EDIT: Hello from the future! This post is part of the old blog. That means it may be deprecated. However, I deemed it valuable enough to keep around. The new blog starts here!

Yes, it's finally here: the third part of my highlights of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. If you don't know what I am talking, about peruse the first and second parts. This article will be quite shorter than those two though as fewer ideas stood out to me.

I'll highlight some things found in the 4th chapter this week: "Of the Limits of the Authority of Society over the Individual". Although this is probably the 'most-relevant-to-current-day-society' chapter of the book as it addresses the oh-so-political conflict between the individual and society, there is no surprise or big revelations here: what he talks about is pretty much how the current system works (in practice, we are probably not as even-headed as Mill, but the concepts are there).

Liberty VS Liberty: Fight!

So the situation is the following: liberty is a good thing as Mill argued previously, but obviously sooner or later an individual's liberty will be opposed to another's if our liberties are absolute e.g., I am free to express my opinions loudly, but my neighbours have the right to require I shut up if I do it at 3am with 12 boomboxes. Basically we want a system of living like this:

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.

That's the basic idea and this framework is desirable. There is no other major points beyond this one. This is the framework we should strive for and it is in the making of the laws that the nitty-gritty details get implemented. So according to this setup, you are pretty much free to do anything that won't bring unwanted injuries to others e.g., you are free as a rational adult to bring injuries to yourself.

That's it. Then the text gets quickly bogged down into various corner cases. These are the most intelligible ones:

  • If you hurt yourself, aren't you hurting society by depriving it of your services?

    You haven't signed a contract with society, so it cannot be expected of you to legally owe them your services. Carry on slamming that hammer against your head: you can (weeell, only if you are sane in the first place).

  • This encourages indifference to your fellow members of society! No man is an island!

    First, Simon and Garfunkel might disagree with you on that last one. Second, au contraire this promotes engagement with your fellow citizens / family as it puts the onus on you to actually intervene personally within the bounds of the law. On the other hand, it prevents strangers from affecting what you or your loved ones can do.

  • This undermines social cohesion!

    Again, this prevents legal i.e. state-backed retribution on individuals' moral actions, but it doesn't subvert public opinion. Public opinion is where social cohesion can be found (if this is something that is important to you). Law should not be its enforcer.

This last point is the same one stressed in each of the previous parts: there is the legal world and there is the moral world. Laws are amoral; people are moral (hum...hopefully). And the thing is: people make laws. So it probably never will be so clear cut.

All of this is very confusing because democracy is in many ways a lisp-like language on steroids. The basic elements used to construct the rest can and are constantly changed by votes. It is because of that that so many impediments to the system were instored by the original proponents of democracy: you want to prevent your very basic fondamental elements from changing too easily, but you want them to be technically changeable to account for the future.


That's all I have for this chapter. There was nothing of major note, because this is more or less what we have now. Mill doesn't list limits as much as he gives a rule of thumb (cited above) to determine them.

There is only one chapter left, but I might defer its treatment for a while since that last one left me a bit nonplussed.