Features
Featured Essay
Featured Link

Full Collections
Essays (425)
Quotations (6095)
Links (715)
Books (232)

Other Pages
About Us
Authors
Awards
Bookseller Affiliations
Contact Us
Cookies
Editorial Board
Excellent Essays
Excellent Sites
Liberal Magic
Mush Quotations
Our New Look
Privacy Policy
Sign Up!
Submissions
Amazon.com online bookstore
  


 Title

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - Chapter 1

 Synopsis

The Doctrine of Liberty in General - part of Sir Stephen's classic antithesis to John Stuart Mills' On Liberty

 Author

James Fitzjames Stephen

 Author Notes

Lawyer, professor and judge, principle draftee of the Criminal Code of Canada (1892), author of History of the Criminal Law (1883), Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873) and other works. The latter book has endured as the classic refutation of John Stuart Mills' On Liberty and the precepts of classical liberalism.

Book by James Fitzjames Stephen
Click on the bookseller link(s) to learn more about this book

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: And Three Brief Essays
View details at Amazon.com
 
 Essay - 1/1/1873

The object of this work is to examine the doctrines which are rather hinted at than expressed by the phrase "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." This phrase has been the motto of more than one Republic. It is indeed something more than a motto. It is the creed of a religion, less definite than any one of the forms of Christianity, which are in part its rivals, in part its antagonists, and in part its associates, but not on that account the less powerful. It is, on the contrary, one of the most penetrating influences of the day. It shows itself now and then in definite forms, of which Positivism is the one best known to our generation, but its special manifestations give no adequate measure of its depth or width. It penetrates other creeds. It has often transformed Christianity into a system of optimism, which has in some cases retained and in others rejected Christian phraseology. It deeply influences politics and legislation. It has its solemn festivals, its sober adherents, its enthusiasts, its Anabaptists and Antinomians. The Religion of Humanity is perhaps as good a name as could be found for it, if the expression is used in a wider sense than the narrow and technical one associated with it by Comte. It is one of the commonest beliefs of the day that the human race collectively has before it splendid destinies of various kinds, and that the road to them is to be found in the removal of all restraints on human conduct, in the recognition of a substantial equality between all human creatures, and in fraternity or general love. These doctrines are in very many cases held as a religious faith. They are regarded not merely as truths, but as truths for which those who believe in them are ready to do battle, and for the establishment of which they are prepared to sacrifice all merely personal ends.

Such, stated of course in the most general terms, is the religion of which I take "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" to be the creed. I do not believe it for the following, amongst other reasons.

I am not the advocate of Slavery, Caste, and Hatred, nor do I deny that a sense may be given to the words, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, in which they may be regarded as good. I wish to assert with respect to them two propositions.

First, that in the present day even those who use those words most rationally--that is to say, as the names of elements of social life which, like others, have their advantages and disadvantages according to time, place, and circumstance--have a great disposition to exaggerate their advantages and to deny the existence, or at any rate to underrate the importance, of their disadvantages.

Next, that whatever signification be attached to them, these words are ill-adapted to be the creed of a religion, that the things which they denote are not ends in themselves, and that when used collectively the words do not typify, however vaguely, any state of society which a reasonable man ought to regard with enthusiasm or self-devotion.

The truth of the first proposition as a mere general observation will not, in all probability, be disputed; but I attach to it a very much more specific meaning than is conveyed by a mere commonplace. I mean to assert that the most accredited current theories upon this subject, and those which have been elaborated with the greatest care, are unsound; and to give point to this, I say more specifically that the theories advanced upon the subject by Mr. John Mill in most of his later works are unsound. I have several reasons for referring specifically to him. In the first place, no writer of the present day has expressed himself upon these subjects with anything like the same amount either of system or of ability. In the second place, he is the only living author who has handled the subject, with whom I agree sufficiently to differ from him profitably. Up to a certain point I should be proud to describe myself as his disciple, but there is a side of his teaching which is as repugnant as the rest of it is attractive to me, and this side has of late years become by far the most prominent. I do not say that the teaching of his works on Liberty, on Utilitarianism, and on the Subjection of Women is inconsistent with the teaching of his works on Logic and Political Economy; but I wish to show the grounds on which it is possible to agree with the greater part of the contents of the two works last mentioned, and even to maintain principles which they rather imply than assert, and at the same time to dissent in the strongest way from the view of human nature and human affairs which pervades the works first mentioned.

