive result of his own toil.

I am certain that any thoughtful and observant reader of this work will easily convince himself, without actually making this experiment, that no such freedom as this would be any object of his desire. There are not many persons who are anxious to go back to the ”state of nature,” and to abandon all the benefits that civilization has conferred upon mankind. Those whose wants arise most exclusively from animal desires, require at every moment the help of their fellow-men. If we imagine the most equitable division of the material universe into ”spheres of activity,” and imagine each individual occupying his sphere under the circumstances most favourable for his comfort and enjoyment, I have not the slightest doubt that the life of each human individual, thuspenned up in his own ”sphere,” would be a life of continual misery. His freedom would be practically limited, in most cases, to the freedom to starve.

But when we look at men as other than mere animals, we see still more plainly that their desires are not such as to find satisfaction in any such ”sphere of activity” as we can imagine assigned exclusively to each rational and conscious being. Even the most brutal and sensual of men could not enjoy himself long grazing like an ox in his own little pasture, even if this pasture should comprise everything that could tempt the palate of an epicure. We cannot imagine a human creature, for any length of time, basking with perfect satisfaction insulated in a paradise of sensual bliss. Even the sot cannot always relish his cups in solitude; the most carnal of human enjoyments must sometimes be sweetened by companionship.

There will be few indeed amongst the readers of these pages whose actions are mainly determined by desires or impulses which relate exclusively to mere material objects. We are very liable to be misled, in reference to this question, by a superficial view of human conduct and human affairs. We see men earnestly engaged in what appears to be the pursuit of mere material objects, for the most part in the mere quest of gain. A large section of mankind seems to be exclusively occupied in the acquisition of money; may we thence conclude that money alone will satisfy every desire or inclination of these persons-that a person of this description, if penned up in a ”sphere of activity” which should yield him an abundant harvest of coin, would enjoy the fullest freedom which he could desire?

The miser may perhaps seem to hoard his gold for the mere sake of possessing it, with no thought of using it for any purpose, good or bad; yet even the miser, if he were perfectly isolated from all his fellow-beings-not only in regard to actual bodily presence, but in thought and in feeling-would perhaps find that his gold had lost its charm. Let us suppose the miser to become aware that every human being in the street or the parish where he lives has a hoard twice as large as his own—I think no miser would find his gold afford him any satisfaction after such a discovery. The miser’s passion is a very subtle element of our nature, and one which it is not easy accurately to trace in all its workings, but the fact to which I have just alluded seems to me to indicate very plainly that, even in the case of the miser, avarice is not mere love of gain for its own sake, but for the sake of some social relation, some relation, that is to say, with our fellow-men, which the possession of wealth enables us to maintain.

Every human being has, probably, a brute element in his nature-a set of desires and inclinations which can be satisfied by mere contact with the visible and tangible things of the material world, without regard to any social relations which may subsist between himself and any of his fellow-creatures.

But apart from all matters which admit of question, there cannot be the smallest doubt, in the mind of any thoughtful person, that, amongst all those classes who have any measure of cultivation, excepting a few eminently sensual persons, the far greater number of human desires are such as can only be satisfied through some kind of social relation, or relation between fellow-beings. To return to the love of gain, it is not for the sake of possessing so many thousands of circular plates of metal, or for the sake of having his name inscribed in some register with certain figures appended, that the worldly or avaricious man toils and hoards, but mainly for the sake, either of the power over other men, or of the eminence, distinction, or notoriety, amongst men, which this wealth will give him. Men do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men, or than certain other men. The avaricious or covetous man would feel little or no satisfaction in the possession of any amount of wealth if he were the poorest amongst all his neighbours or fellow- countrymen.

A woman covets a pretty bonnet; you may perhaps fancy this is for the sake of the article itself. It is nothing of the kind; the bonnet would be just as pretty if every woman in the parish had just such a one; and yet in that case it would probably wholly cease to be an object of desire. There are some things which men desire because certain others possess things that are precisely similar; there are some things which men desire because no other persons can possess similar things. A coat of a particular material and make may be in request because certain persons, or certain classes of persons, possess similar garments; a picture or a diamond may be an object of envy because there is no other in the world like it.

The Essential Nature of Freedom

There is clearly a certain kind or measure of freedom wherever a man chooses one course of action rather than another. In one case we say that a man has his choice, and in another case that he has no choice; and we feel that he has a freedom in the one case-which we feel to be wanting in the other case. But, at the same time it is no less certain that I may be, in some measure, unfree even where my course of action is determined by my choice. It will at least be admitted that, amongst a variety of cases in which I act according to my choice, I am more free in one case, and less free in another case. If the reader declines to admit an absolute want of freedom in cases where a man selects his course of action from two or more  courses which are offered him, he must at least admit a difference in such cases of choice-one action being more free, and another being less free.

As my present object is practical utility, rather than scientific accuracy, this admission of a comparative unfreedom in cases of actions determined by choice, will suffice to render me in some measure intelligible to the reader. Thus, I have my choice-shall I take this valuable ring from the jeweller’s counter, or shall I not take it? And yet, if the ring be not mine, no sane man would pretend to regard me as so free to take it as if it were mine. I am at least comparatively unfree to take your property in that manner which the law would regard as felonious. Now, in what manner is my freedom circumscribed in a case where I have the opportunity of committing a theft, not indeed with the prospect of ultimate impunity, but without meeting with immediate opposition? We need say nothing, for the present, regarding the force of the moral law as limiting my freedom in such a case as this. The common mind unhesitatingly pronounces -I am not free to steal, because the law of the land forbids me.Now in what way does the law of the land circumscribe my freedom? It leaves my limbs unrestrained; it leaves me in every case—or at least in nearly every  case—the choice, to obey the law, or to disobey it.

