Mill “On Liberty” – Freedom & Empire | Philosophy Tube


English philosopher John Stewart Mill’s essay
“On Liberty” is one of the classic texts of modern liberalism: it’s been hugely influential
in politics, even more so than you might realise, as we’ll be seeing shortly. The question he’s grappling with is, when can the government legitimately restrict your freedoms by imposing and enforcing laws? Always? Never? Only sometimes? The technical way of phrasing this question is “What is the proper scope of criminal law?” Mill offers a famous and pretty simple answer – the Harm Principle. If your action harms somebody else then the government can legitimately step and try to stop you from doing it, or punish you when you do. But only if it harms someone
else – if the only person you’re harming is yourself, then the law should have nothing to say. The classic example is drinking – if you wanna drink yourself to death, fine, that’s your
call. But the moment you get behind the wheel of a car, that’s when the law kicks in, because you’ve started endangering somebody else. As the old saying goes, “your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” Note that Mill is saying the government *can*
legitimately interfere if you’re harming someone else, not necessarily that it should. In any competitive act the
winner – the person who gets the job or the contract or whatever – gains benefits from the same process that harms – in the form of disappointment or denial of goods to – the loser. But Mill says some competitions are good for society and therefore we might argue that we should keep them. Harm to others is a necessary but not sufficient condition for curbing liberties. The Harm Principle is about the motivation
behind the law, se there are ways of being sneaky about it.
The example that was taught to me was, imagine a law that requires every citizens to jog for
thirty minutes a day. If you pass that law because it will improve people’s health, well then the Harm Principle says that you shouldn’t do that, because people’s cardio fitness is your own business and if they don’t wanna exercise, that’s their call. But if you pass that law to reduce the cost of public healthcare and so have more money to spend on good things for other people, then the Harm Principle says it’s OK. So there are ways of getting around it. Take for instance, “soft paternalism.” It
might be inconsistent with the Harm Principle for the government to ban you from smoking, but it would be fine for them to put warning labels on cigarette packets, tax smoking, say you can only do it in certain areas, and generally try to discourage you from doing it. It would also be consistent with the Harm Principle for them to say it’s legal for you to smoke cigarettes but make it illegal for anybody to sell them, therefore effectively depriving you of smoking, just via a more roundabout route. So now that we know Mill’s Harm Principle and what it entails we can start looking at it a little more closely. And as usual in philosophy, the devil is in the details. How do you define harm? That’s a whole philosophical debate
in itself – and it’s actually surprisingly difficult to do – but it’s obviously gonna have a huge impact on what your liberties are. If my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins, well the next logical question
is “How big is your nose, mate?” One popular definition of harm is “making
somebody worse off than they would otherwise have been,” and that looks pretty intuitive, but we get into some interesting cases involving Overdetermination Suppose John is going to murder Susan
on Friday, and we find out so we lock John up for attempted murder. But Susan gets hit by a bus on Friday and dies anyway, so
she’s no worse off that if we had let John kill her. So how do we justify locking him up? Now that might not be a very realistic case,
but what about doctors who murder terminally ill patients? That is a real phenomenon, and
we do punish them even though at least the doctors would say they aren’t really harming anybody in the sense of making them worse off. So how do we justify that, on Mill’s account? Or argue against it? Now those are issues that we could get into but I’m gonna leave you to puzzle over those because there are roads less travelled I think we could go down. Mill doesn’t think the Harm Principle applies to everybody, he makes some exceptions,
and they’re particularly important exceptions given the period of history he was living
in and the impact his ideas have had on liberalism today. Remember Mill is talking about when the government can step legitimately in and restrict your liberties, and thinks that so long as you’re only harming
yourself the law should stay out of it. So listen to this paragraph: “It is, perhaps,
hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in
the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons
below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still
in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their
own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration
those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its
nonage… Despotism 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.” In other words, personal liberty applies to adults, but not for all adults – only “civilized” ones, by which he means mainly white Europeans.
Not “barbarian races.” Well so what? Mill had some Victorian ideas
about society – he was a Victorian after all! He lived through the high day of British colonialism
in India and in the West Indies; in fact he worked for the East India Company, administering
the bureaucracy that ran between the British government and its invading and occupying
forces in India. But can’t we just take the good stuff from him and forget about that
other stuff, especially if the good stuff is logically distinct from it? Well it’s tempting to do that, and when Mill
