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Between Autonomy and State Regulation: J.S. Mill's Elastic Paternalism

  • Raphael Cohen-Almagor (a1)

This paper analyses J.S. Mill's theory on the relationships between individual autonomy and State powers. It will be argued that there is a significant discrepancy between Mill's general liberal statements aimed to secure individual largest possible autonomy and the specific examples which provide the government with quite wide latitude for interference in the public and private spheres. The paper outlines the boundaries of government interference in the Millian theory. Subsequently it describes Mill's elastic paternalism designed to prevent people from inflicting harm upon others as well as upon themselves, from soft paternalism on issues like compulsory education to hard paternalism on very private matters such as marriage, having children, and divorce by consent.

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2 Freeden Michael, The New Liberalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 171.

3 Dworkin Ronald, ‘Liberalism’, in A Matter of Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 181204.

4 Hobhouse L.T., Liberalism (London: Oxford University Press, 1945), 228. Hobhouse maintained that there is no thought except in the mind of an individual thinker, and there is no such thing as a unitary social mind or will: only individuals, not society, have a distinct personality.

5 A conception of the good comprises a basic part of our over-all moral scheme and that it is public in the sense that it is something one advances as good for others as well as oneself, consequently one would want others to hold a certain conception for their own sake. For further discussion on this issue, see Rawls John, ‘The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 17 (4) (1988), 251276; Cohen-Almagor R., ‘Between Neutrality and Perfectionism’, Canadian Journal of Law & Jurisprudence VII (2) (1994), 217236.

6 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 68. All references to On Liberty and to Representative Government are to the Everyman's edition of Utilitarianism, Liberty and Representative Government (London: J.M. Dent., 1948).

9 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 132.

10 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 140.

11 Ibid., 164.

12 Ibid. For further discussion, see Cohen-Almagor R., ‘Ends and Means in J.S. Mill's Utilitarian Theory’, The Anglo-American Law Review 26(2) (1997), 141174.

13 Mill J.S., ‘On Genius’, in Robson John M. and Stillinger Jack (eds.), The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I – Autobiography and Literary Essays (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981),

14 J.S. Mill, Representative Government, 207; idem, Civilization’, in Dissertations and Discussions (N.Y.: Haskell House Publishers, 1973), Vol. I, 201.

15 Mill, On Liberty, 165. In Principles of Political Economy (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), Bk. V, Mill wrote: ‘Every additional function undertaken by the government, is a fresh occupation imposed upon a body already overcharged with duties. A natural consequence is that most things are ill done.’ (570)

16 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 164.

17 Ibid., 73.

18 Ibid., 132.

19 Ibid., 150.

20 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 568.

21 Ibid., 571.

22 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 577.

23 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 482, 577, 578, 564–566, 580–581, 583, 585. Some of these cases are mentioned also in Coleridge’, Dissertations and Discussions (N.Y.: Haskell House Publishers, 1973), I, 454. and in Thornton on Labour and Its Claims’, in Williams G.L. (ed.) J.S. Mill on Politics and Society (Glasgow: Fontana, 1976), 303334.

24 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 589–590. See also Robson John M., The Improvement of Mankind (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), 217.

25 Mill J.S., ‘The Grounds and Limits of the Laissez-Faire or Non-Interference Principle’, in Fletcher Ronald (ed.), John Stuart Mill (London: Michael Joseph, 1971), 329.

26 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Bk. V, 482, 581, 589.

27 Ibid., 590.

29 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Bk. V, 575.

30 Ibid., 577.

31 West G.C., ‘Liberty and Education: J.S. Mill's Dilemma’, Philosophy 40 (April 1965), 129142.

32 Mill J.S., Representative Government and ‘Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform’, in Dissertations and Discussions (London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1859), Vol. III, 146.

33 Mill J.S., ‘The Subjection of Women’, in Three Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 427548.

34 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 162. See also Ibid., 160.