The law merely threatens me with a penalty, if I choose to disobey. If I have a desire or inclination urging me to disobey the law, I have to make my choice, between gratifying my desire or escaping the penalty of the law. It is clear that the law exercises upon me no kind of influence or restraint save by setting before me a certain motive for acting or forbearing to act.It cannot be doubted that we have a certain notion of freedom which is based upon the nature of the motives which determine our actions. The man who acts from certain motives is more free, the man who acts from certain other motives is less free. The martyr or the patriot who defies bad or oppressive laws, and chooses to endure the penalty by which such laws are enforced rather than yield obedience to them, seems to us more free than the man who obeys these laws in opposition to the dictate of his conscience. Here are two men who, in the same circumstances, have, as we may suppose, the same motives urging them to action; the one man yields to one set of motives and is free, the other yields to another set of motives and is unfree.

Certain citizens of a democratic republic will for the mere payment of a sum of money, vote for the appointment of one  man as able, absolute, and hereditary dictator; certain other citizens of such a republic will suffer close and painful imprisonment for their unsuccessful resistance to a coup de main, and will voluntarily choose the continuance of their captivity rather than swear allegiance to the usurping tyrant.

The latter act upon a certain class of motives, and are free, or comparatively free; the former act from another class of motives, and are unfree, or comparatively unfree. But, it may be asked, what are the motives which determine a free action, and what are the motives which determine an action which is not free or which is less free?

This is not an easy question to answer fully, in general terms, and one to which I shall not in fact attempt to give a sufficient answer. I do not now aim at laying down a moral system which will give perfect satisfaction to all persons of deep thought and of extensive information.I believe that the science of morals is yet in its infancy, and I do not aspire to effect much by means of this work towards its final completion. I believe there are some persons who regard their feelings, in relation to some human interests, as having a more distinct and unquestionable reality than their intellectual conceptions. It is, perhaps, mainly to such that this work will commend itself, seeing that it is based rather  upon the sense of freedom than upon any intellectual conception of freedom

.I may be wholly unable to demonstrate to the critical reader that the motives which influence our actions are, respectively, higher and lower; there may be those who will altogether deride the notion that one motive can be higher or nobler than another. The fact to which I would appeal is that we meaning those persons to whom this work is mainly addressed-have a strong and unmistakable feeling that some motives are higher, and others lower.This feeling we who experience it are no more bound to explain or account for, in order to justify our acting upon it, than we are bound to account for the distinctions of colour in order to justify our selecting our draperies according to their tints or patterns.

Indeed, with those who positively deny this distinction of human motives as higher or lower, I do not care much to argue. If a man really believes that the hog, in gobbling up his wash, is influenced by as high or as noble a motive as the philanthropist, who works unostentatiously early and late to relieve the destitute poor of his parish, I for my part do not care to discuss moral questions with him. If a man, who is ruled for the time being by mere appetite, pretends to have any higher or nobler motive than that of thepig, I am wholly unable to appreciate his view.

If a man, when eating to satisfy his hunger, being conscious of nothing but his hunger and its satisfaction, yet professes, by virtue of his general excellence of character, or of his having fulfilled certain stated ”religious observances,” or by virtue of certain ”latent principles,” or of some mysterious knack of ”doing everything to the glory of God,” to convert his hunger into a high and noble motive, as high and noble as that of the philanthropist, I can only say that such subtleties are altogether out of the range of my intellectual powers.I believe there are persons who resent, as a gross indignity, the charge of ever being influenced by motives to which the term ”low” or ”lower” can be applied.

They regard their persons and their actions as invested with that sort of sanctity or moral dignity that we cannot even, without doing them cruel wrong, pick out this or that action or feature in their conduct as worse or morally lower, or less noble, than another action or feature.For my own part, having never seen fit to set myself up as a pattern of sanctity or moral excellence, I am quite certain that the motives which determine my actions are extremely variable in their degree of moral worth; and I am sufficiently certain that the same is true of those persons to whom this work is intended to appeal. Those persons whose actions are, all of them, already of the highest and noblest moral character possible to mortals, seem to me incapable of all such improvement as this work is designed to promote; in those whose actions are all of the lowest and most ignoble moral character I have but little hope of effecting any improvement. It is those who, being conscious of the need of improvement, are at the same time conscious of possessing those elements of character which render improvement possible, that I am anxious to aid or encourage in their strivings after a higher and noble state of moral being.

I would submit to the reader this view of human freedom, with all modesty, not knowing, in fact, how far I may claim for it the authority of noted writers upon moral questions, or how far I may claim the merit of originating it. That man seems to me to act with freedom who yields to the impulse of the highest motive which demands his obedience, or which presents itself to his consciousness, at the moment of determination. It is, perhaps, rarely that any action is determined upon by any human being under the sole impulse of one motive. I cannot help thinking that, when one solitary motive is present to a man’s mind, he will certainly and inevitably act from  this motive.

Whether he is free or unfree in such an action, is a question which there is now no practical necessity for us to consider. I think there is at least some plausibility in the supposition that wherever a man clearly and manifestly exercises his freedom, there will be a variety of motives present to his mind. At any rate, it is quite certain that, in all such cases as we need now consider-that is to say, in those cases where it is a practical question whether a man shall be more free or less free—the action will be determined upon under the influence of a variety of motives—the action is, as it were, the final result of a conflict of motives. A new impulse or desire arising in a man’s mind, where there is no positive force with which this new inclination has to contend, will, in nearly every case, find itself at least opposed by a certain mental inertia—the disinclination to action at all, or the charm or attraction of the previous condition or course of action. I should think there are few human actions which are not preceded by a state of mental indecision, however short, in which the agent asks-Shall I do this, or shall I not?

It might possibly be a matter of no small difficulty to determine fully and completely which of all the motives that ever influence human actions are higher and which are lower-to arrange all motives  of human action in a scale, showing their relative degrees of moral worthiness or unworthiness. This is a problem of which I shall not here attempt the complete solution, since it is not my present purpose to complete the extremely imperfect science of Ethics. But I am strongly convinced that, unless human motives can be thus arranged in a moral scale, there can never be any such science as Ethics at all, or any approach made to the construction of such a science.