is taught in schools and universities we often do skip over those more nasty parts. But remember
my video on Falguni Sheth and her discussion of the way Power makes exceptions for people it doesn’t like? She focused on liberalism’s tendency to do this, and by looking at Mill we can see that liberalism’s ability to make exceptions along racial grounds – that’s no accident. We know by looking at
Mill that it was deigned to do that from the very beginning. To give you the context of
it, there’s a whole practice of critiquing Enlightenment texts and saying, “OK, we’re
not gonna throw these out but some bits are very good and some bits are not so good.” And the reason this is historically important
is because it’s by making those exceptions that Mill’s liberalism justifies colonialism
and imperialism. And in case you think this is all a big exaggeration, Mill literally
explicitly defends conquering “barbarous nations” elsewhere. It’s tempting to focus just on the Harm Principle
but that’s not everything he left beind. And just as no extended discussion of Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch would be complete without noting the ways that the Nazis took
it and used it, I think so too no discussion of Mill’s liberalism would be complete without noting the ways that governments in his time and now have interpreted it. But hang on a minute, Mill says that conquering other nations against their will is OK so long as you’re trying to improve the lives of the people
who live there and they have no capacity for self-improvement. He sees imperialism
as a tool to help native peoples build the kind of societies that they couldn’t build on
their own. Mark Tunick says that Mill advocated “tolerant imperialism: so for instance, he didn’t think Indians should be allowed to run India but did think that they might do it one day, when Britain had sufficiently improved their country. Now, “tolerant imperialism” might be a long way from what the British Empire actually did in India and everywhere, but that doesn’t mean Mill necessarily wanted it that way. But what counts as “improvement,” and who decides when a nation has been improved enough to run itself – there’s the rub. Mill thought that industriousness
is a mark of improvement, as are the kinds of conditions that foster laisez faire capitalism.
And it’s for the colonial powers to decide when a nation can run itself, not the actual people. In other words, his
imperialism was explicitly capitalistic. A nation is “improved” and made “more civilised” by allowing colonial powers to create new markets through which to exploit it for profit. When it came to
India, Mill thought that administrators should be “Indian in blood but English in spirit”
i.e. that local people should be taught to go along with colonialism and helped to
shape their country according to the wishes of the colonisers, not helped to build their
own country from their own vision at all. David Goldberg says Mill fails to recognise
that whilst colonialism is great at creating new markets (that is after all what it’s forl)
it’s not so good at setting anybody free or laying the groundwork for them to peacefully assume that freedom. He says, “Mill’s argument for benevolent despotism
failed to appreciate that neither colonialism nor despotism is ever benevolent. Benevolence
here is the commitment to seek the happiness of others. But the mission of colonialism
is exploitation and domination of the colonized generally, and Europeanization at least of
those among the colonized whose class position makes it possible economically and educationally.
And the mandate of despotism… is to assume absolute power to achieve the ruler’s self-interested
ends. Thus colonial despotism could achieve happiness of colonized Others only by imposing
the measure of Europeanized marks of happiness upon the Other, which is to say, to force
the Other to be less so. Mill’s argument necessarily assumed superiority of the despotic, benevolent
or not; it presupposed that the mark of progress is (to be) defined by those taking themselves
to be superior; and it presumes that the ruled will want to be like the rulers even as the
former lack the cultural capital (ever?) quite to rise to the task.” Was Mill just of his time? Well we’ve gotta
be careful with saying that, because in one sense it’s true in that a lot of people thought like that back then, but in another sense, it kindof assumes, albeit indirectly, that that time isn’t *now*. That colonialism and imperialism have had their day and are no longer around, which a lot of people both in and outside of academia would say is not entirely true. It’s important to realise that the question
here isn’t, “Was John Stuart Mill personally a racist?” A lot has been written on that,
and Mark Tunick quite rightly points out that he was more progressive certainly than some of his contemporaries. But we’re not worried about whether we’d be comfortable having round him to dinner, right: he’s dead. We’re worried about the extent to which his legacy – liberalism – can be used for imperialism and colonialism, and what we can therefore do to improve it. So that’s Mill’s Harm Principle: its meaning and its legacy. We’ve done a lot of political philosophy lately so next time
we could either do “Can Art Be Defined?” or we could do “the Ethics of Collateral Damage,” so leave me a comment telling me which one you’d rather see and for more philosophical videos from
me every Friday, please subscribe. I have a Patreon page, if you could spare a few dollars to support the show? This month’s top patrons were Jesse Austin, D.J. MacIsaac, Lydia & Nate Thorn,
Jeffrey, Glenn Murphy, Emiliano Heyns, and Horatio Cordero. Everyone else who donated, your names are in the description so big thank you to all of you and to everyone who chose to donate anonymously.

