Authority and the Individual

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A criterion by which rightful interference in an individual’s personal life can be determined is offered by Mill. Individuals and social groups may so interfere only for reasons of their own self-protection. Society has a coercive right to prevent an individual from harming others, but it may not interfere simply for the individual’s own physical or moral good. In this latter domain, one may attempt to convince but not to compel an individual to change his or her views or actions. Mill adds a further qualification, namely, that the individual must possess mature faculties. Children, insane persons, and members of backward societies are excluded from the use of the criterion. Moreover, the test whether interference is proper can never involve abstract right but only utility—”utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” Failures to act, as well as overt acts causing harm to others, may be punished by society.

The question is then raised as to how one is to interpret the notion that unharmful acts belong solely to the agent. What are the rights belonging to a person that can never lead to harm to others? There are three broad types of such rights, according to Mill. The types are “the inward domain of consciousness,” “liberty of tastes and pursuits,” and “freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others.” Mill insists that no society or government may rightfully deny these areas of fundamental human freedom. People must be permitted and even encouraged to seek their good “in their own way.” This means that the repressive tendencies of institutions, including churches and sects, must continually be curbed. Mill points out how even Auguste Comte, the famous French sociologist, encouraged a form of despotism over individuals in society in the name of positivistic rationality. Mill insists that any successful resistance to the individual’s coercion by opinion or legislation requires defense of the right to think and to express one’s views in the public marketplace.

Mill’s famous book addresses several aspects of the problem concerning the relation of authority to the individual: first, the nature of one’s freedom of thought and public discussion of controversial ideas; second, the ways in which individuality is a necessary element in one’s well-being; and third, the limits of society over the individual. A concluding chapter shows some practical applications of the liberal principles that Mill has defended.

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