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Monday, January 30, 2012

Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual.

On Liberty - John Stuart Mill

Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the

What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over
himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of hu-
man life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?
Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more par-
ticularly concerns it. To individuality should belong the part of life in
which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part
which chiefly interests society.
Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good
purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social
obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society
owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it
indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of
conduct towards the rest. This conduct consists, first, in not injuring the
interests of one another; or rather certain interests, which, either by
express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be consid-
ered as rights; and secondly, in each person’s bearing his share (to be
fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifices incurred
for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation.
These conditions society is justified in enforcing, at all costs to those
who endeavour to withhold fulfilment. Nor is this all that society may
do. The acts of an individual may be hurtful to others, or wanting in due
consideration for their welfare, without going to the length of violating
any of their constituted rights. The offender may then be justly punished
by opinion, though not by law. As soon as any part of a person’s con-
duct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction
over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be
promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there
is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct
affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect
them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and
the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases, there should
be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the con-
It would be a great misunderstanding of this doctrine to suppose
that it is one of selfish indifference, which pretends that human beings
have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should
not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one an-
other, unless their own interest is involved. Instead of any diminution,
there is need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the
good of others. But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments
to persuade people to their good than whips and scourges, either of the
literal or the metaphorical sort. I am the last person to undervalue the
self-regarding virtues; they are only second in importance, if even sec-
ond, to the social. It is equally the business of education to cultivate
both. But even education works by conviction and persuasion as well as
by compulsion, and it is by the former only that, when the period of
education is passed, the self-regarding virtues should be inculcated.
Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the
worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.
They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of
their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims
towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects
and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons,
is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he
shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with
it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest
which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment,
can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the
interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct
to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect; while with respect to his
own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has
means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be pos-
sessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judg-
ment and purposes in what only regards himself must be grounded on
general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right,
are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no
better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are
who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of
On Liberty/71
human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action. In the con-
duct of human beings towards one another it is necessary that general
rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may
know what they have to expect: but in each person’s own concerns his
individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise. Considerations to aid
his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him,
even obtruded on him, by others: but he himself is the final judge. All
errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning are far
outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they
deem his good.
I do not mean that the feelings with which a person is regarded by
others ought not to be in any way affected by his self-regarding qualities
or deficiencies. This is neither possible nor desirable. If he is eminent in
any of the qualities which conduce to his own good, he is, so far, a
proper object of admiration. He is so much the nearer to the ideal per-
fection of human nature. If he is grossly deficient in those qualities, a
sentiment the opposite of admiration will follow. There is a degree of
folly, and a degree of what may be called (though the phrase is not
unobjectionable) lowness or depravation of taste, which, though it can-
not justify doing harm to the person who manifests it, renders him nec-
essarily and properly a subject of distaste, or, in extreme cases, even of
contempt: a person could not have the opposite qualities in due strength
without entertaining these feelings. Though doing no wrong to any one,
a person may so act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a
fool, or as a being of an inferior order: and since this judgment and
feeling are a fact which he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a
service to warn him of it beforehand, as of any other disagreeable con-
sequence to which he exposes himself. It would be well, indeed, if this
good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions
of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point
out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered un-
mannerly or presuming. We have a right, also, in various ways, to act
upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his
individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for ex-
ample, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to
parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most
acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution
others against him, if we think his example or conversation likely to
have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. We may give
others a preference over him in optional good offices, except those which
tend to his improvement. In these various modes a person may suffer
very severe penalties at the hands of others for faults which directly
concern only himself; but he suffers these penalties only in so far as they
are the natural and, as it were, the spontaneous consequences of the
faults themselves, not because they are purposely inflicted on him for
the sake of punishment. A person who shows rashness, obstinacy, self-
conceit—who cannot live within moderate means—who cannot restrain
himself from hurtful indulgences—who pursues animal pleasures at the
expense of those of feeling and intellect—must expect to be lowered in
the opinion of others, and to have a less share of their favourable senti-
ments; but of this he has no right to complain, unless he has merited
their favour by special excellence in his social relations, and has thus
established a title to their good offices, which is not affected by his
demerits towards himself.