I think that we may at least take one step towards the formation of such a scale of human motives, in placing the animal appetites at its lowest extremity, as being, of all the motives that can influence human conduct, and which are not actually vicious, the lowest and meanest.

Yet it is certain that we do not regard all actions as unfree which are performed under the mere impulse of bodily desire, or of some other low or base motive. The man who sits down to his meal with a hearty appetite and eats from pure hunger, uninfluenced by any other motive, is not necessarily regarded as unfree. There is no necessary want of freedom in drinking to quench one’s thirst or in falling asleep from weariness. It is not merely because an action is impelled by a low or base motive that it seems wanting in freedom, but because there is, at the same time, a higher and nobler motive which claims the obedience of the agent. In short, we regard an action as unfree when it is determined by some motive which is not the highest present to the mind of the agent, at the moment of determination.

Let us take a variety of those most ordinary cases in which men act in a manner which is commonly regarded as wanting in freedom-the elector who votes with his landlord or his wealthy customer lest he should lose his farm or injure his trade; the man of position in society who conceals his religious, social, or political views lest he should forfeit his social standing; the political leader who attaches himself to a party whose policy he does not approve in order to gain a lucrative place; the clergyman who belies his most solemn convictions in order to retain or to obtain a benefice; the author who publishes sentiments which are not his own in order to win favour from the public or from some section of the public; the lady who wears a dress which she feels in her heart to be grossly indecent in order to be fashionable; the villager who forsakes his conventicle and attends the parish church, contrary to his convictions of duty, lest he should offend the squire’s lady and lose his Christmas soup and coals, or who sends his child to the ”National” School rather than to  the ”British,” in spite of his convictions as to their respective merits, from dread of the clergyman’s influence; the shopkeeper who is ruled in all matters connected with political, parochial, or municipal interests by the dictation of those wealthy persons from whose custom a considerable part of his income is derived.

Now, in all these cases it is manifest that the agent chooses his course of action, and yet in every one of these cases we feel that there is a want of freedom. In each of these cases we can imagine the agent choosing to act in a contrary manner, and in a manner which we should feel to be at least more free. In each of the cases cited above the agent acts in violation or in disregard of some serious conviction, for the sake of some low and selfish object; in each of such cases we feel that the agent is ruled by a lower motive, to the suppression or the disregard of a higher motive, of which he may be more or less clearly conscious.

It is not, of course, easy in all cases to discern clearly and accurately the whole of the motives which influence, or which ought to influence, those persons whom we see acting around us, and the relative strength of each of the various motives which may influence them; yet I am convinced that, the more closely we look at men’s actions, the more frequently shall we find them acting under the impulsion of a variety of motives, some of which we feel to be higher and more worthy to rule men’s actions than others.

I am convinced that a careful scrutiny of human actions will show that where, in actual life, men act with unfreedom-where we feel them to be in any way enslaved or deprived of their freedom, their actions are nevertheless determined by choice-that the free action differs from the unfree, or the action which is more free from the action which is less free, in the different orders of motives which prompt them.

Whatever theory we may adopt, guided either by philosophy or by common-sense, regarding the actual nature of human freedom, we cannot but regard our freedom as limited, or as liable to be limited. Whatever kind of freedom we may enjoy, or however numerous the different kinds of freedom which we may enjoy, it is certain that we can have no clear conception of freedom without having a conception of some kind of restraint, or other circumstance which either does limit, or may limit, this freedom. Whatever questions may be raised in reference to this subject which we may be unable to solve to our own satisfaction, we may at least feel—those of us, that is to say, who will give any serious attention to the matter-that this department of our subject, the nature of those restraints or other circumstances which circumscribe our freedom, is a topic upon which we can reflect with some hope of attaining a useful result.

I think there can be little doubt that this negative view of human freedom-the view of those features and circumstances in our lives which limit our freedom or tend to render us unfree—is that aspect of the subject which minds of the ordinary stamp are best able to realize. And yet I think it can as little be doubted that the ideas commonly prevalent amongst men upon this point are far from clear or consistent. First of all we meet with the notion that the main limitations upon men’s freedom are owing to oppressive or unjust laws, enforced by civil governments. I believe most firmly that this is a fallacy which is as mischievous as it is absurd. I think that any intelligent man who will try and picture to himself the restraints upon his freedom to which he is likely to submit, or the sacrifices of freedom which he is likely to make, during an ordinary day of his life, he will see at once that civil or judicial coercion has a very small share in laying down those limits which actually circumscribe his freedom. I am not alluding, of course, to persons of singularly vicious or lawless  character, or in other respects exceptional in their dispositions or habits. A person of ordinary decency and respectability will, at least in this country, rarely find himself checked in the carrying out of his desires, by the restraints and prohibitions of law. A person of ordinary decency and good repute, in ordinary circumstances, who should wish, many times during a year, to do an act which is forbidden by the law, will be the subject of some kind of thonomania or idiosyncrasy.

I have already referred to the force of habit and the embarrassment which it may occasion us in our treatment of this subject. So far as a man is absolutely ruled by habit, so far our inquiries concerning human freedom can have no more reference to his case than to the case of an ordinary vegetable. It is useless to make arrangements for the freedom of such a one; it is useless to refer to the case of such a one for any illustration of our principles or our conclusions. We can therefore learn nothing from the case of a man who, if left to himself, would, from the mere force of habit, under all conceivable circumstances, rise every morning at the same hour, take his meals, day after day, precisely at the same hour and, as far as possible, in the same manner, and who will go on throughout the day fulfilling precisely the  same routine of action. We should rather try and imagine circumstances which might render a man desirous of breaking through his habitual routine.