No better statement of the popular view--I might, perhaps, say of the religious dogma of liberty--is to be found than that which is contained in Mr. Mill's essay on the subject. His works on Utilitarianism and the Subjection of Women afford excellent illustrations of the forms of the doctrines of equality and fraternity to which I object. Nothing is further from my wishes than to make a captious attack upon the writings of a great man to whom I am in every way deeply indebted; but in stating the grounds of one's dissent from wide-spread and influential opinions it is absolutely necessary to take some definite statement of those opinions as a starting point, and it is natural to take the ablest, the most reasonable, and the clearest.

To proceed, then. The following is, I think, a fair abridgment of the introductory chapter of the Essay on Liberty, which is much the most important part of that work.

Civil or social liberty as distinguished from "the so-called liberty of the will" is its subject. The expression, Mr. Mill tells us, meant originally protection against the tyranny of political rulers. Their power was recognized as a necessary evil, and its limitation either by privilege or by constitutional checks was what was meant by liberty. People came in time to regard their rulers rather as their own agents and the depositories of their own power than as antagonistic powers to be kept in check, and it did not occur to them that their own power exercised through their own agents might be just as oppressive as the power of their rulers confined within closer or wider limits. By degrees, however, experience showed that the whole might, and was by no means disinclined to, tyrannize over the part, and hence came the phrase "tyranny of the majority." This tyranny of the majority has its root in the feeling in each person's mind that everybody should be required to act as he and those with whom he sympathizes would like them to act. After having illustrated this Mr. Mill proceeds: "Those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling have left this condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like and dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals." He then enunciates his own view in the following passage:

The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion or control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is that 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. 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 opinions of others to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself his independence is of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

He points out that "this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties," and that "we may leave out of account those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage." He then disclaims any advantage which could be derived to his "argument from the idea of abstract right as a thing independent of utility." He adds: "I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being." He concludes by specifying "the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense, liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people, but being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits, of framing our plan of life to suit our own character, of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow, without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them--even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual follows the liberty within the same limits of combination among individuals."

This, I think, is the substance of the doctrine of the introductory chapter. It is the whole doctrine of the essay, and it is remarkable that, having thus fully and carefully enunciated his doctrine, Mr. Mill never attempts to prove it, as a whole. Probably the second, third, and fourth chapters are intended as separate proofs of distinct parts of it. Chapter II may thus be regarded as an argument meant to prove that absolute liberty of thought and discussion is good. Chapter III in the same way is an argument to show that individuality is an element of well-being, but it assumes instead of proving that liberty is a condition of individuality; a point on which much might be said. Chapter IV is entitled, "Of the Limits of the Authority of Society over the Individual." It is little more than a restatement in detail of the general principles stated in the introductory chapter. It adds nothing to the argument, except this remark, which, no doubt, is entitled to great weight: "The strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct is that when it does interfere the odds are that it interferes wrongly and in the wrong place." Finally, Chapter V, entitled "Applications," consists, as might be expected from its title, of the application of the general principle to a certain number of specific cases.

There is hardly anything in the whole essay which can properly be called proof as distinguished from enunciation or assertion of the general principles quoted. I think, however, that it will not be difficult to show that the principle stands in much need of proof. In order to make this clear it will be desirable in the first place to point out the meaning of the word liberty according to principles which I think are common to Mr. Mill and to myself. I do not think Mr. Mill would dispute the following statement of the theory of human actions. All voluntary acts are caused by motives. All motives may be placed in one of two categories--hope and fear, pleasure and pain. Voluntary acts of which hope is the motive are said to be free. Voluntary acts of which fear is the motive are said to be done under compulsion, or omitted under restraint. A woman marries. This in every case is a voluntary action. If she regards the marriage with the ordinary feelings and acts from the ordinary motives, she is said to act freely. If she regards it as a necessity, to which she submits in order to avoid greater evil, she is said to act under compulsion and not freely.