35 Dyslexia is a common type of learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in the reading and spelling of words.;;

36 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Bk.V, 481. In On Liberty, Mill supported his argument by Humboldt's writings, reminding of the latter's statement that engagements which involved personal relations or services should never be legally binding beyond a limited duration of time, and that ‘the most important of these engagements, marriage... should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it’ (158).

37 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Bk.V, 481. For further discussion, see Williams G.L., ‘Mill's Principle of Liberty’, Political Studies 24 (1976), 132140; Wollheim Richard, ‘John Stuart Mill and the Limits of State Action’, Social Research 40 (1) (1973), 130; Urbinati Nadia and Zakaras Alex (eds.), J.S. Mill's Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

38 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 158. For further discussion, see Arneson R.J., ‘Mill versus Paternalism’, Ethics 90 (July 1980), 470489; Hodson John D., ‘Mill, Paternalism and Slavery’, Analysis 41 (1981), 6062.

39 Hamilton Mary Agnes, John Stuart Mill (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1933), 76; Gray John, Mill on Liberty: A Defence (London: Routledge and Paul, 1983), 94.

40 J.S. Mill, ‘The Grounds and Limits of the Laissez-Faire or Non-Interference Principle’, 322.

41 Dworkin Ronald, Life's Dominion (NY: Knopf, 1993).

42 Cohen-Almagor R., The Right to Die with Dignity (Piscataway, NJ.: Rutgers University Press, 2001), chap. 5.

43 Mill J.S., A System of Logic (London: Longmans, Green, 1961), VI, II; Mill J.S., The Logic of the Moral Sciences (London: Duckworth, 1987). For further discussion, see Ryan Alan, John Stuart Mill (NY: Pantheom Books, 1970), 106107, 173.

44 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 163.

45 Kamm Josephine, John Stuart Mill in Love (London: Gordon & Cremonesi, 1977), 2223; Jacobs Jo Ellen, The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 13.

46 Mill J.S., Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).

47 See the comprehensive work of Michael St. Packe John, The Life of John Stuart Mill (London: Secker & Warburg, 1954), Book 1, 5658. See also Halliday R.J., John Stuart Mill (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1976); Thomas William, Mill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Capaldi Nicholas, John Stuart Mill: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Cohen-Almagor R., ‘John Stuart Mill’, in Christians Clifford G. and Merrill John C. (eds.) Ethical Communication: Five Moral Stances in Human Dialogue (Columbia, MO.: University of Missouri Press, 2009), 2532.

48 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 163. For discussion on Harriet Taylor's views on marriage as related to J.S. Mill's views, see Jacobs Jo Ellen, The Voice of Harriet Taylor Mill, 2123.

49 McCloskey H.J., John Stuart Mill: A Critical Study (London: Macmillan, 1971), 111. In On Marriage, Mill, however, objected to compelling a woman to remain in marriage if the perpetual contract between her and the husband enslaves the woman to her master. See

50 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 150.

51 Robson John M., The Improvement of Mankind (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968), 261. For discussion on utilitarianism and the classical economists – Adam Smith, Malthus and Ricardo – see Plamenatz John, The English Utilitarians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), 110121.

52 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 138.

53 Ibid. Mill repeated this reasoning in p. 153. For further analysis, see Brown D.G., ‘Mill on Harm to Others' Interests’, Political Studies 26 (1978), 395399.

54 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 153. For discussion on the Harm and Offence Principles, see Cohen-Almagor R., ‘Harm Principle, Offence Principle, and the Skokie Affair’, Political Studies 41 (3) (1993): 453470; Sumner L.W., ‘Should Hate Speech Be Free Speech? John Stuart Mill and the Limits of Tolerance’, in Cohen-Almagor R. (ed.), Liberal Democracy and the Limits of Tolerance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 133150.

55 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 133.

