Mill on liberty Notes for September 17

Main points

The aim of today’s section was to expose the rich theories of psychology and politics underlying Mill’s utilitarian defense of liberty.


Locke and Nozick believe in natural rights. Rights, on this view, are discerned from natural features that human beings have. Exactly how this works is usually hazy. Locke relied heavily on God to fill out the story. If we had read more of Nozick, we would have seen that he tried to avoid answering that sort of question and that his remarks on how it might be answered were more suggestive than decisive.** He tried to show that all the alternatives are unsatisfactory. If so, the sketchy theory of rights might not matter. Williams’s argument about the relationship between the nature of goods and their proper distribution is much better, but it lacks a crisp statement of what we are required to do.

The utilitarians took an extremely dim view of these attempts to infer normative conclusions from the nature of people or goods. In the place of all that, they have a simple normative theory with two parts:†† There’s more on utilitarianism here.

  1. A hedonistic account of good and bad.
  2. A maximizing account of right and wrong.

Essentially, they thought all the complexity falls on the factual side rather than the normative one. There’s no deep problem with settling good and bad or right and wrong so we don’t need complex philosophical theories about those topics. What’s difficult is measuring the balance of happiness and unhappiness and calculating the effects of various alternatives.

While Mill was frequently an unorthodox utilitarian, his discussion of liberty bears this feature. Most of his case rests on factual assumptions about human psychology and politics.

It’s more complicated than it looks

Mill makes the obvious points. For instance, he notes that people know more about what will make them happy than others do (paragraph 83, for instance). So if you wanted to maximize overall happiness, as utilitarians do, you would try to leave as many choices in individual hands as possible.

But what’s interesting about his theory is that he goes well beyond these obvious remarks. In fact, most of what he has to say makes a utilitarian case for individual liberty even if individuals do not make optimal choices.

Specifically, he makes important assumptions about human psychology: we learn through making mistakes ourselves and there is an enormous psychological difference between learning something for oneself and accepting what others have said. He has a sociological theory: society is generally conformist and hostile to novelty but, at the same time, can adopt novel practices and ideas. And he has a theory about how government works: he thinks the general public is too prone to interfere with individual liberty at the expense of individual happiness and so, in a democracy, you can’t count on government to restrict liberty in ways that maximize happiness. If these assumptions are accurate, there is a case for individual liberty even if individuals do not make the choices that would make them happiest. The case is that the alternatives would be far worse.

Stacy expressed some skepticism about Mill’s empirical assumptions. As she noted, Mill was assuming that people would, in fact, learn from eccentric geniuses and that they would use this knowledge for the greater good. I think she’s right that Mill could be quite the optimist. But he also has a deeply pessimistic side: the overwhelming majority of people won’t learn from the eccentric geniuses and that’s why they need special protection from the majority so someone might learn from them. In other words, the alternative of leaving the eccentric geniuses open to intolerance is far worse than toleration.

What about free trade?

I found his remark about free trade in the fourth paragraph of chapter five (paragraph 104) very curious. There, he said that the case for free trade is separate from the case for individual liberty.

I looked up his remarks on free trade and found a generally standard account: the cost of tariffs on imported goods outweighs the gains from preserving domestic industry.‡‡ See the handout on Sakai. But that didn’t tell me why he thought this wasn’t relevant to the question of liberty. After all, what’s at issue is whether people are to be allowed the liberty to buy and sell without a tariff, right?

Here’s my best guess. Mill’s defense of liberty concerns opinions and practices that, he thinks, are central to an individual’s personality. Commercial activity, in his opinion, is not central to an individual’s personality and so it’s excluded from discussion in On Liberty. As I said, it’s just a guess.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted September 17, 2012.
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