Mill - On Liberty - At what point do you become eligible for his civil liberty?

Ok, so my point is this, Mill is extremely vague about at what point you can become eligible for his ideal civil liberty. He says children and backward states are lacking of the 'reflective faculty' and lack the ability to discuss and debate - therefore, they cannot have this liberty. But at what point does someone gain this liberty? It cannot be that at a certain age you gain liberty, because adults in a backward nation are not allowed liberty. So it must be the ability for discussion and reflection. But my first point is, is that not very vague - how are we supposed to measure that? Second, what about people from a civilized, 'forward' society that sometimes act irrationally, so they do not use their reflective faculties, and they may not discuss or debate their action. Take the example of someone self harming because they are very emotionally unstable - now, is this a self regarding act and we should not become involved, OR, does this person, at this point, lack the abilities required for civil liberty and so should be not allowed to self harm? If you get my drift. If the answer is the latter option, firstly, would this not be very difficult to control - taking away peoples liberty if they act irrationally (v. frequent) - and second, is this not straining far away from his idealized society that should only concern yourself in what concerns your interests? - How does someone self harming affect your interests, as a society in the first place?

Thank you for you patience!

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  • 6 years ago
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    Mill's On Liberty addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. However Mill is clear that his concern for liberty does not extend to all individuals and all societies. He states that "Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians".

    Mill states that it is acceptable to harm oneself as long the person doing so is not harming others. He also argues that individuals should be prevented from doing lasting, serious harm to themselves or their property by the harm principle. Because no one exists in isolation, harm done to oneself may also harm others, and destroying property deprives the community as well as oneself. Mill excuses those who are "incapable of self-government" from this principle, such as young children or those living in "backward states of society".

    Though this principle seems clear, there are a number of complications. For example, Mill explicitly states that "harms" may include acts of omission as well as acts of commission. Thus, failing to rescue a drowning child counts as a harmful act, as does failing to pay taxes, or failing to appear as a witness in court. All such harmful omissions may be regulated, according to Mill. By contrast, it does not count as harming someone if – without force or fraud – the affected individual consents to assume the risk: thus one may permissibly offer unsafe employment to others, provided there is no deception involved. (Mill does, however, recognize one limit to consent: society should not permit people to sell themselves into slavery). In these and other cases, it is important to keep in mind that the arguments in On Liberty are grounded on the principle of Utility, and not on appeals to natural rights.

    The question of what counts as a self-regarding action and what actions, whether of omission or commission, constitute harmful actions subject to regulation, continues to exercise interpreters of Mill to this day.

    It is important to emphasize that Mill did not consider giving offence to constitute "harm"; an action could not be restricted because it violated the conventions or morals of a given society.

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