56 Cf Beauchamp T.L., ‘Medical Paternalism, Voluntariness, and Comprehension’, in Howie J. (ed.), Ethical Principles for Social Policy (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983). See also Hart H.L.A., Law, Liberty and Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963); Dworkin G., ‘Paternalism’, The Monist 56 (1972), 6484; Dworkin G., ‘Moral Paternalism’, Law and Philosophy 24 (3) (May 2005), 305319; Sunstein Cass and Thaler Richard, ‘Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron’, The University of Chicago Law Review 70 (2003), 11661187; ‘Paternalism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

57 For critic of Mill's Truth Principle, see Cohen-Almagor R., ‘Why Tolerate? Reflections on the Millian Truth Principle’, Philosophia 25, Nos. 14 (1997), 131–152; O'Rourke K.C., John Stuart Mill and Freedom of Expression: The Genesis of a Theory (London and NY: Routledge, 2001).

58 Feinberg Joel, ‘Legal Paternalism’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy I (1971), 105124.

59 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 151–152. See also Miller Dale E., J.S. Mill (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 153.

60 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 152–153.

61 Ibid., 151.

62 Ibid., 133. For further discussion, see Ten C.L., ‘Mill on Self-Regarding Actions’, Philosophy 43 (1968), 2937; Wollheim Richard, ‘John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin’, in Ryan Alan (ed.), The Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 253269.

63 J.S. Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 459.

64 Ibid. Although Mill did not use the term ‘autonomy’, he certainly had in mind a concept that relates to the ability to reflect upon beliefs and actions, and the ability to form an idea regarding them, so as to decide the way in which to lead a life.

65 Mill J.S., ‘Appendix’, in Dissertations and Discussions, Vol. I, 470. See also J.S. Mill, ‘On Genius’, 329–339,

66 Cowling Maurice, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 104. For further discussion, see Martin Rex, ‘A Defence of Mill's Qualitative Hedonism’, Philosophy 47 (1972), 140151; Ladenson Robert F., ‘Mill's Conception of Individuality’, Social Theory and Practice 4 (2) (1977), 167182.

67 Cowling, Ibid., 36.

68 See the data introduced by Karin Berard Anderson regarding the efficiency of seat-belts in securing lives, and the patterns of the use of safety belts prior to and after the enforcement of law. Use and Effects of Seat Belts in 21 Countries (Oslo: Inst. of Transport Economics, 1978); Fhaner Gunilla and Hane Monica, Seat Belts: Relations between Belief, Attitude and Use (The Swedish Road Safety Office, February 1973); Evans L., ‘The Effectiveness of Safety Belts in Preventing Fatalities’, Accid Anal Prev. 18 (3) (June 1986), 229241; Cohen Alma and Einav Liran, ‘The Effects of Mandatory Seat Belt Laws on Driving Behavior and Traffic Fatalities’, The Review of Economics and Statistics 85 (4) (November 2003), 828843; Rocco Pendola, ‘The Effects of Wearing Seat Belts’, eHow (2010),

69 Feminists argue that pornography undermines the status of women in society and degrades them. Liberals insist on having a substantive proof that tangible harm was inflicted on an individual to prohibit such speech. All agree that no person should be coerced to participate or watch pornography. See the debate between Altman Andrew, ‘The Right to Get Turned On: Pornography, Autonomy, Equality’, in Cohen Andrew I. and Wellman Christopher Heath (eds.), Applied Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 223235, and Susan J. Brison, ‘“The Price We Pay”? Pornography and Harm’, in the same volume, 236–250. See also Dworkin Ronald, ‘Do We Have A Right to Pornography?’, in A Matter of Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 335372.

70 For further discussion on the issue of pornography, see Scanlon T.M., ‘Freedom of Expression and Categories of Expression’, University of Pittsburgh Law Review 40(3) (1979), section V, and Dyzenhaus David, ‘John Stuart Mill and the Harm of Pornography’, Ethics 102(3) (1992), 534551.

71 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 155.

72 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 136.

73 J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 72.

74 Ibid., 72–73.

75 See, for instance, Fried Albert, McCarthyism, The Great American Red Scare (NY: Oxford University Press, 1996); Schreker Ellen W., The Age of McCarthyism (Bedford: St. Martin's, 2001); Oshinsky David M., A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (NY: Oxford University Press, 2005).

1 I thank Daniel Callahan, Wayne Sumner, Steve Newman and the editors of Philosophy for their constructive comments.

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