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On an alleged paradox in liberalism


To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: On an alleged paradox in Liberalism
Date: 14 February 2008 13:13

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 3 February, with your final essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''Liberalism is beset by a paradox at its core' - What is the alleged paradox? In your view, is the paradox real or only apparent?'

I would be happy for you to continue on to the Associate program. This will involve stepping up a gear. You have no doubt looked at the examples of essay portfolios accepted for the Associate Award in the Pathways Essay Archive at


In his essay 'On Liberty' Mill states his principle of liberty as follows:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used by physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be 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. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else.

According to the principle of absolute liberty which you state, 'If you stay out of my face I will stay out of your face.'

It would be a worth while task to write an essay explaining exactly why the first principle does not reduce to the second. I fully agree with you that the second principle would be a deplorable basis for morality or politics.

Let's begin by stating the obvious. If I see my neighbour holding a club intent on smashing the windscreen of an unfortunate motorist who has made the mistake of parking in his driveway, and I make a move to intervene, I should not be deterred by my neighbour saying, 'You stay out of my face and I'll stay out of yours!' The club might deter me, but not the words.

I have every right to intervene in order to prevent an individual visiting intentional harm on another individual, if it is within my power to do so.

The point of Mill's principle is reject the idea that we have a right and a duty to interfere with the actions of another person for his or her own good, or because we find their behaviour offensive, even though it does not harm us in any way.

An example of the first would be preventing someone from pursuing a dangerous sport. An example of the second would be objecting to one's neighbour walking around his garden wearing women's clothes.

Both examples are not without problems.

1. We do, in fact, consider that people who do dangerous sports pose a potential threat of harm to society, by virtue of the fact that when they injure themselves, the emergency services financed by the taxpayer are called to their rescue. That is the motivation, for example, for the UK law which requires motor cyclists to wear crash helmets.

2. Certain kinds of behaviour, while not causing physical harm are nevertheless considered sufficiently offensive to merit prohibition, for example, the law against Blasphemy which was used in the UK in recent times against a playwright who represented Jesus Christ engaging in sodomy. British Muslims are calling for the Blasphemy law to be extended to cover Islam. This is obviously a highly contentious debate.

Although my attitudes are broadly liberal, my objection is primarily to Mill's idea that different ideas and opinions -- including those which relate to culture and religion -- are all equally worthwhile topics for public debate. On this interpretation of Mill's principle, Nazis have every right to a platform for their views. In the end, the truth will triumph. My own view is that this is naive, and, in its own way very illiberal.

Behind Mill's promotion of the liberty of thought and discussion -- which Mill argues is necessarily wider than the liberty of action -- is his idea that all moral questions can ultimately be resolved by considering the consequences, of any given act, in terms of 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

One version of this theory which has had considerable coverage recently is preference utilitarianism, which avoids defining 'happiness' -- therefore avoiding the difficult question who decides whether someone is happy or not -- seeking to maximize 'preference satisfaction'. This looks like your notion of 'aggregate desires'.

I strongly object to consequentialism, in any of its forms, and therefore reject Mill to the extent that I reject his consequentialist assumptions. I do think that consequences for human happiness or misery matter, but they are not definitive of morality. Most importantly, I recognize dialogue, not just as 'educated chat', but as the necessary bridge between people whose world views are otherwise irreconcilable.

This is not an easy position to hold, because it attempts to balance liberalism, tolerance with notions of personal conviction and integrity. We have a right to believe in something, to believe that one way of life is better than another. Where I draw the line is fanatical adherence to a belief. Ultimately, we have to live in the same world and find some means of getting along without annihilating one another.

All the best,