Contra “On Liberty”

Everyone loves On Liberty. I have not met a single person who says that it is bad. Even people who do not live up to the standards Mill laid out in On Liberty loves the short book. No matter how much you are against Liberty, it seems like you cannot but praise On Liberty. It is a strange phenomenon. In fact, I have to confess: I also loved On Liberty even though I read through the essay in great haste and remembered nothing about it. Now, revisiting the essay, I find it unsatisfying.

The problem of On Liberty is that it does not justify liberty enough. In fact, if you follow Mill’s argument, you would–if you’re consistent—end in some pretty dark places. At the least, it provides a shaky foundation for liberty that is going to tumble at any moment.

Mill’s argument, stripped to its bare bones, is this:

  1. It is good to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
  2. On a societal level, the best way to do so is by preserving liberty—of thought, of speech, of religion, of ways of life.
  3. The only limit to this is that you can’t hurt other people whilst being free—you are in a society and you have an obligation to, at least, not harm anyone else other than yourself.
  4. This principle of liberty is good because it maximizes utility.
  5. Followed, now, with empirical arguments—marketplace of ideas prevent ossification; free discussion encourages intellectual humility, increases our chance of arriving at truth, makes truth worth more to people; allowing people to arrive at their own ideas help them build character and grow as a person; we cannot be sure that we are correct, and if we impose our criteria on others we have to be willing for others to impose their’s on us (which we clearly don’t).

Mill’s empirical observations are extremely prescient, and I have no qualms about it (other than the universal utility of truth—an unfortunate realist conclusion that I think all seekers of knowledge have to swallow). But his utilitarian premise ruins the entire argument in two ways. Firstly, it degrades freedom into a mere means, though a very effective one, towards the utilitarian end. My intuition tells me that freedom is much more than that. Freedom is important because to be human is to be free (in the Lockean sense of Liberty rather than Freedom of the Will). Freedom of thought, speech, and religion cannot be infringed not because of any benefit we may derive from protecting them, but because without them we cannot be human. Man (in the sense of homo) is reduced to bare life, an animal, and bios, to zoe. To ground freedom in anything lesser than human dignity is blasphemous. It reduces, as so much of modernity do, the sacred, the spark of the divine within human beings, into mere material, mere flesh. Secondly, if the utilitarian principle is to be fully assumed, then freedom cannot but be destroyed—according to proposition 3, famously called the harm principle. For we are social creatures who live always with others and act amongst others, and whatever we do we harm (advertently or inadvertently) others in some ways. But the harm principle is just the extension of the utilitarian logic. Thus, to base freedom on utility is a contradiction in terms.

Mill, I still love you. But utilitarianism, I can only politely say no.

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