Let us imagine a man to have some strong inducement to spend the day, or some considerable portion of the day, in some occupation altogether remote from his ordinary engagements—in some pleasure excursion, in some scientific, literary, or artistic pursuit, or in the advancement of some benevolent object, or in response to some demand of friendship. Or imagine him to have found some special inducement for economy in some detail of household or personal expenditure, in some case where a considerable saving could be effected, without any sensible diminution of comfort or enjoyment, by taking a course unusual with persons in his position of life. Or imagine him to have found some person whose society is singularly agreeable to him, or promises to be highly beneficial, but whose occupation, social position, or ”ungenteel” appearance is far removed from that of those persons with whom he has been accustomed to associate. Or imagine him to have undergone some change in opinion, on either a theological or a political question, which would lead him to adopt a course of action widely different from any which he has ever followed, or which has ever been  followed by any of those persons who form the social circle in which he has moved. Or imagine him to feel a strong impulse to devote a large portion, either of his time or of his property, to the improvement of his fellow-creatures, or to the carrying out of some favourite theory or project for the advancement of human society. Or imagine him to feel impelled, either by taste or caprice, to adopt an occupation or profession totally different from that which he has hitherto followed, and which will be either far less profitable than his old pursuit, or will command far less consideration in society. None of these suppositions is altogether extravagant; they are most of them conceivable in the case of a man whose mental and moral structure differs widely in no feature from the ordinary type of mankind.

Now it is quite certain that, with the great majority of mankind, in well-ordered societies, the restraining influence which will check such impulses as these and force the man back into the old track of use and wont, will not be the force of judicial coercion. This at least we may conclude without hesitation, although we may find it difficult to determine what will be the actual restraining force in all or any of these cases. Assuming that the force of habit does not operate-and if we do not assume this, I think  all considerations regarding a man’s freedom are futile—in the case of a man who is engaged in a lucrative occupation, out of ten cases in which he will feel an inclination to break through his general routine of customary actions, in nine cases he will be forced back into the habitual track through the desire of pecuniary gain, or through the fear of loss.

In a great variety of matters he will be absolutely governed by public opinion, the opinion, that is to say, of that class or section of the public whose opinion he most regards. In matters of social etiquette, or those observances which have especial relation to the distinctions of social rank, he will probably be mainly ruled by the desire to appear as ”genteel” in the eyes of his neighbours as his circumstances will admit. In many matters a man will be wholly controlled by the opinion of some particular person, some leader of fashion, or great man in his neighbourhood or amongst his party, or even of his own wife. If he be an employer, and desirous of offering some concession to his discontented workmen, he will probably be deterred by the fear of some sort of social ostracism amongst his fellow-employers, especially if he be one of the least considerable amongst them. If he be disposed to make some unusual effort or sacrifice for a benevolent object-to give a larger sum of money than  would generally be thought reasonable or becoming in his position of life—or to spend some considerable portion of his time in some practical effort for the good of others, such as a ragged or adult school, he would probably be restrained from the indulgence of such inclinations by the fear of ridicule.

If he should be tempted to throw himself earnestly into some project or scheme for the general improvement of mankind, or of some section of mankind, it would be the fear of being called ”Utopian” that would drive him back into the tramway of conventional self-seeking.If he should hold some extreme or exceptional view on a theological or political question, or regarding the relations of social ranks or classes and their relative duties, it will probably be a very complex feeling that will induce him to conceal this opinion, or at least to refrain from that course of action to which it would most naturally lead-partly the fear of losing caste or of becoming ”ungenteel,” the fear of forfeiting the respect or good-will of his associates, and of losing, in some measure, his social connection, the fear of losing the influence which he now holds amongst his neighbours, or the fear of injuring his business-all these fears being, perhaps, aggravated by his dread of the displeasure or disfavour of some particular class, as the clergy or the  gentry, or the wealthier class amongst his neighbours.

And, in general, there is a vast, vague, mysterious authority which casts its shadow over all human affairs, and which governs men’s actions with a far more stringent rule than that exercised by the civil governor-the authority of Conventionalism or Conventional Propriety. There is a strange and vague dread of doing what no one else ever does, of being altogether singular, which far more frequently restrains men-excepting the lowest or poorest classes in society, and perhaps not excepting these-from the indulgence of their personal fancies and caprices, than the prohibitions of civil law.

If it should here be said, regarding all these influences, that a man yields to them voluntarily, and that they are no restraint upon his freedom, and if it be asked-How can a man be unfree in a matter where he himself makes choice of his course of action? I will refer the reader to what has been said in reference to certain aspects in which freedom seems to consist, in some measure, in the subordination of a lower order of motives to a higher. In case the reader should have forgotten the remarks alluded to, or should have failed to find convincing force in arguments, which to me, I say with all humility, seemed  quite unanswerable, I will here so far repeat myself as to remark that if a man yields voluntary obedience to the dictates of fashion, of public opinion, of the ”genteel” circle in which he moves, or in which he aspires to move, of his employer, of his customers, he as truly yields voluntary obedience to the injunctions of the law. Whatever sense of unfreedom a man may experience in paying assessed taxes or parish rates, in filling up a census paper, or even in putting in an appearance to a writ of summons, I am quite sure that a man will often feel quite as oppressive a sense of unfreedom in ”cutting” a shabby relative for fear of his ”genteel” neighbour, in appearing at a social gathering which is wholly devoid of cordiality or friendly warmth, and which comprises only persons disagreeable to him, in attending a religious service which is altogether wearisome to him, in complimenting a lady upon her musical performance, or in listening to the conversation of a noted bore.

Note by Jerlerup:
I am putting the introduction in the end, since the article makes some stranges assumptions about politics and Mill, like that he became a socialist in the end of his life.



John Stuart Mill’s views on liberty are commonly regarded as his most important contribution to political thought, and his essay On Liberty is the most widely known of his political writings. It is remarkable, therefore, that an essay by him entitled ”On Social Freedom” has been almost completely neglected. As far as can be discovered this briefer essay is not mentioned in any history of political theory or in any study of John Stuart Mill, and it appears in no bibliography of Mill’s works. This situation is the more remarkable because these few pages represent a marked advance in Mill’s thinking on the problem involved. They contain modifications of the central argument in his earlier essay and throw new light on the shift in his position from individualism toward socialism and idealism during the latter years of his life.

