Mill on duty and liberty

Australasian Journal of Philosophy 59 (3):290 – 300 (1981)


What is Mill's principle of liberty? The question may seem superfluous, since he gave his own apparently careful formulation (223/34-224/10).[Note 1] However he gave several formulations in different terms, and his principle has been interpreted in a number of ways.[Note 2] The Acts meant to be subject to social control have been said variously to be other-regarding acts, acts which harm others, or affect them, or affect their interests, or violate duties owed to them, or violate their rights. These formulae are not equivalent. An act may harm others (indirectly), yet not be other-regarding; an other-regarding act may harm others without any violation of duty; an act may violate a duty to others without violating anyone's right. But it seems to me clear enough, if all Mill's statements are taken together, that the correct formulation is this: punishment is justified only for violations of secondary rules prescribing duties to others. Duty and Liberty divide the whole field of human conduct, without overlap; and there are no duties besides duties to others

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