If this is the true theory of liberty--and, though many persons would deny this, I do not think Mr. Mill would--the propositions already stated will in a condensed form amount to this: "No one is ever justified in trying to affect any one's conduct by exciting his fears, except for the sake of self-protection;" or, making another substitution which he would also approve-- "It can never promote the general happiness of mankind that the conduct of any persons should be affected by an appeal to their fears, except in the cases excepted."

Surely these are not assertions which can be regarded as self-evident, or even as otherwise than paradoxical. What is all morality, and what are all existing religions in so far as they aim at affecting human conduct, except an appeal either to hope or fear, and to fear far more commonly and far more emphatically than to hope? Criminal legislation proper may be regarded as unimportant as an engine of prohibition in comparison with morals and the forms of morality sanctioned by theology. For one act from which one person is restrained by the fear of the law of the land, many persons are restrained from innumerable acts by the fear of the disapprobation of their neighbours, which is the moral sanction; or by the fear of punishment in a future state of existence, which is the religious sanction; or by the fear of their own disapprobation, which may be called the conscientious sanction, and may be regarded as a compound case of the other two. Now, in the innumerable majority of cases, disapprobation, or the moral sanction, has nothing whatever to do with self-protection. The religious sanction is by its nature independent of it. Whatever special forms it may assume, the fundamental condition of it is a being intolerant of evil in the highest degree, and inexorably determined to punish it wherever it exists, except upon certain terms. I do not say that this doctrine is true, but I do say that no one is entitled to assume it without proof to be essentially immoral and mischievous. Mr. Mill does not draw this inference, but I think his theory involves it, for I know not what can be a greater infringement of his theory of liberty, a more complete and formal contradiction to it, than the doctrine that there is a court and a judge in which, and before whom, every man must give an account of every work done in the body, whether self-regarding or not. According to Mr. Mill's theory, it ought to be a good plea in the day of judgment to say "I pleased myself and hurt nobody else." Whether or not there will ever be a day of judgment is not the question, but upon his principles the conception of a day of judgment is fundamentally immoral. A God who punished any one at all, except for the purpose of protecting others, would, upon his principles, be a tyrant trampling on liberty.

The application of the principle in question to the moral sanction would be just as subversive of all that people commonly regard as morality. The only moral system which would comply with the principle stated by Mr. Mill would be one capable of being summed up as follows:-- "Let every man please himself without hurting his neighbour;" and every moral system which aimed at more than this, either to obtain benefits for society at large other than protection against injury or to do good to the persons affected, would be wrong in principle. This would condemn every existing system of morals. Positive morality is nothing but a body of principles and rules more or less vaguely expressed, and more or less left to be understood, by which certain lines of conduct are forbidden under the penalty of general disapprobation, and that quite irrespectively of self-protection. Mr. Mill himself admits this to a certain extent. In the early. part of his fourth chapter he says that a man grossly deficient in the qualities which conduce to his own good is "necessarily and properly a subject of distaste, or in extreme cases even of contempt," and he enumerates various inconveniences to which this would expose such a person. He adds, however: "The inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgement 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 relation with him." This no doubt weakens the effect of the admission; but be this how it may, the fact still remains that morality is and must be a prohibitive system, one of the main objects of which is to impose upon every one a standard of conduct and of sentiment to which few persons would conform if it were not for the constraint thus put upon them. In nearly every instance the effects of such a system reach far beyond anything that can be described as the purposes of self-protection.

