08 November 2008

Children and Mill’s Principle of Liberty

As quite a young child I was under the impression that it was a basic principle of accepted morality and legislation that an individual's freedom of action should not be restricted except in so far as his actions might impinge upon the freedom of others.

A century ago this principle was to a large extent respected. Provided you kept the law you could make your own decisions, subject to the resources and opportunities you had, and could try to enlarge your resources and opportunities. The law, it is true, violated the principle by including some moral elements, such as a prohibition of homosexuality, which could scarcely be justified as restraining the infringement of the liberty of others, as between consenting adults. A law of this kind was evidently based on psychological grounds, that people doing things of this kind might generate disapproval in others, and persons should be protected from having to feel such things.

Although the modern world has repealed the penalties for homosexuality between consenting adults, this is scarcely likely to have been out of concern for individual liberty; more likely the repeal was made because sex is the modern opium of the people, it being supposed that if they are encouraged to fill their lives with such harmless distractions they will not notice more serious oppressions.

Nowadays legislation is frequently justified on statistical grounds: that we must bring about a state of affairs in which society as a whole is the way we (that is, the legislators) would like it to be. I first noticed this when a law was brought in prohibiting the taking of what are now called GCSEs before a person's sixteenth birthday. Even at the time, and before I realised how serious the effects of this would be on my own educational prospects, I thought this surprisingly immoral legislation. Surely a person was not doing anyone else any harm by taking an exam younger than the average? The only harm you could be said to be doing was psychological: it might make other people jealous. But then the acquisition of any benefit in life might make other people jealous. If you started to take psychological considerations such as this into account you could plainly justify practically any restriction of individual freedom of action. What other people would like best would be to see you living a dull, unambitious life, enlivened only by such diversions as they permitted themselves, such as the aforementioned opium of the people.

Another way this sort of legislation is justified is by reference to protecting people from themselves. Thus in this case, it may have been represented that children were being preserved from being made to work hard, or to 'cram', as previous legislation had preserved them from being made to climb up inside sooty chimneys in order to sweep them. This, however, leaves out of account all manner of individual differences, and does not allow the child or its parents the freedom to make a decision on the basis of his own abilities and temperament. The amount of effort that goes into preparing for exams is vastly different depending on aptitude and motivation.

Similarly people are supposed to be preserved from choosing the wrong pharmaceuticals for themselves, by being allowed to have only those which the doctor prescribes for them. They are not protected from the mistakes of the doctor, who cannot be supposed to have nearly the same interest in their wellbeing that they have themselves. Nor is the recipient allowed to use his own judgement to assess the likelihood that the doctor's prescription is more harmful than he would choose under his own steam, in the light of the doctor's stupidity, incompetence, sadism, lack of interest, love of power, etc.

The principle that an individual should be free to make his own decisions, subject only to their infringement in obvious ways of the freedom of others has, clearly, always been most vulnerable to abuse in situations of incapacity. There is an age before which an infant cannot make informed decisions for itself and must inevitably depend on its parents to make decisions on its behalf. In a similar way, a person suffering from physical illness may be really incapable of making decisions for himself; in an extreme case, he may be unconscious. There may be no friends or relatives around. The fact that education and medicine deal, in their most limiting cases, with individuals who are not in any realistic sense able to decide things for themselves has, of course, led to extreme abuse. In both state education and medicine (even, though to a marginally lesser extent, in private medicine) there is supposed to be a complete transfer of concern for the 'interests' of the individual to a social authority.