The evil here pointed out is not one which exists only in theory; and it may perhaps be expected that I should specify the instances in which the public of this age and country improperly invests its own preferences with the character of moral laws. I am not writing an essay on the aberrations of existing moral feeling. That is too weighty a subject to be discussed parenthetically, and by way of illustration. Yet examples are necessary, to show that the principle I maintain is of serious and practical moment, and that I am not endeavouring to erect a barrier against imaginary evils. And it is not difficult to show, by abundant instances, that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities.
In Mill’s argument for liberty certain elements merit special emphasis. His initial and main interpretation of the concept is in the British empirical tradition, which equates liberty with an absence of external coercion over an individual’s thought and activity. Men are free when they can act according to their desires (294). Their liberty consists in expressing views they want to express and doing what they want to do without injuring others. To such liberty the principal threat has hitherto come from unresponsible and despotic governments, which to satisfy their own ambitions and interests encroached on the customary areas of individual liberty. Hence the early liberal movement sought to resolve the conflict between authority and liberty by making rulers accountable to the people through constitutions and bills of rights. These endeavours brought to Western Europe a major era of political liberalism and democracy, which people hoped would foster their interests and protect their liberties. At the outset Mill shared their hopes, but, influenced partly by Tocqueville and American experience, he soon perceived in democracy an implicit element of tyranny—that of the majority, or those who accepted themselves as the majority threatening the liberties of individuals and minorities (218-19).
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Mill shares with Dupont-White the conviction that a growing social conscience, responding to the ethical requirements of mankind, significantly augments the activity of government, making it at times the unpaid agent of the poor and underprivileged. Partly under this influence the British parliament had regulated the hours of labour, prohibited the employment of children under a certain age, prevented employment of women and children in mines, and compelled manufacturers to maintain in factories those conditions that reduce accidents and lessen hazards to health. Thus in England a network of practical arrangements and compromises were fashioned between state and individual, between state and corporation, and between central and local authority, with what Mill regarded as salutary consequences for the body politic and for the kind of liberty he extolled.