Two facts at least help to explain the neglect of this essay. In the first place, it was not published during Mill’s lifetime. The original manuscript was found after his death, along with other papers, in the house where he died in Avignon. In the second place, in June, 1907, it had the misfortune to appear in the ”Oxford and Cambridge Review”. This journal was discontinued five years låter and, according to the Union List of Serials, copies of the 1907 issue are to be found in only thirteen libraries in the United States and Canada. It is small wonder that the buried essay has gone unnoticed and unsung.

This essay of Mill’s, which is reprinted here to make it more readily available, was probably written shortly before his death in 1873. While there is no evidence to establish the exact year, there is enough evidence to suggest that it was written after the publication of On Liberty in 1859. It certainly did not antedate that work, for it contains a pointed criticism of the individualist argument for liberty presented there. Moreover, the idealist implications of part of the discussion indicate that this is a late work, probably composed after Mill had encountered the beginnings of idealist thought in England.

Finally, the form of this essay suggests that it was written by a tired, or tiring, man who put down more or less casual ideas without developing them or integrating them with his earlier studies. Quite possibly Mill did not intend to publish this essay in its present form. Yet, as it stands, it is an important document for students of political thought in England in the nineteenth century, and it is an interesting composition for those concerned with formulating an adequate doctrine of liberty for this generation.

Mill became his own critic, because he asked himself a question about liberty which he had not raised in his earlier essay. There he is preoccupied with a political issue. He wants to find an adequate basis for limiting the power of the government over individual liberties. ”The subject of this Essay,” he writes, ”is … Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” In this second essay, on the other hand, Mill is concerned with a sociological question. He wants to uncover the actual limits of individual freedom set by the nature of society. This is suggested by the full title: On Social Freedom; or, The Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom Arising out of the Conditions of Our Social Life. In approaching the problem of liberty from this more realistic angle, Mill took the path which many of his critics subsequently pursued, and in doing so it is not surprising that he anticipated many of their findings.

A good deal of what Mill wrote in his first essay has safely escaped serious criticism. This is true above all of his great plea for liberty of thought and discussion which appears in chapter ii. State control of opinion is unwarranted, Mill argues, because coercion has nothing to do with the truth of ideas. An opinion which a government attempts to suppress may quite possibly be true. Or, however true an official opinion is, if it is not ”fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed,” it will become a dead dogma.

Moreover, nonconforming opinions must continually supplement official beliefs, if the whole truth is to be known. This well-known argument rests on assumptions which are as relevant today as in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Other passages throughout the essay, particularly in chapter iii, also remain a permanent contribution to political thought. Mill shows how the growth of individuality depends upon conditions favorable to initiative and experimentation, how the basis of morality is undermined unless men have the possibility of choosing both ”right” and ”wrong,” how all new creative movements depend upon a few original souls who would be crushed in a uniform society. Such doctrines continue to be as useful as ever in the defense of fundamental liberties.

On the other hand, much of what Mill said in the first essay is now out of date. This is true in particular of his famous political argument for limiting the authority of the state over the individual, which comes in chapters i, iv, and v. This argument, for which Mill has since been so severely criticized, runs briefly as follows. There are two distinctive spheres of human action, one containing acts which affect the individual performing them, one containing acts which affect his fellows. The first sphere of individual-regarding acts comprises matters of conscience,

thought, feeling, and opinion; of tastes and pursuits harmless to others; and of combination for purposes not involving harm to others. The second sphere of society-regarding acts includes any deed hurtful to others, or certain positive deeds necessary for the benefit of others. Mill argued that the individual will be interested in the part of life that affects himself, society as a whole in the part which affects society.

One sphere of action should therefore be assigned to the individual and one to society. ”To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.” ”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.” In proposing this particular criterion for safeguarding the individual in his important liberties, Mill succumbed to the misleading assumptions of his generation. And in this second essay he himself faces the difficulties of his position and reveals the misconceptions on which his argument depends.

On the one hand, this later essay includes an altogether new interpretation of man’s relation to his fellows. At the basis of much of the argument in the first essay is the idea of man as an essentially isolated creature with predominantly self-limited concerns.

So conceived, individuals are largely content within their own private spheres of activity. Inclusive interests which bring them into contact with their fellows are merely occasional and secondary. Social relations are then not so much a fundamental condition for the development of man, as a possible threat to his growth. In a well-known passage Mill exclaims: ”society has now fairly got the better of individuality.”

This view of man and society was current in much of the individualist philosophy of the period. One famous expression of it occurred earlier in the socialcontract doctrine of Hobbes. Hobbes maintained that ”men have no pleasure (but on the contrary a great deal of grief) in keeping company. …” A somewhat similar conception underlay the philosophy of Adam Smith, who wrote of men as separate com- peting units, involved in the pursuit of their own self-limited interests. True, Mill wisely admits that  individuals cannot be very successfully separated.

Even in the first essay he shows some uneasiness about his position. He allows that all acts by an individual tend to have some effect on others, ”for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself.” Moreover, he indicates only tentative categories when faced with the practical task of deciding which actions concern chiefly the individual and which concern chiefly society. The results of his efforts suggest that concern is entirely a matter of degree and not at all a matter of finality and certainty. The concept of an isolated individual is thus qualified at its very inception. But only in this later essay does Mill fully admit its inadequacy. Here for the first time he describes man as an essentially social being.

Man, he believes, cannot live an isolated life for two good reasons. To begin with, men’s material needs require the active aid of other persons for their satisfaction. Even such self-limited interests as the possession of food and clothing require the action of others to supplement our own. ”If any one of my readers has any doubt upon the matter,” writes Mill, ”I only wish he could … be fenced off for a year and a half in some ‘sphere of activity’ where he should be unmolested, but also unaided, by any human creature, and where he should have no material means of enjoyment, or of satisfying any of his desires, save what might be the spontaneous production of nature or the exclusive result of his own toil.” Life, Mill argues, would be continually miserable; ”freedom would be practically limited, in most cases, to the freedom to starve.”