What I contend for is, that the inconveniences which are strictly
inseparable from the unfavourable judgment of others, are the only ones
to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his con-
duct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not
affect the interest of others in their relations with him. Acts injurious to
others require a totally different treatment. Encroachment on their rights;
infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights;
falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of
advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them
against injury—these are fit objects of moral reprobation, and, in grave
cases, of moral retribution and punishment. And not only these acts, but
the dispositions which lead to them, are properly immoral, and fit sub-
jects of disapprobation which may rise to abhorrence. Cruelty of dispo-
sition; malice and ill-nature; that most anti-social and odious of all pas-
sions, envy; dissimulation and insincerity, irascibility on insufficient
cause, and resentment disproportioned to the provocation; the love of
domineering over others; the desire to engross more than one’s share of
advantages (the pleonexia of the Greeks); the pride which derives grati-
fication from the abasement of others; the egotism which thinks self and
its concerns more important than everything else, and decides all doubt-
ful questions in its own favour;—these are moral vices, and constitute a
bad and odious moral character: unlike the self-regarding faults previ-
ously mentioned, which are not properly immoralities, and to whatever
pitch they may be carried, do not constitute wickedness. They may be
proofs of any amount of folly, or want of personal dignity and self-
respect; but they are only a subject of moral reprobation when they
involve a breach of duty to others, for whose sake the individual is
bound to have care for himself. What are called duties to ourselves are
not socially obligatory, unless circumstances render them at the same
time duties to others. The term duty to oneself, when it means anything
more than prudence, means self-respect or self-development, and for
none of these is any one accountable to his fellow creatures, because for
none of them is it for the good of mankind that he be held accountable to
The distinction between the loss of consideration which a person
may rightly incur by defect of prudence or of personal dignity, and the
reprobation which is due to him for an offence against the rights of
others, is not a merely nominal distinction. It makes a vast difference
both in our feelings and in our conduct towards him whether he dis-
pleases us in things in which we think we have a right to control him, or
in things in which we know that we have not. If he displeases us, we
may express our distaste, and we may stand aloof from a person as well
as from a thing that displeases us; but we shall not therefore feel called
on to make his life uncomfortable. We shall reflect that he already bears,
or will bear, the whole penalty of his error; if he spoils his life by mis-
management, we shall not, for that reason, desire to spoil it still further:
instead of wishing to punish him, we shall rather endeavour to alleviate
his punishment, by showing him how he may avoid or cure the evils his
conduct tends to bring upon him. He may be to us an object of pity,
perhaps of dislike, but not of anger or resentment; we shall not treat him
like an enemy of society: the worst we shall think ourselves justified in
doing is leaving him to himself, if we do not interfere benevolently by
showing interest or concern for him. It is far otherwise if he has in-
fringed the rules necessary for the protection of his fellow creatures,
individually or collectively. The evil consequences of his acts do not
then fall on himself, but on others; and society, as the protector of all its
members, must retaliate on him; must inflict pain on him for the express
purpose of punishment, and must take care that it be sufficiently severe.
In the one case, he is an offender at our bar, and we are called on not
only to sit in judgment on him, but, in one shape or another, to execute
our own sentence: in the other case, it is not our part to inflict any
suffering on him, except what may incidentally follow from our using
the same liberty in the regulation of our own affairs, which we allow to
him in his.