100 thoughts on “Mill “On Liberty” – Freedom & Empire | Philosophy Tube

  • So many people demanding a video on the ethics of collateral damage. Obviously regressive morons who hate Sam Harris.

  • This channel is indicative of modern philosophy in general. This video trivializes the work of an important and great thinker, by focusing on inane details and hypothetical situations that have no bearing in or tie to reality.

  • Thank you for this. When I first studied John Stuart Mill in college, I was a young person who had grown up in a British Commonwealth country. I remember so much of what he said that I love, and I did not even notice a colonial attitude. I might now. I am glad that I watched and will read "On Liberty" again.

  • Great Channel. Who first said, "Be as the ocean in every way, no talking and all action?" Please dont say Perry Ferrel

  • Hey @philosophytube I have a question on Stuart Mill:

    On his book "On Liberty" he says that we can't supress the freedoom of spech for enourmous reasons…

    but what if that one of that reasons collide with the harm principle?

  • I have a question regarding the racial grounds for rejecting liberty. Is it possible that Mill may have been justified in his conclusions with regards to the exportation of modern ethics and ideas to less civilized cultures? An example is the legal system of Australian Aboriginals (Aka. Payback) and the Australian legal system. In Australia we no longer have a death penalty or corporal punishment, however in some Aboriginal communities payback is still implemented which can be breaching Australian law. According to Mill's harm principal the Australian State has the obligation to punish the people who would spear a disobedient child or put one of their own to death. I think that rather than seeing it as a problem of race, that instead it is a problem of barbaric culture that should be eradicated from practice.
    Food for thought, thanks for reading.

  • I feel like this guy is actually American but only speaks with a British accent when he's talking about philosophy

  • Is it "liberalism" that's making the exception or is it Mill making an exception for liberalism?

    The critiques of liberalism and the enlightenment is often taken from the stance that there is no "objective truth" that mill is describing himself.

    If you believe such truth exists, then there are no problem with separating his opinions you think are correct from the ones you think aren't. Einstein was wrong about spooky action.

    I will say that there is a point on not ignore the truth that he did have those opinions. But these kinds of arguments can be applied to anyone in history.

  • Great video. The Roman Empire used the same type of logic as Mills to justify their conquest of "barbarian" lands. Civilization, specifically Roman civilization, is good for them … and profitable for us.

  • Your car example is miserable. You may endanger somebody else – or you may not. It hasn't hurt anybody, therefor government has no business in forbidding me to drive under influence of drugs or alcohol. It can only punish me rigorously if I do harm to others whilst being under influence of these things.

  • Should we be allowed to do drugs, sell ourselves as prostitutes? That would be consistent w the harm principle

  • I would like to know more about the ethics of collateral damage! You explain very well by the way! Keep on your good work! Maybe you can tell something about Jeremy Bentham too? Or have you told something about him yet? Then I just haven't found him yet between all your videos! Thanks for helping us through this with your great explaining!

