Ain’t That America?


What could be more American than the principle of live-and-let-live?

In America, we take it for granted that everyone may seek individual fulfilment however they wish, so long as their actions don’t threaten someone else’s right to do the same. This idea is the philosophical bedrock of our political culture, implied by our rights–laid out in the Declaration of Independence–to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course we don’t go around gushing about the greatness of our rights every day. (Charles Dickens had some cutout American characters do this in Martin Chuzzlewhit, and the effect was lame. I suspect in Dickens’ time, as now, folks didn’t actually speechify about the grandness of democracy unless it was a special occasion.)

Despite lacking a special occasion, I would like to pay tribute today to John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher who most clearly and powerfully set out the fundamentals of our political culture. If you have not read his short book On Liberty, give yourself the pleasure of doing so. You can buy it for a buck on Amazon or probably find it for free on the Internet. Although Mill’s treatment of liberty is somewhat abstract (he’s a philosopher, after all), you cannot help but feel that, writing in 1858, he concretely captures the democratic adolescence of post (1832)-reforms England, Abolitionist America and post-1848 revolutionary Europe. Like adolescence, it was an exciting time, when defining freedom felt as new and risky as falling in love.


The principle underlying our basic freedoms, according to Mill, is what has come to be known as the “harm principle.” It means you can do your own thing, as noted above, so long as it dosen’t harm others (or raise a credible threat of doing so). While this idea has far-ranging legal implications, and in fact is the basis of much law, Mill’s purpose in On Liberty is to try to define the proper scope of informal social control in limiting our freedoms. The law, of course will have its say in clear cases of criminality, but Mill is asking a subtler question about how far society should take the harm principle when it comes to influencing individual behavior. Left unchecked, Mill worries that social control can turn into a tyranny of the majority.

To focus our minds, Mill asks us to imagine someone living a life that appears errant, frivolous, corrupt, or somehow wrong to us. Before intervening with even the slightest thought of compulsion, we must consider the following about our fellow human:

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, 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 someone else.

This sounds good to democratic ears, of course, but where does the harm principle come from, if not thin air? Mill was no more a supernaturalist than Jefferson, Franklin or the other deists who wrote the Declarations of Independence, so he did not think of the individual’s inviolability as a magical gift sent down from the heavens. It was, rather, an indispensable feature of humanity, a way we can’t avoid of regarding one another if we wish to be taken seriously as autonomous moral agents. “Over himself, over his own body and mind,” Mill summarized, “the individual is sovereign.”

With this in mind, Mill lays out the three basic freedoms. They are:

  1. The freedom of speech. Mill actually spells out this idea a little more fully than we usually formulate it, calling it the “liberty of thought and discussion,” a useful reminder that the individual conscience is sacrosanct whether it expresses itself or remains mute. The acid test of our tolerance for the freedom of speech is how we treat it in the minority: “If all mankind minus one,” Mill writes, “were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
  2. The freedom to pursue tastes. This is an approximation of what the American Founders meant by the “pursuit of happiness.” For Mill, it means that the individual, “if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things that concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinions should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.” I will come back to this point in a future post, as I think it is one of the most vital parts of the American persona we have let wither. Our dronish consumerism has nearly ruined our capacity for individuality. Try putting down your goddamned iPhone for an hour; take a walk, read a book or create something, and see if you do not glimpse what Mill did–that human life is meant to be adventurous and many-splendored, or as he says, “There should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.” When we follow Polonius’s advice, “To thine own self be true,” it is not just good for us, it is good for the democratic experiment, which thrives on diversity and autonomy.
  3. The freedom to assemble. One of the clearest lessons we’ve learned from the history of 20th century totalitarianism is that dictators fear personal bonds between individuals and any tendency to form groups based on solidarity. The deliberate atomization of (just to take one prominent example) Romanian society under Ceaușescu was an impressively effective means of ruling individuals because it preempted even the possibility of democratic fellow feeling. Authoritarians, whether acting with the full power of the state, or merely through dominant public opinion, despise freely chosen relationships. In 1984, it is a love affair that brings the state’s death sentence; in Huckleberry Finn, a friendship is doomed by slave culture. Mill reminds us that no one is master of our freedom to assemble with others. In any properly free society, Mill says, individuals have “the freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others.”

Thus ends today’s homily. I feel like I have much more to say, though, about Mill’s second freedom, and so I hope to post something soon about that. Americans ought to know how deeply encoded in our DNA is the idea that we should think differently one from another, constantly seeking opportunities for change, novelty and variety. John Dewey philosophized about this very point, and Walt Whitman turned it into a national poem. More to follow, I hope.


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