The distinction here pointed out between the part of a person’s life
which concerns only himself, and that which concerns others, many
persons will refuse to admit. How (it may be asked) can any part of the
conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other
members? No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a
person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, with-
out mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far
beyond them. If he injures his property, he does harm to those who
directly or indirectly derived support from it, and usually diminishes, by
a greater or less amount, the general resource; of the community. If he
deteriorates his bodily or mental faculties, he not only brings evil upon
all who depended on him for any portion of their happiness, but dis-
qualifies himself for rendering the services which he owes to his fellow
creatures generally; perhaps becomes a burthen on their affection or
benevolence; and if such conduct were very frequent, hardly any of-
fence that is committed would detract more from the general sum of
good. Finally, if by his vices or follies a person does no direct harm to
others, he is nevertheless (it may be said) injurious by his example; and
ought to be compelled to control himself, for the sake of those whom the
sight or knowledge of his conduct might corrupt or mislead.
And even (it will be added) if the consequences of misconduct could
be confined to the vicious or thoughtless individual, ought society to
abandon to their own guidance those who are manifestly unfit for it? If
protection against themselves is confessedly due to children and persons
under age, is not society equally bound to afford it to persons of mature
years who are equally incapable of self-government? If gambling, or
drunkenness, or incontinence, or idleness, or uncleanliness, are as inju-
rious to happiness, and as great a hindrance to improvement, as many
or most of the acts prohibited by law, why (it may be asked) should not
law, so far as is consistent with practicability and social convenience,
endeavour to repress these also? And as a supplement to the unavoid-
able imperfections of law, ought not opinion at least to organise a pow-
erful police against these vices, and visit rigidly with social penalties
those who are known to practise them? There is no question here (it may
be said) about restricting individuality, or impeding the trial of new and
original experiments in living. The only things it is sought to prevent are
things which have been tried and condemned from the beginning of the
world until now; things which experience has shown not to be useful or
suitable to any person’s individuality. There must be some length of
time and amount of experience after which a moral or prudential truth
may be regarded as established: and it is merely desired to prevent gen-
eration after generation from falling over the same precipice which has
been fatal to their predecessors.
I fully admit that the mischief which a person does to himself may
seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those
nearly connected with him and, in a minor degree, society at large. When,
by conduct of this sort, a person is led to violate a distinct and assign-
able obligation to any other person or persons, the case is taken out of
the self-regarding class, and becomes amenable to moral disapproba-
tion in the proper sense of the term. If, for example, a man, through
intemperance or extravagance, becomes unable to pay his debts, or,
having undertaken the moral responsibility of a family, becomes from
the same cause incapable of supporting or educating them, he is deserv-
edly reprobated, and might be justly punished; but it is for the breach of
duty to his family or creditors, not for the extravagance. If the resources
which ought to have been devoted to them, had been diverted from them
for the most prudent investment, the moral culpability would have been
the same. George Barnwell murdered his uncle to get money for his
mistress, but if he had done it to set himself up in business, he would
equally have been hanged. Again, in the frequent case of a man who
causes grief to his family by addiction to bad habits, he deserves re-
proach for his unkindness or ingratitude; but so he may for cultivating
habits not in themselves vicious, if they are painful to those with whom
he passes his life, who from personal ties are dependent on him for their
comfort. Whoever fails in the consideration generally due to the inter-
ests and feelings of others, not being compelled by some more impera-
tive duty, or justified by allowable self-preference, is a subject of moral
disapprobation for that failure, but not for the cause of it, nor for the
errors, merely personal to himself, which may have remotely led to it. In
like manner, when a person disables himself, by conduct purely self-
regarding, from the performance of some definite duty incumbent on
him to the public, he is guilty of a social offence. No person ought to be
punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be
punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite
damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the
public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that
of morality or law.
