My Dearest Gentlefolk,
After a two week hiatus, the Monday Muse returns with a brief commentary drawn from John Stuart Mill's treatise On Liberty:
"As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question of whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it becomes an open question. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases, there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences."
The mantra of libertarian self-government could scarcely be stated more powerfully. Yet, no matter how familiar the principle has become (for how many of us have heard a student, or ourselves, invoke its terms when confronting bigotry or intolerance?), questions vie for our attention at every turn.
What sort of "interests" are those that determine the boundaries of the general welfare? Obviously, it cannot be the case that mere insult or moral disgust can trigger the public right to intervene in private choice. For then Mill's "freedom" would surely vanish altogether amid a conflagration of moral sensitivities.
What sort of "prejudice" to the interests of others entitles society to invoke its jurisdiction over my choices? Such prejudice must be more than a mere risk of interference or mild frustration. Surely my choices must do more than make my neighbor's life difficult before my neighbor is entitled to cry foul. We can scarcely ignore the fact that all of our choices impact the lives of the people around us, and forever alter the course of history. This impact is frequently disagreeable, though no one would pretend to know in every case whether it is more or less disagreeable than the state of affairs absent any particular choice. Where does inconvenience end, and authentic prejudice begin? Once again, freedom demands a line be drawn somewhere.
Finally, are we to concede that society has no jurisdiction over my choices except where I do positive harm to my neighbor? Is there no value to the maintenance of jurisdiction over choices which only impact on the individual decision maker? Even Mill did not go so far.
"It would be a great misunderstanding of this doctrine to suppose that it is one of selfish indifference which pretends that human beings have no business with each other's conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved. Instead of any diminution, there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others. But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good than whips and scourges, either of the literal or the metaphorical sort. ... Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter."
It is unclear whether this brings us very far from an atomic view (and thus a rather impoverished view) of social living. How often do we hear persons of good will and generous intention say, "All we ask is that all persons be given equal opportunity (and encouragement) to succeed." Is the school, like a tool shed, merely a place for our children to pick up the instruments of success? Is learning merely a metaphor for the acquisition of devices of the intellect, the possession of which enable or disable the achievement of material affluence?
I, for one, cannot believe that the value of cultivating individual spontaneity (something Mill explicitly applauds elsewhere), or of cultivating any of the more regulated talents of the intellect or sentiments (whether in any of the arts or sciences, or in judgment generally), makes any sense whatsoever if we confine our examination to the actor in isolation. Education is not ultimately about opportunity. It is about nourishment and growth. Making choices, and rising to act by a motive formed purely within, evidence maturity. But such maturity does not entitle the actor to solipsism, even where the effect of action touches the interests of no one but the actor.
A flourishing soul ought not be confused with a soul indifferent to society. A flourishing society cannot be indifferent to a soul lost to humanity. It is laudable that our criminal laws guard the boundaries of humanist values (for they ought reach no further). But we must not confuse the limits of criminal sanction with the limits of societal jurisdiction; for jurisdiction properly extends to all matters touching on the well-being of the members of the community. This well-being necessarily contemplates the flourishing, and not merely the bare survival, of all persons residing therein.
Mill was certainly aware of this tension, and aware that a utilitarian argument might be used to disclaim all responsibility for cultivating the moral fitness of those around us. It is a tension we still struggle with in public life.
David Robert Foss
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© 2000 David Robert Foss
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