Mill: On Liberty

So, this is the first in a series of posts looking at philosophical perspectives on ethical non-monogamy. A note on terms: to avoid spelling it out every time, I’ll refer to ‘non-monogamy’ to included all the varying flavours of ethical non-monogamy, though my own version is far closer to polyamory than, say, swinging, so I’ll try and be aware of my own biases there. I’m also referring specifically to open and honest non-monogamy, rather than cheating, or lying by omission, and to non-monogamy to which all parties have given informed consent, rather than being coerced.

I’m planning to put quite a lot of work into looking for sound arguments against non-monogamy, because I suspect they’re going to be harder to find than arguments for it. Most arguments against non-monogamy, in its various flavours, are either personal (ooh, I couldn’t do it, don’t you get jealous?) or theological (my religious teachings say this is bad) – neither of which are really open to being picked apart via analytical philosophical traditions. So, because my version of fun is looking for really good solid logical arguments against things I like, I will be trying to find arguments against non-monogamy. (I live a wild life)

That said, I’ve chosen to write my first post on J S Mill, which is… Well, you’ll see the problem in a moment.

J S Mill: On Liberty

Read On Liberty online

This is one of the founding works of liberal thought; published in 1859, its main thrust is the complete sovereignty of the individual over their own life – unless harm is being done to other people, neither the state nor other people can compel someone to do anything.

Mill begins by outlining why any concept of liberty is needed at all: even in a democracy, the rulers are not (always) the same people as the ruled, therefore a small number of people have a potentially limitless amount of power to be used against everyone else. We accept that there should be limits on the power of the rulers to prevent abuses of power, but the difficulty is in determining where those limits should be. Mill cautions, though, that political oppression at the hands of the state is not the only sort of oppression we should be concerned about: it is possible for the majority to want to oppress a minority, “and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.” Perhaps more interestingly, Mill argues against the oppressive power of ‘Society’ and social expectations of morality and behaviour throughout the book just as much as against state oppression, if not more:

Society can and does issue 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, to 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.

But why should this matter? Why shouldn’t everyone think and behave in the same way, whether because the government enshrines it in law, or because society effectively enforces it? After all, what if I’m just right – wouldn’t it be better to get everyone to do things my way?

Mill argues that we should not only permit individuality – even eccentricity – in thought and behaviour, but we should encourage it and value it in itself. Humans are not infallible, our opinions – even widely held ones – may be wrong, so dissenting opinions are valuable in helping us reach the truth. The same argument applies to behaviour – different ways of living should be not only tolerated but encouraged, as living experiments towards a greater truth and greater understanding of human natures.

That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognising all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where not the person’s own character but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

This is all well and good, but what if I know I’m right? I’ve sorted it now – I’ve discovered the One True Way to happiness and fulfilment; wouldn’t it be better if I could just get everyone to do it right? I’m sure they’d appreciate it in the end. Can’t we just make it so that everyone is atheist/religious/agnostic/capitalist/socialist/polyamorous/monogamous/celibate/etc?

No. Individuality, in behaviour and thought, is not only valuable (says Mill) because it might uncover a previously ignored ‘right’ way of thinking or behaving; it’s not just a means to an end. It’s an end in itself. He argues that the way modern society is developing, mediocrity is on the rise, and people won’t accept those who try and rise above mediocrity by being truly original (NB: 1859. Try reading the articles complaining about X Factor with that in mind… Plus ça change, etc). Given this love of mediocrity, eccentricity is all the more valuable – the very act of refusing to conform, of doing something outside the norm, is a way to break the ‘tyranny of opinion’, no matter whether it’s with good ideas or terrible ones.

In addition, choosing a mode of living for oneself allows you to exercise your intellectual and critical faculties, and to choose based precisely on your own character and dispositions – you are the world’s foremost expert on yourself, even allowing for the accumulated knowledge of people who have lived before you.

It is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way … He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular, powers are improved only by being used.

