Principles of Civil (Social) Liberty

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each other to live as seems good to the rest.”
John Stuart Mill

Paraphrased sentiments from an essay by John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), On Liberty

Absent a recognized principle by which the propriety (The state or quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.) or impropriety (A failure to observe standards or show due honesty or modesty) of government interference is customarily tested, people will decide according to their own personal preference whether to accept government interference or to detest it. Some who see good to be done or evil to be remedied willingly instigate the government to undertake their prerogative. Others prefer to bear almost any amount of social evil rather than subject another area of human interests to government control. Without a principle to gauge the level to which it is right for government to govern absolutely the dealings of society, whether the means used be physical force (legal penalties), or moral coercion of public opinion, the interference of government is, with about equal frequency, improperly invoked and improperly condemned.

A simple principle with which one can gauge the extent to which government intervention into the life of individuals is moral.

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. The part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

This is not to say that there is no room for reasoning with or persuading someone when we perceive their actions to be less than desirable. But, you cannot compel by force the will of another unless the actions of that person can be calculated to bring evil on someone else.

Civil liberty is comprised of 3 basic rights.

“No society is which these liberties are not, on the whole respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name (liberty), is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each other to live as seems good to the rest.”

  1.  The right to think and feel the way you want.
    Inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.
  2.  The right to act in any manor you choose so long as in doing so your actions do not limit another individual’s right to do the same.
    The liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.
  3. The right to willingly unite with others, for any reason that does not entail harm to others.
    From this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

“There is, in the world at large, an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation. The disposition of mankind to impose their own opinions as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power. Unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase.”

In other words, the ability of an individual to force on others their own world view and force their opinions on others as the defacto social behavior, is best limited by the same intrinsic tendency in another to have his way. Therefore, in a world where;

  • each individual understands that it is not in his best interest to infringe on another’s liberty, for do so would result in a just denial of his own;
  • the government took as it’s sole responsibility, the task of safeguarding the liberties of each individual;
  • society took as it’s sole power the ability to limit the governments ability to overstep it’s authority

the want of power can be cancelled out and a balance of individual liberty can be maintained


In a state such as we find ourselves, the state of each seeking his own dominance, and willfully using the government to enact legislation to limit competitive ideologies to gain an upper hand in their quest for authority, government has inherited a power beyond it’s intent and usefulness. The looser in that situation is the individual. You cannot strengthen society with out limiting individual freedom. You cannot seek state intervention when it suites your needs at the expense of another without sacrificing your own personal ability to enjoy the three pillars are civil liberty discussed above.

What does the transition from a world where everyone wants to control others to a world where each respects the liberty inherent in each individual look like?


One thought on “Principles of Civil (Social) Liberty

  1. The only world I know of where an individual was free to say and do as they pleased was the Hunter-Gatherer Nomadic era, but though free it is a harsh unforgiving existence. Civilisation provides for the easier life, but rights and obligations exist as part and parcel of living in civilisation, thus limits are placed on the individual.

    Plato would say the purpose of the State is to benefit the people. If the state fails in that purpose in my view the contract between state and individual is null and void.

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