even disastrous, consequences, but taken together experiments are over time
Mill rejects paternalism – that is, stopping people harming themselves. If a person
starts to cross a footbridge, unaware that it is insecure and liable to collapse into
the ravine below, if we cannot communicate with her – perhaps we do not share a
language – then we can intervene (Mill, 1991: 106–7). If, however, she knows the
risk then we are notentitled to stop them (paternalism is discussed in greater detail
in the following section on criticisms and developments).
It should be stressed that we do not have to approve of other people’s behaviour.
If a person manifests a ‘lowness or depravation of taste’ we are, Mill argues, justified
in making him a ‘subject of distaste, or... even of contempt’ (Mill, 1991: 85).
What we are not justified in doing is interfering in his actions. There is a tension
here between encouraging diversity of lifestyle as if it were an intrinsically good
thing, but being free to disapprove of it. If diversity is to be promotedrather than
merely toleratedthen the state should not just protect people’s freedom, but actually
encourage a change in attitudes among the majority.
Criticisms and developments
Mill’s argument provides a useful framework for discussing the nature and limits
of freedom. If we use the heuristic device of presuming freedom is a good thing and
limitations on it must be justified we can conclude that for Mill only non-consensual
harm to others constitutes a legitimate ground for limiting it. But he may be wrong,
and in the following list we present for consideration a number of additional
‘freedom-limiting principles’ alongside the non-consensual harm to others one.
42 Part 1 Classical ideas
Liberty-limiting Mill’s view (YES: reason for
principle restricting freedom; NO: not
Harm to others Non-consensual YES – only ground for restriction
Harm to self (paternalism) NO (argument is closely tied to
Offensiveness NO (but Mill is not consistent)
Harmless wrongdoing or NO (harmless wrongdoing is a
badness (these two are contradiction in terms)
not the same)
Using these four or (arguably five) principles we can both criticise Mill and
consider alternative perspectives on freedom.