But what if people make the wrong choices? Like I said, I’ve figured out the One True Way; the choices made by People I Disagree With may not be harming other people, but they’re definitely harming themselves – they’re behaving immorally, or irresponsibly, or stupidly, or just taking too many drugs for my liking. Plus, they’re setting a bad example – what if everyone else looks at them and decides they’d rather live like that?

Mill has very little patience with the ‘bad example’ problem; if people are choosing a mode of living that’s such a disastrous idea, surely they’re more a salutary lesson than an example? If their life is such a poor choice, then people will learn from their mistakes, not try to emulate them. As for harming themselves, this is really no-one else’s business, says Mill. You may try to encourage someone to behave differently, but the final decision rests with the individual themselves, as no one else has a keener interest in their well-being.

Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human being of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong emotional attachment, can have in it is trifling compared with that which he himself has…with respect to his own feelings and circumstances the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else.

This gives you, I hope, a good flavour of the arguments behind On Liberty. I’d love to go through the whole thing, but I fear this is already getting quite long! It’s pretty obvious that, even if we non-monogamous types are completely wrong-headed, there’s a substantial argument that we should be allowed – even supported – to conduct our lives however we see fit, without state interference or substantial social disapproval. However…

A problem with Mill’s arguments for liberty is that they could be seen to rely on informed choices. What if I’m underinformed? What if it really were provable and known that non-monogamy is 100% a terrible idea? What if I’ve spent all my time hanging out with apparently happy non-monogamous people, reading books about non-monogamy, and haven’t come across the reliable and solid evidence that says all non-monogamous relationships will crash and burn horribly? (yes, I know, bear with me). But assuming all the other freedoms Mill identifies have been respected, I have always had the freedom to seek out more information about my chosen way of life, and to educate myself further – if I’ve ignored that possibility, then that is also a choice I have made for myself. So even if I make foolish choices due to a lack of information, that lack of information is down to my own choices and actions.

Another thought: what if Mill’s harm principle does actually apply here; what if by choosing non-monogamous relationships I am causing harm to my partners by conducting that model of relationship with them? This isn’t really a concern, though, unless we change definitions to include coerced or forced non-monogamy – as I outlined at the beginning, ethical non-monogamy relies on all those involved being fully informed consenting adults, and even Mill allows for the possibility of conduct that affects others if they so choose: “There is no room for entertaining any such question [whether interfering with someone’s conduct will promote general welfare or not] when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age and the ordinary amount of understanding).”

Now, I saved this for the end: it’s been fun to look at this in the abstract, but Mill actually does address Mormon polygamy. He has a deep dislike of the religion itself – “the product of palpable imposture” – and of its sexism and poor treatment of women – “it is a direct infraction of that principle [of liberty], being a mere riveting of the chains of one half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them.” And yet even in this case, a religiously-motivated and oppressive form of non-monogamy, he points out that it is just as voluntary as any other form of marriage institution, and if most of the world insists on teaching women that marriage is the most important thing for them, we shouldn’t be surprised if some women choose being one of many wives over being no wife at all. He considers the setting up of Mormon polygamous communities to be a “retrograde step in civilization”, and yet “I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put to an end because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it.”

It’s not hard to imagine what Mill might have made of the modern forms of non-monogamy, freely chosen by consenting adults, and without the gender imbalance of polygamy.

A final note: Mill wrote On Liberty in collaboration with his adored wife, Harriet Taylor. Before they married in 1851, they conducted a 20-year ‘intimate friendship’ during her marriage to her first husband (who died in 1849). Mill sent her love letters, they dined together in London, he spent weekends in the country with her (usually without her husband) and took long trips abroad with her, sometimes with one of her children too. Tempting though it is to see history through a polyamorous filter, there is apparently no suggestion whatsoever that this was a sexual relationship; however, it was clearly outside the norms of what was expected, for both of them.