But with regard to the merely contingent, or, as it may be called,
constructive injury which a person causes to society, by conduct which
neither violates any specific duty to the public, nor occasions percep-
tible hurt to any assignable individual except himself; the inconvenience
is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good
of human freedom. If grown persons are to be punished for not taking
proper care of themselves, I would rather it were for their own sake,
than under pretence of preventing them from impairing their capacity or
rendering to society benefits which society does not pretend it has a
right to exact. But I cannot consent to argue the point as if society had
no means of bringing its weaker members up to its ordinary standard of
rational conduct, except waiting till they do something irrational, and
then punishing them, legally or morally, for it. Society has had absolute
power over them during all the early portion of their existence: it has
had the whole period of childhood and nonage in which to try whether it
could make them capable of rational conduct in life. The existing gen-
eration is master both of the training and the entire circumstances of the
generation to come; it cannot indeed make them perfectly wise and good,
because it is itself so lamentably deficient in goodness and wisdom; and
its best efforts are not always, in individual cases, its most successful
ones; but it is perfectly well able to make the rising generation, as a
whole, as good as, and a little better than, itself. If society lets any
considerable number of its members grow up mere children, incapable
of being acted on by rational consideration of distant motives, society
has itself to blame for the consequences. Armed not only with all the
powers of education, but with the ascendency which the authority of a
received opinion always exercises over the minds who are least fitted to
judge for themselves; and aided by the natural penalties which cannot
be prevented from falling on those who incur the distaste or the con-
tempt of those who know them; let not society pretend that it needs,
besides all this, the power to issue commands and enforce obedience in
the personal concerns of individuals, in which, on all principles of jus-
tice and policy, the decision ought to rest with those who are to abide the
Nor is there anything which tends more to discredit and frustrate
the better means of influencing conduct than a resort to the worse. If
there be among those whom it is attempted to coerce into prudence or
temperance any of the material of which vigorous and independent char-
acters are made, they will infallibly rebel against the yoke. No such
person will ever feel that others have a right to control him in his con-
cerns, such as they have to prevent him from injuring them in theirs; and
it easily comes to be considered a mark of spirit and courage to fly in the
face of such usurped authority, and do with ostentation the exact oppo-
site of what it enjoins; as in the fashion of grossness which succeeded, in
the time of Charles II., to the fanatical moral intolerance of the Puritans.
With respect to what is said of the necessity of protecting society from
the bad example set to others by the vicious or the self-indulgent; it is
true that bad example may have a pernicious effect, especially the ex-
ample of doing wrong to others with impunity to the wrong-doer. But
we are now speaking of conduct which, while it does no wrong to oth-
ers, is supposed to do great harm to the agent himself: and I do not see
how those who believe this can think otherwise than that the example,
on the whole, must be more salutary than hurtful, since, if it displays the
misconduct, it displays also the painful or degrading consequences which,
if the conduct is justly censured, must be supposed to be in all or most
cases attendant on it.
But 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. On questions
of social morality, of duty to others, the opinion of the public, that is, of
an overruling majority, though of wrong, is likely to be still oftener
right; because on such questions they are only required to judge of their
own interests; of the manner in which some mode of conduct, if allowed
to be practised, would effect themselves. But the opinion of a similar
majority, imposed as a law on the minority, on questions of self-regard-
ing conduct, is quite as likely to be wrong as right; for in these cases
public opinion means, at the best, some people’s opinion of what is good
or bad for other people; while very of it does not even mean that; the
public, with the most perfect indifference, passing over the pleasure or
convenience of those whose conduct they censure, and considering only
their own preference. There are many who consider as an injury to them-
selves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an
outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disre-
garding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that
they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or
creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own
opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no
more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of
the right owner to keep it. And a person’s taste is as much his own
peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse. It is easy for any one to
imagine an ideal public which leaves the freedom and choice of indi-
viduals in all uncertain matters undisturbed, and only requires them to
abstain from modes of conduct which universal experience has con-
demned. But where has there been seen a public which set any such limit
to its censorship? or when does the public trouble itself about universal
experience? In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom think-
ing of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from
itself; and this standard of judgment, thinly disguised, is held up to man-
kind as the dictate of religion and philosophy, by nine-tenths of all mor-
alists and speculative writers. These teach that things are right because
they are right; because we feel them to be so. They tell us to search in
our own minds and hearts for laws of conduct binding on ourselves and
on all others. What can the poor public do but apply these instructions,
and make their own personal feelings of good and evil, if they are toler-
ably unanimous in them, obligatory on all the world?
