John Stuart Mill was ahead of the time in which he lived by his ideas and understanding of the main concepts of democracy. He contests a common misconception that democracy is the ultimate solution for liberty by highlighting a clear problem – tyranny of the majority. Such events in history that dramatically affected our lives as women’s rights movement were inspired by his works. Mill is a strong opponent of paternalism, tyranny of the majority, but on the other hand, a supporter of rights, liberty and one’s sovereignty over one’s own life, as long as harm is not caused to others. His center principle is the liberty principle. In his essay, he tries to define the cases in which limitations can be placed over society or an individual. While reading On Liberty, one might assume that his main goal in this work is to introduce the harm principle, whereas he introduces the harm principle only in order to set a limit on which rules society can impose on individuals. Another curious topic he touches is the role of rules and customs in our lives. We have greater liberty living by rules and regulations because they maximize utility, and by custom, because it simply works, while society can exercise power over a citizen, but only to prevent harm. When is it legitimate to coerce individuals to do or not to do something? When can individuals choose not to follow the society?
First, what are rules? Rules are principles and regulations governing our actions and conduct. There is a set of basic rules that we should follow to make our lives easier as well as others’. “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” (p. 12) Rules are connected to society’s and individual’s interests, where everyone makes sacrifices in their behavior to allow the most amount of good for the most amount of people. Certain interests can be identified as “core interests”, which are to be protected by the society using rights – socially constructed rules that help us benefit our society. One citizen’s right is somebody else’s duty. Examples of our rights are: liberty of opinion and belief, liberty of tastes and pursuits, and liberty of combination among individuals. One liberty that Mill pays a lot of attention to is sovereignty over our own lives. In the beginning of his essay, Mill identifies harm as a setback to someone else’s interest, whereas, in the last half of it, he gives more complications to his definition. Now he identifies harm as a violation of one’s rights, direct interests, and liberties. He is now stating that society ought not to interfere with one’s self-regarding acts. Mill would say that no matter how foolish one’s choices might be, you cannot impede them, as long as it’s only themselves that they are harming. Though he does offer two exceptions - children, due to their immaturity and, therefore, inability to engage all of their faculties to make their own decisions, and barbarians, due to their incapacity of being lead to development by method of conviction, persuasion or compulsion. “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” (p. 10) In addition, this is the only case where Mill justifies paternalism – telling somebody what he or she must do. Mill generally does not believe in paternalism – humans are individual, and must decide for themselves what is good or bad. This leads his concern about the rules that society imposes on citizens: in his opinion, they should never interfere with one’s self-determination. Another one of his concerns about rules is that to require not to harm is less clear than to require to do something in order to protect oneself from harm. However, we can be forced to take actions not to harm others just as much as we can be forced to take actions to keep harm away from them. He leaves the concern to be solved by the society, which has to determine what stage of harm is to be protected against. Mill’s last concern about society’s rules is that the liberty to do things collectively leads to small harms on the way, which ties back to pleasing the majority. Shortly, in last chapter he brings up live examples from which we can make a conclusion that sometimes allowing harm will provide benefit to society’s interests in general.
On the other hand, customs have a very significant meaning in our lives. We use them because they work, and we benefit from them. The stereotype is, customs are practices so long established that they have a force of law. Mill would not necessarily agree with this definition, because he strongly encourages individuals to come up with new ideas and listen to those who have them. He sees benefit in forming your own opinion, even if it is against traditions and customs of the society. Developing our plan for ourselves certainly has several benefits. First, we employ all of our senses and abilities, thus, we develop. Second, we provide the world with different opinions, experiments and experiences, so long as we do not injure others. Third, by expressing our opinion, we might be right and benefit the society, while, if we are wrong, we benefit the society as much as we would if we were right. Pages 56 and 57, in Mill, consist, “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the living forces which make it a living thing.” Mill’s concern regarding customs is that one’s certainty would make one assume that one has a right to coerce others to follow oneself, which is why he sees pursuing your own interests and freedom to choose actions, whatever they are, without injuring others, as a best plan, opposed to being forced.
No matter how strong Mill’s statements and principles are, he still leaves us a lot of room for development of his ideas. Plus, all of us interpret his ideas in a way that is enhanced for our own lives. Customs are a very big part of our lives, but we must not forget how they were formed and make our own judgments. Without customs and rules, it would be more difficult to live in pursuit of our own interests, without harming others.