a philosophy blog

If I may take the liberty of infringing yours…

Notes on Mill, On Liberty, chapter 5

Self-sale into slavery

Not only persons are not held to engagements which violate the rights of third parties, but it is sometimes considered a sufficient reason for releasing them from an engagement, that it is injurious to themselves. In this and most other civilized countries, for example, an engagement by which a person should sell himself, or allow himself to be sold, as a slave, would be null and void; neither enforced by law nor by opinion. The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot in life, is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person’s voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at the least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it. But by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself.

[But why is she or he never at liberty to sell himself or herself? Why is she or he paternalistically deprived of this liberty? It seems that there is a deeper principle at stake here (assuming we find self-sale into slavery intolerable) than the one Mill is trying stretch to cover the case. Why is my selling myself into slavery not the ultimate in self-regarding pursuits? Might not I dispose of my freedom, as indeed my life, for some cause, whose worthiness, I—and I alone—would be in the best position to judge? In what way are others harmed by it (barring any pre-existing obligations I may have to them)? In Utilitarianism, Mill accuses Kant of being consequentialist in the latter’s justification for morally impugning a lying promise. Apart from any defense that may be mounted for Kant (appealing, for example, to his extra-consequential valuation of rationality), Mill here himself might be accused of importing surreptitiously extra-consequentialist principles to shore up his pre-consequential condemnation of voluntary slavery.

How curious that I may sell my labor for so grubby an ideal as my appearance in the eyes of others without censure on Mill’s account but may not parlay my soul to some conviction that will constrain me for life even to the point of forfeiting it altogether… as when I profess a moral, spiritual, or deeply normative principle? If Mill’s response is that this is not chattel slavery, a certain nobility attending my conviction can redeem it, who is he to decide this for me? He has not given an answer to why slavery in any sense is a bad thing? This is, of course, another manifestation of the inherent contradiction between his libertarianism and the hedonism underlying his calculus of utility.]

He is no longer free; but is thenceforth in a position which has no longer the presumption in its favour, that would be afforded by his voluntarily remaining in it. The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom.

[Why not? Because it is being contradictory? In the way that Kant felt a lying promise to be? Or in the way, for Kant, suicide was? In the first case, contradiction was not, for Kant at least, one about the self-defeating consequences of institutionalizing lying promises. It was about disrespect for one’s own capacity for rationality. One would be not imprudent as much as shamelessly stupid, opprobrium for the latter would survive even if fortune obviated the shortsightedness. As for suicide, Kant seems to have felt that nature did lay down some laws that had pretty strong prima facie credentials such as an imperative to live that could only be defeated by a call from some scarce duty with still higher authority. Release from mortal pain and suffering could never rise to this level. It is never rational to escape another moment’s opportunity for rational existence. Needless to say, Kant was obsessed with something heterocosmic here. But Mill, where does he get this notion that we can never be free to dispose of our freedom wholesale? I fear freedom has become Freedom and Mill is staring off into the non-empirical distance…]

On Criminality

When we compare the strange respect of mankind for liberty, with their strange want of respect for it, we might imagine that a man had an indispensable right to do harm to others, and no right at all to please himself without giving pain to any one.

[This is correct, but here “mankind” should be taken literally, not synonymously with “humankind.”]

On who has a right to think for me

The objections to government interference, when it is not such as to involve infringement of liberty, may be of three kinds.

The first is, when the thing to be done is likely to be better done by individuals than by the government. Speaking generally, there is no one so fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it.

[Relatedly, only women can best represent the interests of women in government. Only here the interest is not personal but one that because of my location in moral space privileges me over you, assuming you do not share the same space. No one living in Alabama can better represent someone living in Kansas than someone living in Kansas. Why? Why would one think otherwise? It is not that there might not be many in Alabama who might be more competent. Or that there might not be plenty in Kansas who may know less about Kansas than many in Alabama. Whatever principle of legitimate representation is taken to be operating here, if the principle is applied so readily in physical geography how much more fittingly should it in a moral geography, such as the sexual, where migration or transplantation is not realizable. (Editor’s note: See Luno on Agacinski.)]

Concentrations of competence

If indeed all the high talent of the country could be drawn into the service of the government, a proposal tending to bring about that result might well inspire uneasiness.

[Incompetence in government is necessary to its freedom from the corruption of power. I can believe it. But if too much competence concentrates itself elsewhere, say, in the hands of a private corporation or an association of private corporations (a corporation of corporations) is that not also a danger? Would we then have a force to contend with that has even less moral accountability than the little we can boast for government? One with even less cause to check itself?

Isn’t there an admirable role cut out here for incompetence? The dilution of caustic concentrations of competence?

Rawls argues that the proper limit on the concentration of wealth (one form of which is competence) is that it be conducive to the good of all—not the good of the deserving—the good of all. He can say this because he has abandoned utility as his measure.

The poor you shall have with you always. They are not there merely as a reminder that your positive moral task is somehow, despite your best efforts, incomplete. They are meant to be a slap in the face of presumption. At the very idea of desert.

(Editor’s note: Perhaps some light may be shown on this cryptic remark by this quote from George Bernanos. Clearly, Luno’s dialectic on the concepts of freedom and slavery is loaded and quite alien to Mill’s lucid but also simplistic account.)]

In countries of more advanced civilization and of a more insurrectionary spirit, the public, accustomed to expect everything to be done for them by the State, or at least to do nothing for themselves without asking from the State not only leave to do it, but even how it is to be done, naturally hold the State responsible for all evil which befals them, and when the evil exceeds their amount of patience, they rise against the government and make what is called a revolution; whereupon somebody else, with or without legitimate authority from the nation, vaults into the seat, issues his orders to the bureaucracy, and everything goes on much as it did before; the bureaucracy being unchanged, and nobody else being capable of taking their place.

[Who can argue with this?—except to add that power will tend to concentrate wherever it can and that formal government is only one of its potential hosts.]

The dispersal of power

But I believe that the practical principle in which safety resides, the ideal to be kept in view, the standard by which to test all arrangements intended for overcoming the difficulty, may be conveyed in these words: the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralization of information, and diffusion of it from the centre. Thus, in municipal administration, there would be, as in the New England States, a very minute division among separate officers, chosen by the localities, of all business which is not better left to the persons directly interested; but besides this, there would be, in each department of local affairs, a central superintendence, forming a branch of the general government. The organ of this superintendence would concentrate, as in a focus, the variety of information and experience derived from the conduct of that branch of public business in all the localities, from everything analogous which is done in foreign countries, and from the general principles of political science. This central organ should have a right to know all that is done, and its special duty should be that of making the knowledge acquired in one place available for others.

[Perhaps—but only perhaps temporarily—an organ of “information superintendence” might be the Internet today.]

Posted by luno in political philosophy, Heterocosmos, male criminality, Mill, J. S., Kant (Monday August 20, 2007 at 1:48 pm)

No comments for If I may take the liberty of infringing yours…»

No comments yet.

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License