The BEST: On Liberty

Samuel Lebens Tradition Online | August 12, 2021

Summary: Classical utilitarianism claims good action maximizes net human pleasure and minimizes net human pain. John Stuart Mill famously refined this position. He distinguished between higher and lower pleasures. The scant pleasures experienced even by a dissatisfied Socrates are, Mill argues, of such a refined variety that they outweigh whatever earthly pleasure might be had, even by the most satiated pig. This argument appears in Mill’s Utilitarianism but is present in the background of his earlier work, On Liberty

Individuality is one of the necessary prerequisites for the experience of “higher” pleasures. Accordingly, Mill wanted to advance a political theory that would allow for the emergence of citizens with a keen sense of their own individuality. Moreover, his On Liberty articulated a political theory that could act as a bulwark against one of the greatest threats to utilitarian ethics: the tyranny of the majority.

If we kidnap a single illiterate person and harvest his organs, we could save the lives of many scholars. The ongoing and refined pleasures of these modern-day Socrates types would outweigh the pain caused to our victim. On Liberty counters this argument. Mill claims, “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.” This is known as the harm-principle. 

On Liberty also contains a defense of three key liberties: (1) the freedom of speech; (2) the freedom to structure one’s life according to one’s own taste (providing no harm is done to others), even if doing so may be deemed immoral by others; and (3) the freedom to associate with others (providing no harm is thereby rendered to those outside the association). These liberties are central to the cultivation and preservation of individuality. 

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Why this is The BEST: Belief in God, and in revelation, comes along with the danger that one will become rigidly dogmatic. The Sages sought to fend this danger off, exhorting us to learn from all people. The risk is nevertheless real. John Stuart Mill’s moving and thorough defense of the freedom of speech, in which he describes the good that comes even from listening to false beliefs, can function as an important corrective to the peril of dogmatism. Moreover, to be an Orthodox Jew is to carry a thick conception of the good, which automatically gives rise to questions as to whether and when it may be appropriate to impose that conception upon others. On Liberty is a foundational contribution to that discussion. 

However, On Liberty is host to some serious shortcomings. The harm-principle applies only to “a civilized community,” since the highest forms of human pleasure are experienced there. Less civilized societies might fare better, according to Mill, if they are, at first, forcibly refined by the strong hand of a benevolent authoritarian. Indeed, Mill was in favor of British imperialism. Thus, On Liberty will not strike a modern-day liberal as all that liberal. Another concern: Mill would legalize gambling and prostitution, but only in private, and only between consenting adults. Accordingly, he allows the state to interfere in order to prevent “public indecency.” But how is this consistent with Mill’s argument that we should be free to offend people? How, exactly, am I harmed merely by seeing acts of indecency? How is this harm to be differentiated from my merely taking offense? There are also worries about the degree to which Mill’s On Liberty is truly consistent with his Utilitarianism.

INot in God’s Name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the harm principle was “the beginning of the end of traditional codes of ethics, to be replaced by the unfettered sanctity of the individual, autonomy, rights and choice.” R. Sacks was adamantly opposed to unfettered individualism. He thought that people are born into communal networks of responsibility and obligation. Indeed, halakhic Judaism views each Jew as standing under a specific set of commands. The classical liberalism of Mill, by contrast, sees each person as a self-defined locus of meaning. Mill’s liberalism is, in some respects, a clear articulation of what Modern Orthodoxy must define itself against. And yet, R. Sacks was equally adamant, in political writings – such as The Politics of Hope and The Home We Build Together – that the state and the market could both be forces for the good. This is an essential ingredient of the Modern Orthodox embrace of modernity. But, crucially, the state and the market must both be regulated. On Liberty, as a locus classicus for the discussion of the appropriate limits of state power therefore contains, despite the elements we’re bound to reject, an important ingredient of a broadly Modern Orthodox outlook. 

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens teaches philosophy at the University of Haifa, and will take up an appointment as Associate Professor there in October 2021.

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