The evil here pointed out is not one which exists only in theory; and
it may perhaps be expected that I should specify the instances in which
the public of this age and country improperly invests its own prefer-
ences with the character of moral laws. I am not writing an essay on the
aberrations of existing moral feeling. That is too weighty a subject to be
discussed parenthetically, and by way of illustration. Yet examples are
necessary to show that the principle I maintain is of serious and practi-
cal moment, and that I am not endeavouring to erect a barrier against
imaginary evils. And it is not difficult to show, by abundant instances,
that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it
encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the indi-
vidual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities.
As a first instance, consider the antipathies which men cherish on
no better grounds than that persons whose religious opinions are differ-
ent from theirs do not practise their religious observances, especially
their religious abstinences. To cite a rather trivial example, nothing in
the creed or practice of Christians does more to envenom the hatred of
Mahomedans against them than the fact of their eating pork. There are
few acts which Christians and Europeans regard with more unaffected
disgust than Mussulmans regard this particular mode of satisfying hun-
ger. It is, in the first place, an offence against their religion; but this
circumstance by no means explains either the degree or the kind of their
repugnance; for wine also is forbidden by their religion, and to partake
of it is by all Mussulmans accounted wrong, but not disgusting. Their
aversion to the flesh of the “unclean beast” is, on the contrary, of that
peculiar character, resembling an instinctive antipathy, which the idea
of uncleanness, when once it thoroughly sinks into the feelings, seems
always to excite even in those whose personal habits are anything but
scrupulously cleanly, and of which the sentiment of religious impurity,
so intense in the Hindoos, is a remarkable example. Suppose now that in
a people, of whom the majority were Mussulmans, that majority should
insist upon not permitting pork to be eaten within the limits of the coun-
try. This would be nothing new in Mahomedan countries.9 Would it be a
legitimate exercise of the moral authority of public opinion? and if not,
why not? The practice is really revolting to such a public. They also
sincerely think that it is forbidden and abhorred by the Deity. Neither
could the prohibition be censured as religious persecution. It might be
religious in its origin, but it would not be persecution for religion, since
nobody’s religion makes it a duty to eat pork. The only tenable ground
of condemnation would be that with the personal tastes and self-regard-
ing concerns of individuals the public has no business to interfere.
To come somewhat nearer home: the majority of Spaniards con-
sider it a gross impiety, offensive in the highest degree to the Supreme
Being, to worship him in any other manner than the Roman Catholic;
and no other public worship is lawful on Spanish soil. The people of all
Southern Europe look upon a married clergy as not only irreligious, but
unchaste, indecent, gross, disgusting. What do Protestants think of these
perfectly sincere feelings, and of the attempt to enforce them against
non-Catholics? Yet, if mankind are justified in interfering with each
other’s liberty in things which do not concern the interests of others, on
what principle is it possible consistently to exclude these cases? or who
can blame people for desiring to suppress what they regard as a scandal
in the sight of God and man? No stronger case can be shown for prohib-
iting anything which is regarded as a personal immorality, than is made
out for suppressing these practices in the eyes of those who regard them
as impieties; and unless we are willing to adopt the logic of persecutors,
and to say that we may persecute others because we are right, and that
they must not persecute us because they are wrong, we must beware of
admitting a principle of which we should resent as a gross injustice the
application to ourselves.