Mr. Mill's system is violated not only by every system of theology which concerns itself with morals, and by every known system of positive morality, but by the constitution of human nature itself. There is hardly a habit which men in general regard as good which is not acquired by a series of more or less painful and laborious acts. The condition of human life is such that we must of necessity be restrained and compelled by circumstances in nearly every action of our lives. Why, then, is liberty, defined as Mr. Mill defines it, to be regarded as so precious? What, after all, is done by the legislator or by the person who sets public opinion in motion to control conduct of which he disapproves--or, if the expression is preferred, which he dislikes--which is not done for us all at every instant of our lives by circumstances? The laws which punish murder or theft are substitutes for private vengeance, which, in the absence of law, would punish those crimes more severely, though in a less regular manner. If there were laws which punished incontinence, gluttony, or drunkenness, the same might be said of them. Mr. Mill admits in so many words that there are "inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others." What is the distinction in principle between such inconveniences and similar ones organised, defined, and inflicted upon proof that the circumstances which call for their infliction exist? This organization, definition, and procedure make all the difference between the restraints which Mr. Mill would permit and the restraints to which he objects. I cannot see on what the distinction rests. I cannot understand why it must always be wrong to punish habitual drunkenness by fine, imprisonment, or deprivation of civil rights, and always be right to punish it by the infliction of those consequences which are "strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others." It may be said that these consequences follow, not because we think them desirable, but in the common order of nature. This answer only suggests the further question, whether nature is in this instance to be regarded as a friend or as an enemy? Every reasonable man would answer that the restraint which the fear of the disapprobation of others imposes on our conduct is the part of the constitution of nature which we could least afford to dispense with. But if this is so, why draw the line where Mr. Mill draws it? Why treat the penal consequences of disapprobation as things to be minimized and restrained within the narrowest limits? What "inconvenience," after all, is "strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others?" If society at large adopted fully Mr. Mill's theory of liberty, it would be easy to diminish very greatly the inconveniences in question. Strenuously preach and rigorously practise the doctrine that our neighbour's private character is nothing to us, and the number of unfavourable judgments formed, and therefore the number of inconveniences inflicted by them, can be reduced as much as we please, and the province of liberty can be enlarged in a corresponding ratio. Does any reasonable man wish for this? Could any one desire gross licentiousness, monstrous extravagance, ridiculous vanity, or the like, to be unnoticed, or, being known, to inflict no inconveniences?

If, however, the restraints on immorality are the main safeguards of society against influences which might be fatal to it, why treat them as if they were bad? Why draw so strongly marked a line between social. and legal penalties? Mr. Mill asserts the existence of the distinction in every form of speech. He makes his meaning perfectly clear. Yet from one end of his essay to the other I find no proof and no attempt to give the proper and appropriate proof of it. His doctrine could have been proved if it had been true. It was not proved because it was not true.

Each of these propositions may, I think, be established by referring to the commonest and most important cases of coercion for other purposes than those of self-protection. The most important of them are:

  1. Coercion for the purpose of establishing and maintaining religions.
  2. Coercion for the purpose of establishing and practically maintaining morality.
  3. Coercion for the purpose of making alterations in existing forms of government or social institutions.

None of these can in the common use of language be described as cases of self-protection or of the prevention of harm to persons other than those coerced. Each is a case of coercion, for the sake of what the persons who exercise coercive power regard as the attainment of a good object, and each is accordingly condemned, and the first and second were no doubt intended to be condemned, by Mr. Mill's principle. Indeed, as he states it, the principle would go very much further. It would condemn, for instance, all taxation to which the party taxed did not consent, unless the money produced by it was laid out either upon military or upon police purposes or in the administration of justice; for these purposes only can be described as self-protective. To force an unwilling person to contribute to the support of the British Museum is as distinct a violation of Mr. Mill's principle as religious persecution. He does not, however, notice or insist upon this point, and I shall say no more of it than that it proves that his principle requires further limitations than he has thought it necessary to express.

