23 March 2009

On Liberty

Sometime last week I finished reading On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. Excellent, excellent reading. For a bit of background, Mill was a Utilitarian, meaning that his system of ethics emphasizes maximizing total happiness for a society. While there are problems with pure Utilitarianism, that's not my focus here. It's not obvious from most parts of this book that Mill was using Utilitarian principles, so it can be read and interpreted in other ways.

"Look for the innocent victim." That was Pelletti's summary of Mill's views, meaning that if a behavior harms no one, there is no reason for society or the government to restrict it. Mill takes it further, arguing that if a behavior harms a person with that person's informed consent, there is still no justification for restricting it. Mill includes freedom of expression and lifestyle in these. In fact, Mill just might be more radical in this direction than I am. One issue that came up in class is where to draw the line for "informed consent." Can there be informed consent if a drug is instantly addictive to, say, a quarter of the people who try it? Maybe if there were a way to screen out those who would be instantly addicted, but otherwise, it doesn't seem to hold up.

Interestingly, Mill would not object to gun licensing and registration, at least it seems safe to infer this from his discussion of purchasing poison. I'm going from memory, but essentially he says that there is no need to restrict access to poisons, but that it would be acceptable to require people to sign for them and to state the intended purpose of use (killing rats, for instance) in the presence of a witness. That way there would be both a paper trail and a material witness should the poison be used in some other manner. It seems intended to serve the same purpose as our seven-day-waiting-period: make someone less likely to purchase the dangerous item and use it in the heat of the moment. Of course, certain types of people will then just steal the item, but that's a different problem.

Overall, I think Mill's principle is a good one to think about in any situation. I'm not sure that it's enough for every situation, but it's certainly good to consider whether there is an innocent victim for an action before attempting to restrict it. As a final note before I lose coherence, Mill's principles fall under "freedom from". That is, the government should not intervene without good reason; all actions not specifically restricted are permissible. Highly recommended reading (and the full text is available online).

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