The preceding instances may be objected to, although unreasonably,
as drawn from contingencies impossible among us: opinion, in this
country, not being likely to enforce abstinence from meats, or to inter-
fere with people for worshipping, and for either marrying or not marry-
ing, according to their creed or inclination. The next example, however,
shall be taken from an interference with liberty which we have by no
means passed all danger of. Wherever the Puritans have been suffi-
ciently powerful, as in New England, and in Great Britain at the time of
the Commonwealth, they have endeavoured, with considerable success,
to put down all public, and nearly all private, amusements: especially
music, dancing, public games, or other assemblages for purposes of
diversion, and the theatre. There are still in this country large bodies of
persons by whose notions of morality and religion these recreations are
condemned; and those persons belonging chiefly to the middle class,
who are the ascendant power in the present social and political condi-
tion of the kingdom, it is by no means impossible that persons of these
sentiments may at some time or other command a majority in Parlia-
ment. How will the remaining portion of the community like to have the
amusements that shall be permitted to them regulated by the religious
and moral sentiments of the stricter Calvinists and Methodists? Would
they not, with considerable peremptoriness, desire these intrusively pi-
ous members of society to mind their own business? This is precisely
what should be said to every government and every public, who have
the pretension that no person shall enjoy any pleasure which they think
wrong. But if the principle of the pretension be admitted, no one can
reasonably object to its being acted on in the sense of the majority, or
other preponderating power in the country; and all persons must be ready
to conform to the idea of a Christian commonwealth, as understood by
the early settlers in New England, if a religious profession similar to
theirs should ever succeed in regaining its lost ground, as religions sup-
posed to be declining have so often been known to do.
To imagine another contingency, perhaps more likely to be realised
than the one last mentioned. There is confessedly a strong tendency in
the modern world towards a democratic constitution of society, accom-
panied or not by popular political institutions. It is affirmed that in the
country where this tendency is most completely realised- where both
society and the government are most democratic—the United States—
the feeling of the majority, to whom any appearance of a more showy or
costly style of living than they can hope to rival is disagreeable, oper-
ates as a tolerably effectual sumptuary law, and that in many parts of
the Union it is really difficult for a person possessing a very large in-
come to find any mode of spending it which will not incur popular dis-
approbation. Though such statements as these are doubtless much ex-
aggerated as a representation of existing facts, the state of things they
describe is not only a conceivable and possible, but a probable result of
democratic feeling, combined with the notion that the public has a right
to a veto on the manner in which individuals shall spend their incomes.
We have only further to suppose a considerable diffusion of Socialist
opinions, and it may become infamous in the eyes of the majority to
possess more property than some very small amount, or any income not
earned by manual labour. Opinions similar in principle to these already
prevail widely among the artisan class, and weigh oppressively on those
who are amenable to the opinion chiefly of that class, namely, its own
members. It is known that the bad workmen who form the majority of
the operatives in many branches of industry, are decidedly of opinion
that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as good, and that no
one ought to be allowed, through piecework or otherwise, to earn by
superior skill or industry more than others can without it. And they
employ a moral police, which occasionally becomes a physical one, to
deter skilful workmen from receiving, and employers from giving, a
larger remuneration for a more useful service. If the public have any
jurisdiction over private concerns, I cannot see that these people are in
fault, or that any individual’s particular public can be blamed for as-
serting the same authority over his individual conduct which the general
public asserts over people in general.
But, without dwelling upon supposititious cases, there are, in our
own day, gross usurpations upon the liberty of private life actually prac-
tised, and still greater ones threatened with some expectation of success,
and opinions propounded which assert an unlimited right in the public
not only to prohibit by law everything which it thinks wrong, but, in
order to get at what it thinks wrong, to prohibit a number of things
which it admits to be innocent.
Under the name of preventing intemperance, the people of one En-
glish colony, and of nearly half the United States, have been interdicted
by law from making any use whatever of fermented drinks, except for
medical purposes: for prohibition of their sale is in fact, as it is intended
to be, prohibition of their use. And though the impracticability of ex-
ecuting the law has caused its repeal in several of the States which had
adopted it, including the one from which it derives its name, an attempt
has notwithstanding been commenced, and is prosecuted with consider-
able zeal by many of the professed philanthropists, to agitate for a similar
law in this country. The association, or “Alliance” as it terms itself,
which has been formed for this purpose, has acquired some notoriety
through the publicity given to a correspondence between its secretary
and one of the very few English public men who hold that a politician’s
opinions ought to be founded on principles. Lord Stanley’s share in this
correspondence is calculated to strengthen the hopes already built on
him, by those who know how rare such qualities as are manifested in
some of his public appearances unhappily are among those who figure
in political life. The organ of the Alliance, who would “deeply deplore
the recognition of any principle which could be wrested to justify bigotry
and persecution,” undertakes to point out the “broad and impassable
barrier” which divides such principles from those of the association.
