“Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1796. And in 2005, Bruce Springsteen wrote that “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black.”
John Stuart Mill in 1859 said his objective in writing On Liberty was to assert a simple principle regarding the degree to which society should be permitted to control the individual whether by government force of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion.
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others,” he asserted. “His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
It is against liberty, Mill argued, to deny a person his freedom for “his own good.” Those who consider themselves to be in the position to deny freedom to others, he contended, are neither infallible in their judgments nor necessarily principled in their edicts as to how others should live. The enthusiasm to control, Mill wrote, finds its origin in “envy or jealously,” “prejudices or superstitions,” or “arrogance or contemptuousness.”
But “most commonly,” he maintained, what influences people’s fervor regarding the conduct of others is their “desires or fears for themselves their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest.”
“What are fears but voices airy? Whispering harm where harm is not,” wrote Woodsworth. Fear, writes Springsteen, will “take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.” In matters of individual freedom, to allow one person or group to employ fear to deny another his individuality is a clear prescription for autocratic behavior and repression.
Fear, any more than jealousy or superstition, does not provide a sufficient excuse for limiting the liberty of an individual who may not be speaking or living according to the format of others.
Mill believed that an individual’s opinions and actions are neither the law’s business nor the business of society, the state, the church or any other collection of individuals, so long as the individual wasn’t injuring another. It is a philosophy of laissez-faireism in ethics, matching the market freedoms that Adam Smith advocated for the economy, in which the liberty of free and sovereign individuals, aside from doing harm to others, should be absolute.
The concept of limiting individual freedom in order to protect society, or to mitigate the anxiety or needs of others, explains Alan Dershowitz, is quite limited and does not include the right to be protected from ideas different from one’s own: “Your right to swing your fist should end at the tip of my nose, but your right to express your ideas should not necessarily end at the lobes of my ears.”
To deny the free expression of ideas is an assault not only on individual freedom but also an attack on the very means by which society ascertains truth and does away with error. “Truth is not a piece of matter or a unit of energy that will survive pummeling and emerge unscathed in one form or another at one time or another,” warns Dershowitz. “It is a fragile and ethereal aspiration, easily buried, difficult to retrieve, and capable of being lost forever.”
There might well be good reason for trying to persuade a person to believe something or take a particular course of action, “but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he does otherwise,” Mill argued. “He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right.”
The danger for the individual and society is that mankind, “moderate in intellect” and “moderate in inclinations,” explained Mill, is disposed to knock off an individual’s rough edges, to prescribe rules of conduct that force everyone to conform to the same standard, a standard where one is required “to desire nothing strongly.”
The desired end is a timid conformist; the means, said Mill, is “to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady’s foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.”
With that compression, we all lose all of society and every individual.
June 24, 2005