Mill suggests that men cannot live as isolated beings for a second reason. They require the society of others not merely to help supply material goods, but also to assure a social structure within which to use these goods. Most objects that men desire are wanted less for their own sake than because they give one a certain position in relation to others. ”The worldly or avaricious man toils and hoards . . . mainly for . . . the power over other men, or . . . the eminence, distinction, or notoriety, amongst men, which this wealth will give him.” ”Men do not desire merely to be rich, but to  e richer than other men, or than certain other men.” So men act in large measure because of the possibility of achieving a status in relation to their fellows. If isolated from  society men would lack the human companionship and recognition fundamental to human enjoyment. Men depend on others, then, not only for the satisfaction of their  selflimited interests, but they require a common system of social prestige created by the responses of others. On these two scores man is inevitably bound into society.

This conception of man’s relation to his fellows sounds familiar to twentieth-century readers. But in Mill’s generation it was popular only among socialist writers. The germ of this conception appears in a chapter ”On the  robable Futurity of the Labouring Classes,” in Mill  Principles of Political Economy ( 1852).

There he affirms that ”association, not isolation, of interests, is the school in which . . . excellencies are  nurtured.” The elaboration of this idea in the pages printed here presages the end of Mill’s earlier political criterion. If man had primarily self-limited interests which removed him from society, it would be possible to fence him off into certain spheres of his own in which he would be sovereign and content. Indeed, if society is inimical to personal  growth, it becomes all-important to protect men from society and assure them spheres of independent action. If, however, man comes naturally into society to satisfy his material and human concerns, limiting him to self-contained spheres is

both difficult to conceive and disastrous to effect. Mill seems quite sure that even the parceling out of the material universe into individual, exclusive districts is neither practically possible nor desirable. Moreover, if society is less a danger than an essential condition for individual development, the important task is not to shut men off into spheres immune to social control, but is rather to assure them as effective service as possible from their social relations. It is small wonder that we now find Mill speaking of his ”individualist theory of liberty” with noticeably decreasing confidence.

Another conception at the basis of Mill’s defense of liberty receives fresh interpretation in this second essay. Mill reconsiders here the actual relation between liberty and social restraints. Like so many of his generation who feared the ”dead hand of government,” Mill tends in part of his earlier argument to identify all forms of social control with political coercion. Law is frequently used as an inclusive term to cover every form of social regulation. All restrictions on liberty then become political in origin.

From this premise it follows that activities will be free in the absence of legal restraints. Or as Mill implied, if only the law is silent in the individual-regarding sphere, men will be free to do as they please in that sphere. This form of assumption was well known during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Exponents of the laissez-faire doctrine, and later, anarchists, believed in the inherent hostility between liberty and law. So Spencer, for example, argued that every law is a diminution of liberty and that

the degree of freedom depends upon the relative absence of law. Mill was not as thoroughgoing in this belief as some of his contemporaries. He even allowed that law might play some constructive part in protecting individual spheres from outside encroachment. But he did not appreciate the full function of law in relation to the liberties within these spheres. This appreciation could come only after the insight which Mill emphasizes in this second essay.

In these pages Mill declares that law is not the primary threat to liberty. He writes: ”We meet with the notion that the main limitations upon men’s freedom are owing to oppressive or unjust laws, enforced by civil governments. I believe most firmly that this is a fallacy which is as mischievous as it is absurd.” Certain non-political restraints seem to him a greater danger than law. These he calls the power of public opinion, and conventional propriety. In his earlier essay, Mill says that individual liberty is more exposed to invasion from public opinion than from the government. Furthermore, he gives considerable place to a discussion of the compulsive power of custom. But Mill fails to maintain his distinctions when presenting his political argument. And in this second essay he analyzes still more carefully the relation between political and nonpolitical restraints. Even in this essay, however, Mill gives no place to the discussion of restraints imposed by such nonpolitical associations as employers’ groups, trade unions, and the churches. He fails to draw on an earlier analysis of his own in the Principles of Political Economy, where he suggests the perils to the liberties of workers implied in the existence of joint-stock associations. Like most of his contemporaries Mill did not fully appreciate the significance of associations growing up between the unorganized groupings of section and class on the one side, and the compulsive state on the other.

The existence of restraints on liberty other than those imposed by law undermines the usefulness of Mill’s political criterion. If public opinion and other nonpolitical constraints imperil liberties, then the absence of law is no assurance of freedom. If men are let alone by the law in their self-regarding activities, they may be restricted from some other direction. As Mill illustrates the matter himself: ”One man would be free to build a house in a certain spot, another would find his freedom curtailed by such erection.” Furthermore, once it is admitted that

nonpolitical restraints may limit liberty, legal control becomes a necessary condition of many people’s freedom. Law is no longer the enemy of all liberties within the selfregarding sphere. Law may promote the liberty of one man, by restraining the liberty of another to erect his house in an inconvenient location. Mill had already suggested in the Principles of Political Economy that certain liberties of the working class depend on legal regulation. In his chapter On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes, he admits that agreements on hours of work should be enforced by law. It was becoming difficult for Mill to maintain that the solution of the problem of liberty is the silence of law on self-regarding activities.