“All matters relating to thought, opinion, conscience, appear to
me,” he says, “to be without the sphere of legislation; all pertaining to
social act, habit, relation, subject only to a discretionary power vested
in the State itself, and not in the individual, to be within it.”
No mention is made of a third class, different from either of these,
viz., acts and habits which are not social, but individual; although it is
to this class, surely, that the act of drinking fermented liquors belongs.
Selling fermented liquors, however, is trading, and trading is a social
act. But the infringement complained of is not on the liberty of the seller,
but on that of the buyer and consumer; since the State might just as well
forbid him to drink wine as purposely make it impossible for him to
obtain it. The secretary, however, says, “I claim, as a citizen, a right to
legislate whenever my social rights are invaded by the social act of another.”
And now for the definition of these “social rights.” “If anything
invades my social rights, certainly the traffic in strong drink does. It
destroys my primary right of security, by constantly creating and stimulating
social disorder. It invades my right of equality, by deriving a profit
from the creation of a misery I am taxed to support. It impedes my right
to free moral and intellectual development, by surrounding my path with
dangers, and by weakening and demoralising society, from which I have
a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse.” A theory of “social rights”
the like of which probably never before found its way into distinct language:
being nothing short of this—that it is the absolute social right of
every individual, that every other individual shall act in every respect
exactly as he ought; that whosoever fails thereof in the smallest particular
violates my social right, and entitles me to demand from the legisla-
ture the removal of the grievance. So monstrous a principle is far more
dangerous than any single interference with liberty; there is no violation
of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any
freedom whatever, except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret,
without ever disclosing them: for, the moment an opinion which I consider
noxious passes any one’s lips, it invades all the “social rights”
attributed to me by the Alliance. The doctrine ascribes to all mankind a
vested interest in each other’s moral, intellectual, and even physical perfection,
to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard.
Another important example of illegitimate interference with the right-
ful liberty of the individual, not simply threatened, but long since car-
ried into triumphant effect, is Sabbatarian legislation. Without doubt,
abstinence on one day in the week, so far as the exigencies of life permit,
from the usual daily occupation, though in no respect religiously bind-
ing on any except Jews, is a highly beneficial custom. And inasmuch as
this custom cannot be observed without a general consent to that effect
among the industrious classes, therefore, in so far as some persons by
working may impose the same necessity on others, it may be allowable
and right that the law should guarantee to each the observance by others
of the custom, by suspending the greater operations of industry on a
particular day. But this justification, grounded on the direct interest which
others have in each individual’s observance of the practice, does not
apply to the self-chosen occupations in which a person may think fit to
employ his leisure; nor does it hold good, in the smallest degree, for
legal restrictions on amusements. It is true that the amusement of some
is the day’s work of others; but the pleasure, not to say the useful recreation,
of many, is worth the labour of a few, provided the occupation is
freely chosen, and can be freely resigned. The operatives are perfectly
right in thinking that if all worked on Sunday, seven days’ work would
have to be given for six days’ wages; but so long as the great mass of
employments are suspended, the small number who for the enjoyment of
others must still work, obtain a proportional increase of earnings; and
they are not obliged to follow those occupations if they prefer leisure to
emolument. If a further remedy is sought, it might be found in the establishment
by custom of a holiday on some other day of the week for those
particular classes of persons. The only ground, therefore, on which restrictions
on Sunday amusements can be defended, must be that they are
religiously wrong; a motive of legislation which can never be too earnestly
protested against. Deorum injuriae Diis curae. It remains to be
proved that society or any of its officers holds a commission from on
high to avenge any supposed offence to Omnipotence, which is not also
a wrong to our fellow creatures. The notion that it is one man’s duty that
another should be religious, was the foundation of all the religious persecutions
ever perpetrated, and, if admitted, would fully justify them.