Returning, then, to the three kinds of coercion mentioned, I say that it was Mr. Mill's business to show not merely that they had had bad effects--it would be as superfluous to show that surgical operations have bad effects--but that the bad effects arose from the coercion itself, irrespectively of the objects for which it was employed, and of the mistakes and excesses of those who employed it. He had to show not that surgery is painful, or that the loss of a limb is a calamity, or that surgeons are often unskilful or rash, but that surgery is an art bad in itself which ought to be suppressed. This, I say he has never attempted to show from the beginning of the book to the end of it. If he had, he would have found his task an impossible one.

As regards coercion for the purpose of establishing and maintaining religions and systems of morality, it would be waste of time to insist upon the principle that both religion and morals are good on the whole, notwithstanding the evils of various kinds which have been connected with them. Nor need I repeat what I have already said on the point that both religion and morality are and always must be essentially coercive systems. Taking these matters for granted, however, it will be desirable to consider somewhat more fully the nature of moral and religious coercion, and the manner in which they operate. If Mr. Mill's view of liberty had always been adopted and acted upon to its full extent--if it had been the view of the first Christians or of the first Mahommedans--every one can see that there would have been no such thing as organised Christianity or Mahommedanism in the world. Even after such success as these and other religions have obtained, the morality of the vast mass of mankind is simply to do what they please up to the point at which custom puts a restraint upon them, arising from the fear of disapprobation. The custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality, and the fact that this aversion may be felt by the very person whose conduct occasions it, and may be described as arising from the action of his own conscience, makes no difference which need be considered here. The important point is that such disapprobation could never have become customary unless it had been imposed upon mankind at large by persons who themselves felt it with exceptional energy, and who were in a position which enabled them to make other people adopt their principles and even their tastes and feelings.

Religion and morals, in a word, bear, even when they are at their calmest, the traces of having been established, as we know that in fact they were, by word of command. We have seen enough of the foundation of religions to know pretty well what is their usual course. A religion is first preached by a single person or a small body of persons. A certain number of disciples adopt it enthusiastically, and proceed to force their views upon the world by preaching, by persuasion, by the force of sympathy, until the new creed has become sufficiently influential and sufficiently well organised to exercise power both over its own members and beyond its own sphere. This power, in the case of a vigorous creed, assumes many forms. It may be military power, if the early converts are fighting men; it may be power derived from threats as to a future state--and this is the commonest and most distinctive form of religious power of which we. have practical experience. It may be power derived from mere superior energy of will, or from organisations which those who possess that energy are able to set on foot by means of it. But, be the special form of religious power what it will, the principle is universally true that the growth of religions is in the nature of a conquest made by a small number of ardent believers over the lukewarmness, the indifference, and the conscious ignorance of the mass of mankind. The life of the great mass of men, to a great extent the life of all men, is like a watercourse guided this way or that by a system of dams, sluices, weirs, and embankments. The volume and the quality of the different streams differ, and so do the plans of the works by which their flow is regulated, but it is by these works--that is to say, by their various customs and institutions--that men's lives are regulated. Now these customs are not only in their very nature restraints, but they are restraints imposed by the will of an exceedingly small numerical minority and contentedly accepted by a majority to which they have become so natural that they do not recognise them as restraints.

As for the third set of cases in which coercion is habitually employed--I mean coercion for the purpose of making alterations in existing forms of government and social institutions--it surely needs no argument to show that all the great political changes which have been the principal subject of European history for the last three centuries have been cases of coercion in the most severe form, although a large proportion of them have been described as struggles for liberty by those who were, in fact, the most vigorous wielders of power.

Mr. Mill and his disciples would be the last persons in the world to say that the political and social changes which have taken place in the world since the sixteenth century have not on the whole been eminently beneficial to mankind; but nothing can be clearer than that they were brought about by force, and in many instances by the force of a minority numerically small, applied to the conduct of an ignorant or very partially informed and for the most part indifferent majority. It would surely be as absurd to say that the Reformation or the French Revolution was brought about freely and not by coercion as to say that Charles I walked freely to the block. Each of these and many other cases which might be mentioned were struggles for political power, efforts to bring about a change in the existing state of things, which for various reasons appeared desirable to people who were able to carry out their designs more or less successfully.