  • Can you spell out the name of the women you quoted saying " power makes exceptions for people who doesn't like"? I'd like to reference it.

  • Many today would try and define 'Harm' in terms of 'offending' another via words, insults and 'hate'. That is the harm of this principle…

  • Your videos are wonderful!!!!!! Love them-Thankyou! Have you considered becoming a professor? think you would be great at it

  • I respectfully disagree, one can not be held accountable for someone’s actions which they base on their interpretation of your statement. If I tell you to jump in front of the train and you do so, should I be punished?

  • As someone who worked for the East India company he justified exploitation and money making as beneficial to what he would assume were an uncivilised people incapable of self government until they were ready or had been taught?

  • There are holes in Mill's arguments. Someone who drinks themselves to death indirectly harms others by his or her actions. The person in question might be the sole breaf winner for his family.

  • “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
    ― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

  • Good video but I think thou protesth too much about Mills paternalism which was a product of the times. The world now as it truly was then is not driven by paternalism but by money – paternalism just like religion was a convenient cover story.

  • At 6:08 it's pretty clear that earlier mill was referring to race as a group of people sharing a cultural or national backround not as in black Asian or white

  • While I really enjoyed this video and its perspective to the dangers of brushing off colonial & imperial tendencies as purely contextual, I think its overly simplistic to explain colonialism purely as a market-building venture. From what I've understood, reasons behind colonialism are multiple & complex, often better explained with honor motives. Colonial ventures were sometimes far too expensive to be described as interest-based market building. But anyway, great video!

  • Singapore is operated much according to the ideas Mill thought needed for colonies. But an important part of what happened to Singapore was the final moment of it's most famous leader, Lee Kwan Yew. It still maintained what had to be in place for at least Singapore to not backslide and to have the potential to move forward. Most of the Greats of history haven't been able to do this for the most part. Tito, arguably a great leader, had Yugoslavia backsliding after his death, Alexander the Great had the same. Wen, one of the Chinese emperors, had the same.

  • It's funny that the kid speaks of imperialism and says, "It's true that a lot of people thought like that back then". In fact, they think like that NOW. I was just at a university, and all the post-industrial white professors [overwhelmingly female] thought that the best way to "help" Sub-Saharan Africa was to destroy their tribal structure, "emancipate" women, get them out of the home, and create a synthetic emulation of the West. Whereupon I said, "These are agrarian societies. They're two steps removed from the post-Industrial West. Back when we were agrarian, we had the same tight family-structures that they have now. Our family breakdown only started to happen under Industrialism. That is to say, people would leave their family and their small village to move out to the big city where the factories were. This caused the family-unit [from feudalism] to shrink down. No more were three generations under one roof, with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all in the same house with the nuclear family. At at rate, we've evolved lots of social institutions [like daycare centers and old folks homes] to pick up the gap for women not being in the home. In these African countries, how could you possibly lobby to remove women from the home when they don't have daycare centers and nursing homes? What you'll be doing is destroying their social structures, causing poverty, unsupervised children and crime." Needless to say, the virtuous do-gooders looked at me like I was Satan for suggesting that we leave these countries [and unique cultures] alone, and not try to have them 'leapfrog' over sociological steps that we in the West organically went through when we passed from feudalism to the post-industrial Information Age. But these short-sighted individuals thought that the best thing we could do for these people was to impress our culture on them. . . . So the reality is that neoliberalism is an incredibly chauvinistic and destructive force, going throughout the Third World and trying to cram them into a Western European template (with disastrous results). These white western academics think that the most pressing issue to starving people is gay marriage. "All subsidies and loans for infrastructure projects or civil engineering should be cut off until these 'developing nations' accept the truth of transsexual bathrooms." (The paternalistic, chauvinistic Westerners are hellbent on forcing these countries to submit to THEIR [new] cultural norms . . . under the premise that dissipated Roman-Empire level decadence is "progress". Needless to say, a slogan of the developing world is "Modernization, yes; Westernization, no". So they want all the industrial machines and access to food, but they don't want decadent Western social engineering. . . . My point in this rant is that the default setting of the modern Power-Elte in the West is John Stuart Mill's "Benign Despotism". They really think they're "civilizing the savages," even though they couch it in more politically palatable terms. But they're absolutely convinced that it's an unquestioned good to remake these countries into the West's image, and that it's the height of "social justice" and "forward-thinking" to gut their own unique cultures and replace them with synthetic Western templates. (Hint: This kind of thinking is why the Third World is so poor. They never evolved the concept of the nation-state. That's a European invention. Now we're foisting these made-up countries on them (like Zimbabwe or Mali), and telling them. "Run them. You've had since 1962 to figure out how!" When, of course, the West has had since the Roman Empire to figure out how to run massive administrative bureaucracies. These tribal cultures never evolved this. The nation-state is NOT an expression of their own culture. It's imposed from without by the conquerors. And because of that, they're flailing.) But ask any academic, or crony-capitalist, and they're of one voice: We must impose our image of these peoples, and gut and remove their own individual cultures. And even if WE had stable family-structures when we were agrarian, we will deny them to the developing world in an effort to have them leapfrog past centuries of incremental evolution that we had. (Of course, you can't "leapfrog" these stages of development. And whenever you try to do it, it leads to catastrophic consequences.) But don't let the "self-righteous" hear you point out the track-record of their failure. Or the shape of their reflexive [and unexamined] chauvinism. "But . . . but . . . we're there to 'help' them!" No, you're not. You're there to gain access to their resources and exploit them.