Though the feeling which breaks out in the repeated attempts to stop
railway travelling on Sunday, in the resistance to the opening of Museums,
and the like, has not the cruelty of the old persecutors, the state of
mind indicated by it is fundamentally the same. It is a determination not
to tolerate others in doing what is permitted by their religion, because it
is not permitted by the persecutor’s religion. It is a belief that God not
only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not hold us guiltless
if we leave him unmolested.
I cannot refrain from adding to these examples of the little account
commonly made of human liberty, the language of downright persecution
which breaks out from the press of this country whenever it feels
called on to notice the remarkable phenomenon of Mormonism. Much
might be said on the unexpected and instructive fact that an alleged new
revelation, and a religion founded on it, the product of palpable imposture,
not even supported by the prestige of extraordinary qualities in its
founder, is believed by hundreds of thousands, and has been made the
foundation of a society, in the age of newspapers, railways, and the
electric telegraph. What here concerns us is, that this religion, like other
and better religions, has its martyrs: that its prophet and founder was,
for his teaching, put to death by a mob; that others of its adherents lost
their lives by the same lawless violence; that they were forcibly expelled,
in a body, from the country in which they first grew up; while,
now that they have been chased into a solitary recess in the midst of a
desert, many in this country openly declare that it would be right (only
that it is not convenient) to send an expedition against them, and compel
them by force to conform to the opinions of other people. The article of
the Mormonite doctrine which is the chief provocative to the antipathy
which thus breaks through the ordinary restraints of religious tolerance,
is its sanction of polygamy; which, though permitted to Mahomedans,
and Hindoos, and Chinese, seems to excite unquenchable animosity when
practised by persons who speak English and profess to be a kind of
Christians. No one has a deeper disapprobation than I have of this Mormon
institution; both for other reasons, and because, far from being in
any way countenanced by the principle of liberty, it is a direct infraction
of that principle, being a mere riveting of the chains of one half of the
community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation
towards them. Still, it must be remembered that this relation is as
much voluntary on the part of the women concerned in it, and who may
be deemed the sufferers by it, as is the case with any other form of the
marriage institution; and however surprising this fact may appear, it
has its explanation in the common ideas and customs of the world, which
teaching women to think marriage the one thing needful, make it intelli-
gible that many woman should prefer being one of several wives, to not
being a wife at all. Other countries are not asked to recognise such
unions, or release any portion of their inhabitants from their own laws
on the score of Mormonite opinions. But when the dissentients have
conceded to the hostile sentiments of others far more than could justly
be demanded; when they have left the countries to which their doctrines
were unacceptable, and established themselves in a remote corner of the
earth, which they have been the first to render habitable to human beings;
it is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny they
can be prevented from living there under what laws they please, provided
they commit no aggression on other nations, and allow perfect
freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways. A
recent writer, in some respects of considerable merit, proposes (to use
his own words) not a crusade, but a civilisade, against this polygamous
community, to put an end to what seems to him a retrograde step in
civilisation. It also appears so to me, but I am not aware that any com-
munity has a right to force another to be civilised. So long as the sufferers
by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I
cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step
in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly
interested appear to be satisfied, should be put an end to because it is a
scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant, who have no part or
concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against
it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not
one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people.
If civilisation has got the better of barbarism when barbarism had the
world to itself, it is too much to profess to be afraid lest barbarism, after
having been fairly got under, should revive and conquer civilisation. A
civilisation that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy, must first
have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers,
nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand
up for it. If this be so, the sooner such a civilisation receives notice to
quit the better. It can only go on from bad to worse, until destroyed and
regenerated (like the Western Empire) by energetic barbarians.

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