To say that force was justifiable in none of these cases would be a paradox which Mr. Mill would probably be the last person to maintain. To say that it was justifiable only in so far as it was necessary for self-protection would not explain the facts. Take such a case as the establishment of a new religion and the reduction of an old one to the position of a permitted form of private opinion. Life has gone on for ages upon the supposition of the truth of the old religion. Laws and institutions of various kinds arc founded upon it. The great mass of the population of a country have no particular wish to disturb the existing state of things even though they may be ceasing to believe in the creed which it implies. Innovators arise who attack corruptions and preach new doctrines. They are punished. They resist, sides are formed, and the results follow with which history is filled. In what sense can it be said that the acts of violence which take place on such occasions are acts done in self-defence and in order to prevent harm? They are acts of aggression upon an established system which is regarded as bad, and with a view to the substitution of a different system which it is supposed will be better. If any one supposes that in regard to such transactions it is possible to draw a line between what ought to be done and what ought not; if any one will undertake to say how the French Revolution or the Reformation ought to have been conducted so as to avoid all violence on both sides and yet to have arrived at the desired conclusion, he will be able to give us a universal political constitution and a universal code of laws. People in such positions as those of Charles V, Philip II, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth, Louis XVI, and many others, must take a side, and must back it vigorously against its antagonists, unless they mean to be devoured themselves, The only way by which this can be reconciled with Mr. Mill's principle is by describing such violence as a case of self-protection, and if this is done it will follow that if men happen to be living under a political or social system with the principles or with the working of which they are not satisfied, they may fight out their difference, and the conqueror may determine the matter in dispute according to his own will. In other words, the principle cannot be applied to the very cases in which it is most needed. Mr. Mill's principle throughout assumes the existence of an ideal state of things in which everyone has precisely the position which, with a view to the general happiness of the world, he ought to hold. If such a state of things existed there would be some plausibility in saying that no one ought to interfere with anyone else except for the sake of protecting himself against attack, by maintaining the existing state of things. But as no such state of things exists or ever yet existed in any age or country, the principle has at present no locus standi.

Not only is an appeal to facts and experience opposed to Mr. Mill's principle, but his essay contains exceptions and qualifications which are really inconsistent with it. He says that his principle "is meant to apply to human beings only in the maturity of their faculties," and, he adds, "we may leave out of account those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage." Despotism, he says, "is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty as a principle has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and is justifiable only for the security of others."

It seems to me that this qualification either reduces the doctrine qualified to an empty commonplace which no one would care to dispute, or makes an incredible assertion about the state of human society. No one, I suppose, ever denied either in theory or in practice that there is a sphere within which the tastes of people of mature age ought not to be interfered with, and within which differences must be regarded as natural and inevitable--in which better or worse means that which the individual prefers or dislikes. On the other hand, no one ever suggested that it was or could be good for anyone to be compelled to do what he did not like, unless the person compelling was not only stronger but wiser than the person compelled, at all events in reference to the matter to which the compulsion applied.

Either, then, the exception means only that superior wisdom "is not in every case a reason why one man should control another--which is a mere commonplace,--or else it means that in all the countries which we are accustomed to call civilised the mass of adults are so well acquainted with their own interests and so much disposed to pursue them that no compulsion or restraint put upon any of them by any others for the purpose of promoting their interests can really promote them.

No one can doubt the importance of this assertion, but where is the proof of it? Let us consider how it ought to have and would have been proved if it had been capable of proof. Mr. Mill might have specified the different classes of which some considerable nation--our own, for instance--is composed. Then he might have stated what are the objects which, if attained, would constitute the happiness of each of those classes. Then he might have shown that a knowledge of those interests, a knowledge of the means by which they must be attained, and a disposition to make use of the means proper to obtain them, was so generally diffused among each class that no compulsion put by the other classes upon any one class as a whole, or by any part of any class upon any other part of it, could increase the happiness of the persons compelled to such an extent as to overbalance the pain of the compulsion itself. Before he affirmed that in Western Europe and America the compulsion of adults for their own good is unjustifiable, Mr. Mill ought to have proved that there are among us no considerable differences in point of wisdom, or that if there are, the wiser part of the community does not wish for the welfare of the less wise.