  • I think the comparison to Nietzsche is incorrect, since Mill himself makes his racist exceptions, while in Nietzsche's case the Nazis made the distortion themselves (like I wouldn't criticize Darwin for "social darwinism")

  • An interesting modern application of a kind of benevolent despotism regards FGM. FGM in some countries affects as much as 97% of women. Yet almost all of countries that it's practised in have laws against it, but because the vast majority of people think FGM is acceptable the laws are ignored. The laws banning FGM exist mostly because of strong international pressure. It's an interesting question to ask if this is an example of benevolent neo-colonialism. Closer to home, Northern Ireland outlaws abortion in most almost all cases. Would it be justifiable for the British government to overrule Stormont, essentially judging that that society has made the wrong choice?

  • Mill probably would of considered the “exceptions” would include mediaeval dark age Western Europe and Britain… it was an era fitting of the description “barbaric” if so then that questions his apparent “racism” …Anyway that word has been utterly destroyed over the last 5 to 10 years by the SJW crowd that apply it as a silencing stick to any dissenting opinion.

  • Van att be delfiner World be awesome! Speciellt in there Days of pizzagate and the remake artist Marina something with ger spiritcooking!

  • I read as far as page 108 in the Bart Schulz book (in the references top of age), and the Uday Mehta quote – which is patently, evidently, and obviously post-Marxist nonsense. What evidence is there for oppression in the Late British Empire in India, or anywhere else for that matter, and in particular a 'hardening of authoritarian policies and a racialising of political and social attitudes'. Ludicrous, tragic, miserable Marxist derived lunacy! Get real. And make a world, surely?

  • Mill said nothing wrong and history has absolved him. The British Empire dissolved with hardly a shot fired and those countries that kept up the British liberal tradition and civil code are today successes and those that sided with the soviets and "muh de-colonization" are shitholes. Compare and contrast Zimbabwe and Botswana on wiki, to take one example.
    When the British arrived in Africa (and to a lesser extent India) they met only barbarians (relative to the English) and when they left they had caught up a 1000 years and were ready for the modern world – exactly as Mill wanted.

  • Modern Liberalism? I would have classed Mill as a Classical Liberal, and later philosophers like Rawls as Modern. Am I wrong?

  • The reading of India is incorrect, India already had a powerful external influence when the British arrived. The culture of India had considerably changed from core values. If Mill considered it barbaric – well it might be said it was. I am sure if core values were not destroyed by invaders from else where and if universities like Nalanda were not destroyed, India would have been very different.