Still a third conception at the root of Mill’s political argument is reexamined in these pages – the relation between liberty and the general welfare. In the first essay, Mill tends to treat the condition of liberty as a final good, an end in itself needing no further justification in terms of the general welfare. He separates human actions into the self-regarding and society-regarding categories and then argues for the liberty of all actions in the first category on the ground that they are in the self-regarding class. Because they fall within the private sphere the state cannot rightfully control them. Why is coercion of religious belief and practice undesirable? Said Mill, because religious matters belong to the individual sphere. Why should one not legislate on temperance questions? Said Mill, because drinking is a private matter. By insisting that all acts in one categoiy be left free regardless of their social consequences (and Mill allows that even individual-regarding acts have social consequences), Mill makes those liberties absolute. They are not subject to consideration along with other conditions of the good life, but become themselves the end of government. This mode of argument was not peculiar to Mill. In particular it haunted the social-contract school. Locke, for example, fixed on activities which were individual matters in a hypothetical state of nature and called them ”natural rights.” Liberty in these regards was then justified without any appeal to its social effect, but simply on the ground that these were ”natural rights.”

To be sure, Mill escapes the pitfall of this form of argument in part of his first essay. In the second and third chapters he treats liberty as one condition of the development of individuality, rather than as itself an end of government. His great defense of liberty of thought and opinion rests, not on the ground that thought and opinion have no direct effect on others (which at best would be difficult to argue), but on the surer ground that coercion and the prevention of opportunities for contesting beliefs have nothing to do with the truth of an opinion. The argument is based on the detrimental social effects of the legal coercion of opinion, not on the self-regarding nature of opinion. In his first essay, Mill alternates thus between two arguments for liberty, appearing not even to recognize the shifts of position. One of these positions is severely weakened, however, by this later essay. Mill finds two reasons why liberty cannot be adequately defended as an end in itself.

On the one hand, Mill suggests that liberty or a group of liberties can never be treated as a whole. In his first essay, he had proposed that all liberties in the self-regarding class be guaranteed together. Such a policy would be possible only if men’s self-limited interests were completely harmonious. This, of course, is what many of Mill’s generation, trained in the laissez-faire philosophy, actually believed. However, in the pages printed here, Mill avoids that popular mistake. He shows convincingly that because interests do in fact conflict, the liberties which make their pursuit possible also conflict. ”One man would be free to wear his hat while ‘God save the Queen’ is being played or sung; another would be free to ‘bonnet’ the person exhibiting such a mark of disloyalty.” No exception can be made for selfregarding acts. As described by Mill, even the liberties to perform such acts conflict; for example, ”One man would be free to express his own opinions in his own way, at all times and under all circumstances; another would be free to prevent such expression of opinions, and to choose his own mode of prevention.” It becomes impossible, therefore, for the government to handle self-regarding liberties as ”one uniform thing” and assure them all together.

Furthermore, there is a second reason why liberty cannot be defended as a final good. Mill estimates that liberty or any group of liberties may not in fact work for the common interest. Mill’s earlier argument rests on the assumption that liberties in the self-regarding class will always promote the public welfare. In this respect, he succumbed to his own version of one of the most popular of laissez-faire conceptions-that the maximum good is by definition  equivalent to the maximum liberty. Mill admits a change in his position in these pages, but only indirectly, by the kind of illustration he uses. For example, ”One man would be free to morally pervert, or cruelly treat, his own children; another would be free to beat his wife; another, to torture living creatures in general.” Mill thus suggests that all domestic liberties may not be beneficial. ”Some would be free to utter obscene jokes or to sing obscene songs before miscellaneous company; some, to exhibit obscene pictures in public places; others, to exhibit their own persons without such covering as is demanded by the ordinary notions of decency.” Obviously, Mill did not believe that all these liberties in matters of taste promote the common good. For the government to guarantee the liberty of all acts falling within an arbitrary self-regarding class is to promote some liberties which may be disastrous to the general welfare. On this basis, liberties are made possible without regard for their greater or lesser importance to the public good. They are assured without consideration for their relation to such other prerequisites of the public welfare as the provision of material goods, security, and order.

Mill does not see the full implication of his own admissions. Yet the form of argument toward which this second essay tends is the one now generally accepted by political theorists. Even in Mill’s own time it was being forcefully proposed by many socialist writers. Since liberties conflict and since some in any group of liberties may imperil the general welfare, liberty or any group of liberties cannot be defended as a final good. Liberties must rather be defended (as Mill had in part argued) as conditions of welfare. As such, conflicting liberties must be weighed among themselves and then be judged in relation to other essential conditions of life. Political theories will vary not so much in the form of their argument as in the differing importance attached to the several liberties and to other conditions of welfare. While Mill never goes all the way over to this more realistic position, he admits enough in the pages printed here to indicate the direction of his development.

Indeed, nowhere in these pages does Mill altogether renounce his earlier political criterion. In fact, he writes these two curious sentences: ”So far as human freedom can be attained by the mere fencing off of human beings, each into his own sphere of activity, so far it is conceivable that men should look to the agency of civil governments for the enlargement of their freedom. Whatever step can be taken by civil governments towards the general  enfranchisement of mankind, can only be effectual by more accurately ascertaining the sphere of activity of each individual, or by more securely guarding each person’s sphere of activity from the encroachments of others.” The wording of this passage indicates a strong doubt in Mill’s mind as to the adequacy of his old criterion. But Mill never reaches the point where he is ready to reject it. The task of finally discrediting Mill’s argument fell to more consistent and more thoroughgoing critics.

One suspects that Mill clings to his former criterion because he cannot visualize a more suitable defense for the liberties he considers fundamental. Mill is particularly interested in safeguarding the cultural liberties of conscience, thought, taste, and discussion. In chapters ii and iii of On Liberty, he argues convincingly that ”individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being,” and that cultural liberties are indispensable for the development of that individuality. By what adequate criterion, then, could Mill protect those important freedoms? It is a familiar fact that men can develop their particular tastes and think and speak as they please, without depriving others of a similar liberty. Men can differ in matters of religious conviction, political judgment, scientific conclusion, and dress, without mutual interference. There are occasions when a cultural association will threaten or use force to prevent another group from expressing its beliefs. The liberty of such an aggressive association should be restricted by the state. But under conditions of mutual toleration, where men alone or in groups go their several ways without hindering others from going their ways, men should be left free from state control. Under such conditions, the liberty of cultural pursuits increases the total amount of individuality without imperiling other important elements of the general welfare such as order and the presence of the means of living. On this basis, Mill would have a more adequate, even though still rough, criterion to guide him in limiting the power of the government.