It seems to me quite impossible to stop short of this principle if compulsion in the case of children and "backward" races is admitted to be justifiable, for, after all, maturity and civilisation are matters of degree. One person may be more mature at fifteen than another at thirty. A nation or a particular part of a nation may make such an advance in the arts of life in half a century that other nations, or other parts of the same nation, which were equally civilised at the beginning of the period, may be relatively barbarous at the end of it.

I do not overlook the qualification contained in the passages quoted above. It fixes the limit up to which compulsion is justifiable at the "time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion." This expression may imply that compulsion is always or never justifiable, according to the manner in which it is construed, I am not quite sure that I know what Mr. Mill means by "equal" discussion, but was there ever a time or place at which no men could be improved on any point by free discussion? The wildest savages, the most immature youths, capable of any sort of education, are capable of being improved by free discussion upon a great variety of subjects. Compulsion, therefore, in their own interests would, at least in relation to these subjects, be unjustifiable as regards them. If boys in a school can be convinced of the importance of industry, you must never punish them for idleness. Such an interpretation of the rule would practically exclude compulsion together.

A narrower interpretation would be as follows. There is a period, now generally reached all over Europe and America, at which discussion takes the place of compulsion, and in which people when they know what is good for them generally do it. When this period is reached, compulsion may be laid aside. To this I should say that no such period has as yet been reached anywhere, and that there is no prospect of its being reached anywhere within any assignable time.

Where, in the very most advanced and civilised communities, will you find any class of persons whose views or whose conduct on subjects on which they are interested are regulated even in the main by the results of free discussion? What proportion of human misconduct in any department in life is due to ignorance, and what to wickedness or weakness? Of ten thousand people who get drunk, is there one who could say with truth that he did so because he had been brought to think on full deliberation and after free discussion that it was wise to get drunk? Would not every one of the ten thousand, if he told the real truth, say in some dialect or other, "I got drunk because I was weak and a fool, because I could not resist the immediate pleasure for the sake of future and indefinite advantage?" If we look at the conduct of bodies of men as expressed in their laws and institutions, we shall find that, though compulsion and persuasion go hand in hand, from the most immature and the roughest ages and societies up to the most civilised, the lion's share of the results obtained is due to compulsion, and that discussion is at most an appeal to the motives by which the strong man is likely to be actuated in using his strength. Look at our own time and country, and mention any single great change which has been effected by mere discussion. Can a single case be mentioned in which the passions of men were interested where the change was not carried by force--that is to say, ultimately by the fear of revolution? Is it in any degree true that when the brains are out a question dies? Look at small matters which involve more or less of a principle, but do not affect many men's passions, and see how much reasoning has to do with their settlement. Such questions as the admission of Jews into Parliament and the legalisation of marriage between brothers and sisters-in-law drag on and on after the argument has been exhausted, till in course of time those who take one view or the other grow into a decided majority, and settle the matter their own way. Parliamentary government is simply a mild and disguised form of compulsion. We agree to try strength by counting heads instead of breaking heads, but the principle is exactly the same. It is not the wisest side which wins, but the one which for the time being shows its superior strength (of which no doubt wisdom is one element) by enlisting the largest amount of active sympathy in its support. The minority gives way not because it is convinced that it is wrong, but because it is convinced that it is a minority.