Advertisements

11 responses to “Mill: On Liberty

  1. Devil's Avocado

    I am considerably older than you, I imagine. When I was a girl, it seemed to be accepted that a girl should save herself for ‘the One’. ‘Nice girls don’t’, said our grandmothers. ‘Good girls don’t; nice girl’s do’ was the joke which went around the boys’ school. In consequence, it was a distracting and frustrating time for those who complied with the implicit rule. I think most libidos were unharmed by obedience to the rules and many went on to enjoy successful monogamous (possibly) marriages. When I came out of my own marriage, society’s rules had all changed. ‘Nice girls do; probably on the second or third date.’ After my marriage ended and I was free to take on society’s new rules, I realised what a great protection, for women in particular, the old rules had been. As a teenager, I had never been troubled with anxieties about unwanted pregnancies or unwanted venereal diseases. If I chose, now, to live a polyamorous life though beyond pregnancy, I could still be in danger of contracting one of those diseases… human fallibility being what it is. What am I saying? Well, there were, once, practical reasons for control-by-disapproval of the behaviour of young people. The pill, freedom of information, modern medicine and a general openness and refusal to embrace shame, make polyamory seem like a beautiful alternative now… a generous sharing of love, as preached by the hippies of the late sixties but not often openly practised. It just seems to require honesty and trust. Is that how it works?

  2. “It just seems to require honesty and trust. Is that how it works?” Yep – precisely 🙂

    As for the rest… I imagine Mill might argue that controlling people’s behaviour ‘for their own good’ through not one but two layers of social expectation (ie not even ‘don’t have promiscuous or pre-marital sex because of the risk of STIs and pregnancy’ but hiding that beneath an invented morality layer of ‘nice girls don’t’) is doubly bad. Without even talking about the sexual double standard that sets women up as the gatekeepers of sex, without sexual desires or agency of their own.

    Mill excludes children, of course, from his discussions of liberty and morality, and for VERY good reasons I am DEFINITELY not talking about anyone underage here. I’m only referring to consenting adults.

  3. Devil's Avocado

    Firstly, I apologise for any misleading language. You are right of course, but use of expressions like ‘nice girls do’ was my (humorous) regression to the vernacular discourse of the sixties, when any woman from the age of eighteen to forty or more, would be referred to as a ‘girl’.

    I also agree that if society (parents? peers? church?) attempts to control the behaviour of others by spurious threats of unpopularity or burning in hell, it is dishonest and Wrong. Fewer unwanted pregnancies and STIs, however, may have been a positive consequence of this Wrong attitude. Honest discussion, and a statement of the facts to allow freedom of choice, is preferable.

    You say Mill has a dislike of Mormon polygamy and concludes that “it is a direct infraction of that principle [of liberty], being a mere riveting of the chains of one half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them.” And yet he is content to allow the practise to continue without intervention because it may be “a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied ….” If he really believed that polygamy was a “riveting of the chains of one half of the community…” he could not also believe that “all… appear to be satisfied.” A bit of doublethink there.

    May I also suggest that Mill’s “intimate friendship” with a married woman, who later became his wife, might sound more like a sneaky affair than the glorious open, honest and loving relationships which seem to characterise polyamory?

  4. I see what you mean about the doublethink – but I think the interpretation behind it is that people can be satisfied with an apparently unfair situation. They’re not mistaken in thinking that they’re satisfied, even if we all think they’re wrong and there’s a better way of living. In spite of the fact that what Mill is objecting to is specifically the lack of gender balance, it’s perfectly possible that all the women involved are perfectly happy with it (of course they may not be, and in modern Mormonism we can see that some women find fulfilment in it and others find it oppressive and abusive). People get to be the final authority on their own experience.

    Oh, here’s a parallel: second wave of feminism, and all the women who kicked against ‘Women’s Lib’ because they were happy with their situation as it was. They and I – or you – might disagree on the theory and general application (eg we probably both think they’d have been wrong (not morally wrong, factually incorrect) to disagree with ‘it would be better for women – and everyone – if there was greater gender equality’) but we can’t disagree with ‘*I* am happy in *my* life and I don’t want Women’s Lib to change anything *for me*’. We might think they’re misguided, or reasoning from false premises, but if someone believes and says that they are satisfied, they *are*.