This second essay is interesting not merely for the way in which Mill faces the difficulties of his earlier argument, but also because of certain new difficulties which he gets into as he advances from the earlier ones. One of these new difficulties appears at the beginning of the essay, where he states the case for determinism. ”I will honestly confess that I am wholly unable to furnish anything like a satisfactory refutation of the arguments that may be urged against the existence of human individual freedom.” Mill, however, assumes that the acceptance of determinism involves a rejection of the possibility of liberty. So he adopts the one appropriate antithesis to determinism, the free-will doctrine of indeterminism. ”It appears to me that every reasonable act of every sane man is a practical assertion of the existence of individual freedom.”

The difficulty with this position is Mill’s failure to recognize that the problem of free will versus determinism is on the philosophical or even the ontological level, whereas the problem of liberty and restraint is on the sociological level. The issue of liberty does not depend on whether or not our acts are absolutely determined by unalterable psychical and physical laws. Rather it relates to the fact of restraints imposed by society. Since nobody denies the existence of such restraints, nobody can deny the existence of liberties as their counterparts. The acceptance of either determinism or indeterminism does not involve a rejection of the possibility of liberty.

One can deal with the problem of liberty on the sociological level, without committing oneself on the philosophical level.

Mill becomes involved in a still further difficulty when he touches on a matter, in this second essay, which does not concern him in his earlier study. What conditions, he asks, will promote the greatest degree of freedom? When are men more free, and when are they less free? The question is answered in the following manner. Some human actions promote a greater sense of freedom than others. This is not due to the fact of choice, for almost every action implies choice between at least two alternatives. Even in the familiar case of acts prescribed by law, one may choose to disobey the law. Rather, the sense of freedom depends on the quality of motive which prompts an action. A man acts ”with freedom who yields to the impulse of the highest motive which demands his obedience, or which presents itself to his consciousness, at the moment of determination.” So the martyr who defies bad laws and is imprisoned for disobedience seems to Mill more free than a man who abides by these laws in opposition to the dictates of his conscience. ”I am convinced that a careful scrutiny of human actions will show that. . . the free action differs from the unfree, or the action which is more free from the action which is less free, in the different orders of motives which prompt them.” The greatest degree of freedom is promoted, then, by the highest moral development of the people, a conclusion very close to that formulated a few years later by the Oxford Idealists.

This answer bears the unmistakable marks of Mill’s utilitarian ethics. The distinction of higher and lower motives follows directly from his belief that pleasures are high or low in moral value. The faith that men really desire to yield to the higher motive, and therefore feel free in doing so, recalls a passage in his Utilitarianism ( 1863): ”It may be questioned,” he writes, ”whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower.” Indeed the influence of Mill’s utilitarianism imperils the validity of his position in this essay.

On the one hand, Mill does not have a firm sanction for his particular arrangement of motives on a moral scale. He can only appeal to the feelings of his readers: ”The fact to which I would appeal is that we . . . have a strong and unmistakable feeling that some motives are higher, and others lower.”

Feelings vary so from person to person, however, that actual moral scales would be multifarious. Even Mill’s one suggestion in this essay for such a scale raises serious doubts. Mill puts animal appetites at the lowest level. But can one maintain that a starving man is guided by a lower motive when he desires to eat rather than read poetry? On the other hand, Mill is unable to establish that men really wish on all occasions to be guided by the highest motive present to their consciousness. A common fact of experience is that men do not always desire to do even what they know they ought to do. Ideals and desires diverge. So a man may know he should read poetry, but at the same time he may desire to eat. To hinder him in obtaining a meal gravely restricts his liberty of choice and imperils his sense of freedom. A man might very well feel freer if he yielded to a so-called ”lower” desire. And it is conceivable that to raise the moral level of a population according to a certain ethical scale might disastrously decrease the actual amount of freedom.

In reading Mill’s argument on this matter, one is not quite sure whether the author is more interested in promoting freedom or reforming his readers.

One sentence reads: ”It is those who, being conscious of the need of improvement, are at the same time conscious of possessing those elements of character which render improvement possible, that I am anxious to aid or encourage in their strivings after a higher and noble state of moral being.” Indeed Mill, like so many of the later idealists, tends to reduce the problem of liberty to the task of creating right motives in men. To be sure, yielding to a motive which one considers more noble than another commonly results in a sense of inner liberation. In orthodox utilitarian vocabulary that experience would be called ”happiness.” One cannot, however, be confident of the emancipation and happiness of other men unless they are free to reject ethical positions distasteful to them. In his earlier essay, Mill maintains that morality depends on the possibility of choosing both ”right” and ”wrong.” So also does the experience of satisfaction. Unless men have alternative positions continuously open for their choice, their happiness is endangered. The sense of freedom may be intensified by worthier motivations, but the amount of liberty can be increased only by enlarging the number of alternatives. In this section of the essay, Mill is so concerned with the ethical issue that he fails to give the balanced picture which is implicit in his work as a whole.

During the last five years of his life, when Mill was writing his Autobiography, he considered himself a socialist, although with qualifications. He said: ”While we repudiated with the greatest energy that tyranny of society over the individual which most Socialistic systems are supposed to involve, we yet looked forward to a time when society will no longer be divided into the idle and the industrious; when the rule that they who do not work shall not eat, will be applied not to paupers only, but impartially to all.” Several of Mill’s well-known writings testify to this socialistic trend in his later thought, especially the chapter ”On the Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes”, in the Principles of Political Economy ( 1852), and the essay entitled Socialism (1869). To these works must now be added this neglected essay On Social Freedom, which further bears out Mill’s conception of himself as a qualified socialist, and more clearly than any other of his published works hints that he was also a potential idealist.



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