I’ve yet to read any of John Stuart Mill’s works, although I intend to tackle them in the future. As such, I can’t cite examples to refute anything in this hack piece from Friday’s Opinion Journal. No matter. The absurdity of Roger Scruton’s argument is sufficient to attack itself. After a perfectly reasonable opening, which provides biographical details of John Stuart Mill’s life, Mr. Scruton continues with this background on counter-arguments against utilitarianism:
According to Mill’s argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny–including the “tyranny of the majority.” Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it–for in such circumstances one person’s gain in freedom is another person’s loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual’s right to act and speak as he chooses.
Pretty much. I don’t see how anyone in America could disagree with such a view of individual freedom. The Constitution virtually guarantees as much, accept that it’s been interpreted into near-worthlessness by partisan ideologues more intent on imposing their vision of proper than preserving liberty. I don’t care for that approach, although America is still the best deal going.
This principle has a profound significance: It is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the “sovereignty of the individual.” The problem lies in the concept of harm. How can I prove that one person’s action does not harm another? How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs–beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability? How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life’s meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms? These questions are as significant for us as they were for Mill; the difference is that radical Islam has now replaced Scottish puritanism as the enemy of liberal values.
Seriously? Is it that hard to understand that the will of the majority or the sovereign can have awful consequences? Or that “harm” isn’t a difficult concept to understand, as pertaining to government’s role? Use the word physical, as should be readily apparent to even the most uninitiated seven-year-old, and the measure of when an individual is about to be (or has been) harmed is clear. Government intervention is not only expected, it becomes vital to a functioning society. That does not include such subjective actions as sexual norms. If one individual can’t stomach the sexual actions of another’s relationship, there is a problem. However, it belongs to the offended, not the offender.
The notion that sexual freedom is somehow analogous to radical Islam is beyond the realm or reason, and deserves to be ridiculed, if not ignored.
Taking “On Liberty” and [“The Principles of Political Economy”] together we find, in fact, a premonition of much that conservatives object to in the modern liberal worldview. The “harm” doctrine of “On Liberty” has been used again and again to subvert those aspects of law which are founded not in policy but in our inherited sense of the sacred and the prohibited. Hence this doctrine has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators. Meanwhile, the statist morality of “Principles” has flowed into the moral vacuum, so that the very same law that refuses to intervene to protect children from pornography will insist that every aspect of our lives be governed by regulations that put the state in charge.
It should be painfully obvious by now that Mr. Scruton is uninterested in liberty, unless your liberty involves making the same choices he’d make. The law should protect marriage and the family from the sexual predators. That is the argument of a man uninterested in reason or intellectual discourse. That is the plea of a man consumed by fear of the unknown.
… to free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.
Any guesses on who should decide the moral norms?
More thoughts from Andrew Sullivan