    And, yes, in theory it could just as easily have been a sneaky affair – but that’s probably a salutary lesson, in that we don’t know what the feelings are of all concerned. And especially not when speculating on the private lives of historical thinkers! Polyamory (forming multiple intimate loving relationships) is not the only form of ethical non-monogamy, and pretty much any kind of non-monogamy from the outside looks like it might be an affair…

  5. Devil's Avocado

    A tale of two societies: Society One, in your home town may require all women to get married and stay at home, at the kitchen sink… A small move away from that, perhaps from home to university, and Society Two may demand that all women get wasted on a Friday night, have multiple partners and never do any washing up.

    John Stuart Mill says: ‘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.’

  6. Gilbert De Bruycker

    The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due consideration for their welfare, without going the length of violating any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished by opinion, though not by law. (…)

    It would be a great misunderstanding [to ptretend] that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved. Instead of any diminution, there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others. But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good, than whips and scourges, either of the literal or the metaphorical sort. I am the last person to undervalue the self-regarding virtues; they are only second in importance, if even second, to the social. It is equally the business of education to cultivate both. But even education works by conviction and persuasion as well as by compulsion, and it is by the former only that, when the period of education is past, the self-regarding virtues should be inculcated. (…)

    There is a degree of folly, and a degree of what may be called (though the phrase is not unobjectionable) lowness or depravation of taste, which, though it cannot justify doing harm to the person who manifests it, renders him necessarily and properly a subject of distaste, or, in extreme cases, even of contempt: a person could not have the opposite qualities in due strength without entertaining these feelings. Though doing no wrong to any one, a person may so act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a fool, or as a being of an inferior order: and since this judgment and feeling are a fact which he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a service to warn him of it beforehand, as of any other disagreeable consequence to which he exposes himself. It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming. We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others, for faults which directly concern only himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they are the natural, and, as it were, the spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves, not because they are purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment. (…)

    What I contend for is, that the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavorable judgment of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interests of others in their relations with him.

    John Stuart Mill, ON LIBERTY – CHAPTER IV : OF THE LIMITS TO THE AUTHORITY OF SOCIETY OVER THE INDIVIDUAL

  7. Gilbert De Bruycker

    1/ Mill argues that the behaviorr of any individual may be bubject to the authority of society under circumstances that seem to go beyond simply harm. (…)

    Locke’s and Mill’s principles are stated such that if the injury is done to a person by another, whether the latter intended it or not, constraint may be appropriate. However, Mill is not always clear on this; sometimes he says that the conduct “must be calculated to produce evil to someone else”; at other times he simply says that we may intervene “to prevent harm to others.” – George G. Brenkert, Political Freedom, p.91

    2/ “Society can and does issue 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 practices 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, to 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.” – On Liberty, p.7

  8. Gilbert De Bruycker

    “Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

    • If you’d like to contribute any of your own opinions or interpretations, I’d be interested to read them. Do you think these quotes prove or disprove any of the points I was making above?

  9. Gilbert De Bruycker

    The principle of liberty, as Mill formulates it, can be used in support of ANY criminal legislation whatsoever. No law, however oppressive or frivolous, really violates it.

    “That principle is, the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That 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.” [and than further he adds, that to justify applying compulsion to anyone] “the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else.” (…) “there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation.”

    Certainly the upholder of freedom nods approval of the sentiment expressed in these declarations. However, NO coherent principle has been formulated. That is to say, if one is seeking a philosophical principle that defines the proper line of governmental and societal interference in the life of the individual, then he does not find it here, for no such line has been drawn at all.

    Richard Taylor, Freedom, Anarchy and the Law, p. 56-57

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s