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The only freedom which deserves the name December 29, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom, Politics.

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill exposes an “all but universal illusion” caused by “the magical influence of custom:” even though societal norms and rules of conduct vary wildly between different ages and countries, the people of any given time and place always believe their own norms and rules to be self-evident and self-justifying. The root of the problem is people mistaking their strong feelings for good reasons:

The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary. The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that.

This way of thinking invariably leads to a “tyranny of the majority,” even under democratic government. How should this be avoided?

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 be 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 civilized 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, but 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. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Though many people today would (hopefully) agree with the above in principle, in practice it remains easy to fall into the trap of attempting to force others into doing what you think is good for them, or to prevent them from doing what you think is bad for them. One good example is marijuana use; another is pornography. In an interview with author and pornographic actress Nina Hartley, she is asked how she responds to feminists who criticize pornography as “an industry that subjects women to men’s desires.” Hartley says:

In essence… feminism means that I have choice in my life — autonomy. It’s hard to imagine now, but fifty years ago a woman couldn’t get birth control if she was single, and even married women needed their husband’s permission to get it. Back-alley abortions killed or maimed thousands of women each year. It was nearly impossible to bring abuse charges against a husband or wife. Younger people don’t realize how bad it was, or how recent. Feminists of the 1960s and ’70s really busted the door wide open and we’re still sorting it all out. We take for granted now that spousal abuse is a crime but it wasn’t like that then. Women also fought hard for the right to be sexual on our own terms (having sex before marriage, not becoming mothers if we didn’t want to), and really made a lot of headway in raising consciousness surrounding rape, which is now taken seriously. A woman’s sexual history can no longer be used against her in court when she faces her attacker.

In a nutshell: my body, my rules. Other women don’t get to tell me what’s “right” for me, just as no imam, rabbi, priest or minister gets to tell me what to do with my body. You don’t know better than I do what I need, so don’t presume to.

But surely, no woman would ever choose to be a pornographic actress of her own free will! Surely?

Whether or not we agree with or approve of them, the choices made by young women are theirs. If we’re to grant autonomy to people over the age of eighteen, then that means accepting their choices as valid, even if we’d never do such a thing. This includes being able to join the army and get shot or maimed, or become a miner or construction worker. Those are deadly jobs (no one has died from making porn in the thirty-seven years it’s been legal) and no one thinks to tell a young adult, “Don’t do that job, it’s dangerous.” Or if we do tell them, we accept that, being young people, they may disregard our advice.  If we accept that a young woman can consent to have an abortion or become a parent, then it stands to reason that we must accept that she can consent to make pornography. . . .

The widespread notion that legal porn production is a sink hole of abuse and coercion that takes advantage of poor, innocent women, is the biggest smack leveled against the business. It’s almost entirely a function or projection of people’s fears and discomfort about women, gender relations, sex, sexuality and the graphic depiction of sexual acts. The idea that a woman could choose, on purpose, to perform in pornographic videos for her own reasons still goes deeply against the notion that women are somehow victims of male sexuality, that they’re delicate flowers who need the protection of a good man, or the law.

The only protection that the law needs to provide us is protection from others — not from ourselves. Mill famously put it this way:

The only freedom which deserves the name, 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 to live as seems good to the rest.


1. עדו - December 30, 2010

What right does society have to prevent me from taking drugs? it’s my body, my haelth and my life.
What right does society have to tell me to drive with a seat belt if i’m alone in the car? again it’s my risk to take – nobody is forbidding me from climbing a tree without a helmut right?

Ezra Resnick - December 30, 2010

Regarding the mandating of seat belts, I see two considerations that might potentially justify such legislation. Firstly, a passenger who is not wearing a seat belt may be thrown against other passengers in case of a crash, harming them. Secondly, treating the large number of severe injuries caused by car accidents is a great burden on taxpayers, and seat belts could lessen this cost.

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