This again suggests an observation on a different part of the passage quoted from Mr. Mill. In rough states of society he admits of Charlemagnes and Akbars, if the world is so fortunate as to have them at hand. What reason is there to suppose that Charlemagnes or Akbars owe their power to enlightenment superior to that of the persons whom they coerce? They owe it to greater force of character and to the possession of power. What they did was to suppress anarchy--to substitute the vigorous rule of one Sovereign for the jarring pretensions of a crowd of petty rulers. No doubt powerful men are generally comparatively enlightened men, as were both Charlemagne and Akbar, for knowledge is a high form of power, as light implies intense force. But power in whatever form is the essential thing. Anarchy may be mischievous in civilised as well as in uncivilised life, and the only way out of it is by coercive power. To direct that power aright is, I think, the principal object of political argument. The difference between a rough and a civilised society is not that force is used in the one case and persuasion in the other, but that force is (or ought to be) guided with greater care in the second case than in the first. President Lincoln attained his objects by the use of a degree of force which would have crushed Charlemagne and his paladins and peers like so many eggshells. The correctness of the assertion that "in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves," the period at which "mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion has long since arrived," may be estimated by reference to two familiar points:--

1. Upon all the subjects which mainly interest men as men--religion, morals, government--mankind at large are in a state of ignorance which in favourable cases is just beginning to be conscious that it is ignorance. How far will free discussion carry such knowledge as we have on these subjects? The very most that can be hoped for--men being what they are--is to popularise, more or less, a certain set of commonplaces, which, by the condition of their existence, cannot possibly be more than half-truths. Discussion produces plenty of effects, no doubt. People hunger and thirst after theories to such a degree that whatever puts their own wishes into a compact and intelligible form will obtain from them a degree of allegiance which may be called either touching or terrible. Look at the great popular movements which discussion has provoked, and consider what approach any one of them made to the real truth. Innumerable creeds, religious and political, have swept across the world, arguing, preaching, gesticulating, and fighting. Compare the amount of recognition which the worst of them has obtained and the devotion which it has called forth with the degree of really intelligent appreciation which has been awarded to science. Millions upon millions of men, women, and children believe in Mahommed to the point of regulating their whole life by his law. How many people have understood Adam Smith? Did anybody, except perhaps Mr. Buckle, ever feel any enthusiasm about him? If we wish to test the capacity of mankind at large for any sort of abstract discussion, we ought to consider the case of the minor branches of human knowledge which have been invested with some approach to a systematic character. How many people are capable of understanding the fundamental principles of either political economy or jurisprudence? How many people can understand the distinction between making the fundamental assumptions of political economy for the purpose of calculating the results of the unrestrained action of the desire to get rich, and regarding those assumptions as being true in fact and capable of serving as the foundations of human society? One would have thought that it was easy to distinguish between the proposition, "If your only object in trade is to make the largest possible profit, you ought always to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest," and the proposition, "All men ought, under all circumstances, to buy all things in the cheapest and sell them in the dearest market." Yet how many people do in fact distinguish them? How many recognise in the faintest degree the importance of the distinction?

2. Men are so constructed that whatever theory as to goodness and badness we choose to adopt, there are and always will be in the world an enormous mass of bad and indifferent people--people who deliberately do all sorts of things which they ought not to do, and leave undone all sorts of things which they ought to do. Estimate the proportion of men and women who are selfish, sensual, frivolous, idle, absolutely commonplace and wrapped up in the smallest of petty routines, and consider how far the freest of free discussion is likely to improve them. The only way by which it is practically possible to act upon them at all is by compulsion or restraint. Whether it is worth while to apply to them both or either I do not now inquire; I confine myself to saying that the utmost conceivable liberty which could be bestowed upon them would not in the least degree tend to improve them. It would be as wise to say to the water of a stagnant marsh, "Why in the world do not you run into the sea? You are perfectly free. There is not a single hydraulic work within a mile of you. There are no pumps to suck you up, no defined channel down which you are compelled to run, no harsh banks and mounds to confine you to any particular course, no dams and no floodgates; and yet there you lie, putrefying and breeding fever, frogs, and gnats, just as if you were a mere slave!" The water might probably answer, if it knew how, "If you want me to turn mills and carry boats, you must dig proper channels and provide proper water-works for me."


This article is the property of its author and/or copyright holder. Any use other than personal reading of the article may infringe legal rights.
Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.