  • Mill was a utilitarian, hence he supported liberty only when he felt it would better society. Modern liberals, influenced more by the social contract theory of Rawls or the idea of innate rights, are far more likely to give all adults the same rights on the same grounds.

  • Jesus Christ, these comments are an open sewer.

    Because if you ever talk about the failings, weaknesses of an ideology or a person, the material and potential harm of those failings, and the further harm of those negative aspects being brushed under the rug and arbitrarily ruled as "not worth discussing" because it's inconvenient or uncomfortable, then you are and can only be viciously attacking and disregarding the work, theory, as worthless in its entirety, right? Because when someone has projected themself and their values onto a belief, any critique of that belief can only be malicious falsehood, because to question that belief is to put one's identity into existential crisis. Because THAT's a healthy way to construct your identity, right?

  • Missed the mark completely. The argument in the book was about the assurance of individual liberty, that individuals were better at handling their own business than governments, that strong individuals with good leadership skills were desired, that an environment which fostered these was the best, and that if a people went to an undeveloped area and developed it themselves- they should be left to their own devices (like in the discussion of polygamy).

    In areas of the world where people are being killed by their government (as an example), a people who stand by and watch are socially guilty of allowing the slaughter- even though no international law may require that outside people to intervene, because what happens to one person happens to us all.

    In the pursuit of these ideals (including the use of the discussion of young people who cannot take care of themselves) there is a time and place to intervene and it must be done carefully to ensure that the liberty of individuals are not suppressed. Thus an argument for "the greater good" is not off the table, but should only ever be used when individuals do not have liberty.

    When Mills talks about slavery, he says that a person should not be allowed to make themselves a slave because in that one act they lose their liberty. But, if in their daily pursuits they carry out that task on their own (without being legally a slave) then that is good because the person is asserting their liberty.

  • I submit that the modernization of Mills disposes of the argument, as we would agree that colonialism and imperialism are wrong and, hopefully obsolete. Not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, there are arguments Mills proposed which apply to our world and lives today…

  • he had a point when he said that about other races. I am from Iraq and I strongly believe that we became worse off when the british left. Our societies needed more time to govern itself

  • Sir as Mill said and you quoted that imperialism in India was justifed and was for development of India, to his followers I'll say my ancestors didn't developed they were captured, India that is land beyond indus was a land of seekers not of believers , our education was the most developed till the time nalanda and Takshshilla were destroyed, britishers left our economy devastated , 24.4% economy of the world was drained to 4.4%, is it the development mill's imperialism brought, although all of you talk about railways sir check japan an Asian country too developed railways without being imperialised.although we were imposed with british education which wanted well fill mind not well formed mind and is devastating our country till now

    I know no one would read but before judging us, check how developed we were before islamic and british invaders came to India.

  • To say that Mill's liberalism is racist, is to say that 'empire' is racist. Neither define their targets using racial criteria and so aren't racist. Despite this, their targets may fall neatly within racial categories.

  • Who were they to decide whether one can run their country well or not …😒
    They made us bleed by colonizing ,now we indians are bleeding those Englishman by taking away jobs and grabbing every possible opportunity to set up a industry in their country😏
    Anyways peace may prevail everywhere ✌

  • suppose you could travel back in time America in 1800, if you could force the US to give up slavery, racism, sexism, ect against their will, would you?

  • The point about cultures and forcing "others to be less so". Well, ironically, it seems the system of the colonizers WAS superior, since even after colonialism, and despite the hatred it garnered against the Western nations, globalized culture has been just that – a trend of everybody pursuing the system of the West, of trying to be less "other".

  • I think I remember a rather telling quote from one of my ancestors who was a soldier in the Raj. "When I went to India it was not the Indians who I was in contact with who learnt from me, but I from them".

  • I'm surprised he mentioned Akbar. You'd think he would see every Indian as being unintelligent.

  • Are we allowed to pick and choose ideas from thinkers of the past or do we need to take them as a whole? If I like some of Mill's ideas am I required to adopt some I don't? Conversely if you don't agree with some of his ideas are you allowed to use some of his ideas you do like or are those now off limits to you?

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