3. A passage from Chapter 1 of Mill's On Liberty:

"Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism."

Suppose someone were to object in either of the following (or both) ways: it is
impossible for society/culture not to impose its ideas and practice and rules of conduct on individuals. (So wishing things were otherwise is idle, like wanting to be free from the effects of the Law of Gravity.) Furthermore, even if it were possible for society/culture to forego exerting the sort of influence Mill deplores, it would not be desirable for it to do so to the extent Mill urges. In short, Mill's proposal is idle and/or deeply wrong-headed.

The question for you: what would/should Mill say in response to objections like this? Does he have a good response, or are the objections good ones?



            In his essay – On Liberty – Mill moves from discussing overt political power, exercised by governments and rulers over their subjects and peoples, to a more covert social power. In the extract (pdf page 4), he argues that society, no less than the state, seeks to force people to conform with their dictates. Even though societies are unable to levy on deviants sanctions as severe as those criminal justice systems levy on criminals, sanctions they levy still, and these, though not codified into law, are harder to avoid. For example, in Singapore in the 1970s, if a male in a queue had long hair, he’d often be served last; this was although there were no laws encouraging discrimination against long-haired males. Thus, if a society tries to make its citizens do the “wrong” thing, or interfere with the “wrong” things (however “wrong” might be defined), its reach is potentially further and more insidious than if a state does so, since it is possible to escape the law, but unless one is a recluse, it is impossible to escape other people and hence society’s expectations, like so: if someone cheated on his income tax cleverly enough, he wouldn’t get caught, but if that same person insisted on repeating every sentence he uttered in Pig Latin, he’d be ridiculed and mocked. Ergo, past a certain point people need to be protected from society’s dictates and pressure to conform.

            In response to this assertion, 2 objections may be raised: it is impossible for society not to coerce people into conforming because we live together with other people, who try to impose their ideas and norms on others because they genuinely believe them to be good and right. Furthermore, humans are by nature social animals, and will naturally seek to conform in order to belong to a community. If everyone around is wearing a miniskirt, one would naturally feel compelled to wear one too, even without the urging or derision – implicit or explicit – of other members of society. Is there then any point in protecting people from the inevitable, or indeed what they themselves desire? Furthermore, even if it were possible for society to refrain from doing so, that might not be the best, or even a good course of action. Sometimes, people must be restrained from voicing false opinions, say, so as not to mislead and deceive others. Would society not be justified in silencing such heretics?

            It is important to note that Mill qualifies his assertion – “there is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence”[1]. He does not say that the opinions of the majority should never guide those of the individual, but only that they may – to a point. Specifically, society may step in when “the acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare”[2], which ultimately ties in with his grand thesis, that men may interfere with the actions of others only to prevent harm to themselves.

            Responding to the first objection, Mill might say he was merely advancing a principle, an ideal to which we should work. Just because society will, despite our best efforts, inevitably influence people into certain courses of action does not mean that we should let it. A parallel might be drawn with Philosophy: it might be impossible for us ever to agree on the Epistemology’s finer points, or to unequivocally resolve the question Theodicy tries to answer, but that does not mean we should cease our search. Societal non-interference, like a definitive conclusion in Theodicy, is an ideal that we should work towards. Though we may never achieve it, by coming closer to it we will advance the “interests of Man as a progressive being”[3]. Nonetheless, Mill must realise: society will always influence individuals to conform, regardless of the severity and extent of the penalties levied on non-conformists, or even if the pressure is self-exerted. What we should work towards is to minimise said pressures and make them as implicit as possible.

And then there is the question of whether it is desirable for society to desist from imposing its ideas and norms on others, to the extent that Mill urges. It might be good for one to do as the Romans do in Rome, but the fact that the vagaries of local customs in Rome differ from those in Timbuktu should give one cause to pause. Mill himself observes that: “it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present”[4]. How can society be so sure that what it now regards as the gospel truth will not be discredited in another place and time? And if it cannot, can it justifiably impose on individuals its rules and practises?

Besides this argument against presuming infallibility, Mill points out that regardless of whether an idea society seeks to stifle is true or false, it would be detrimental to society to stifle it, for: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the

opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose… the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”[5]

            However, Mill concedes that not everyone is ready to be exposed to all manner of theories. “We are not speaking of children, or of young persons… Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage”. Immature or irrational people, then, may ironically need to be protected from Liberty itself! The question, then, is where the buck stops, and Mill is less than helpful in defining who might need protection from Liberty itself, saying only that people who: “have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion”[6] should be free of social coercion, for their own good. As in “Asian Democracy”, might the ignorant and unwashed masses be protected from immoral and corrupt ideas until such time as they are “ready” to accept them? Even so, who determines when they might reach this stage? And as Mill points out, nobody is infallible, though everybody thinks that they are[7]. This, then, is a problem in the practical application of Mill’s theory on social coercion, but surely arbitrarily defining some people as needing protection from Liberty itself is better than inflicting social coercion on everyone across the board? Mill’s proposal may not be perfect, but desirable it still is.

            Mill proclaims that his arguments for liberty can be justified on the basis of utility maximisation, but one problem is that the principle of maximising the greater good may not cohere with his argument that society may constrain or coerce an individual only if he would otherwise harm others. Take the case of the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme[8] for example, where a person named Bob has the deciding vote. If the majority of residents are in favour of selling their flats, according to the rule of utility maximisation Bob should vote in favour of the scheme even if he wants to keep his flat. But then, if he opposes the scheme, he is not harming his fellow citizens, so they may not apply even covert pressure on him to vote aye. What, then, should be done? Should society impose its preferences on Bob, or should he act according to his desires? One could of course argue that by refusing his neighbours their windfall, Bob would be harming them, but this argument would seem to border on the facetious.

Indeed, this, together with the question of who needs protection from Liberty itself, is a question that has been taken up by later philosophers, but ultimately it is more one of clarification in specific situations than a challenge to Mill’s general principles on Liberty.

[1] Chapter 1 PDF page 4

[2] Chapter 4 PDF, Page 1

[3] Chapter 1 PDF page 10

[4] Chapter 2 PDF page 3

[5] Chapter 2 PDF page 2

[6] Chapter 1 PDF page 10

[7] Chapter 2 PDF page 2

[8] A scheme by which residents of old public flats may vote to vacate their blocks en-masse. Said blocks are then demolished and said residents receive generous compensation