Utilitarianism & Mill's libertarianism Notes for April 2 & 7

Mill’s libertarianism

Mill claimed that he could use utilitarianism to argue for his so-called Harm Principle: “that the sole end for which mankind are warranted … in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their member is self-protection” and that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

The substance of this day’s class is given in the handout. So I really will just go over what I regard as the main points here.

Which categories?

It is clear that Mill pursues a strategy of categorization with the aim of arguing against all interference in some categories. But I said that he categorized two different things.

  1. Behavior, where the categories include purely self-regarding action, action that is potentially beneficial to others, and action that is harmful to others.
  2. Reasons for interference, where the categories include paternalism, moralism, repugnance, and preventing harm.

I argued that the second kind of categorization is more interesting than the first. My reason was that the category of behavior that is potentially beneficial to others is only partly immune from interference. So putting actions into categories wouldn’t itself tell us what can and cannot be interfered with.

I should say that there is a simpler way to understand Mill’s point. It is that interference with purely self regarding behavior is ruled out. That evades the difficulty I noted. Of course, if we have grave doubts about whether there is a significant category of purely self-regarding actions, those doubts would apply to this way of reading Mill’s point too. But that’s a different argument.

In any event, the second set of categories still strike me as much easier to deal with. Since they capture what Mill was trying to accomplish, I think we would be better off sticking with them.


The other thing I did was defend Mill’s defense of liberty of thought and expression against the charge that liberty does not lead to truth. We did not consider the further question of whether knowing the truth makes us better off.

It is true that a well regulated forum of discussion is better for finding the truth than a completely open one. This is obvious if you look at the social institutions that generate the most advances in knowledge.

But it does not follow that it is desirable to give the state the power to regulate thought and expression. Mill’s defense of liberty of thought and expression is completely general. I doubt that he could be right across the board. But the main thrust concerned regulation of speech by the state. There, I think, he’s on solid ground.


If you just can’t get enough, let me recommend a wonderful BBC Program, In Our Time. The host of this show, Melvyn Bragg, interviews scholars about the subjects of their expertise. His breadth is astonishing. They did a show on Mill featuring some first rate people. I haven’t listened yet myself, but I’m sure it’s quite good.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted April 26, 2008.
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