John Stuart MillPaternalism means forcing someone to do something, or not to do something, for that person's own good. For instance, a vigilante paternalist might go around slapping cigarettes out of people's hands. The government often engages in paternalism to deny adults the right to possess substances in their own home, to forbid "immoral" exchanges, or to prevent people from making their own decisions about health care, education, or other services.

The famous essay by John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, argues that paternalism is wrong. A person’s own good is not a good enough justification for using force to restrain or punish that person – at least, so long as we’re talking about sane adults. Instead, Mill proposes the “Harm Principle” to regulate the use of coercion, even by the government. The government should get involved in regulating people’s behavior only when that behavior causes “harm to others.”

Mill first talks about liberty of thought and discussion. He says he doesn’t want to use any abstract notions of human rights to make his case. Instead, he uses “practical” arguments to show that trying to regulate people’s thoughts and expressions of opinion would have bad consequences. In a nutshell, we don’t have absolute certainty about which opinions are true, so allowing lots of opinions into the “marketplace of ideas” helps out figure out the truth. And even if we did know the truth about some things, allowing people to defend false ideas is still useful for keeping the defenders of truth “on their game,” so to speak. When we confront error, we’re more likely to understand the truth, rather than simply parrot it. Here’s a famous quotation from the text:

"First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience." (p. 50 of the Hackett edition)

Then Mill goes on to defend “experiments in living.” The argument is analogous to that for freedom of thought and speech. Allowing people to try out different lifestyles helps us figure out which lifestyles are best, and even if we know that a lifestyle is bad, allowing people to practice it will show others why it is bad and prevent them from falling into the same mistakes. So long as the lifestyle doesn’t harm others and you have freedom to leave the lifestyle, it’s best for the rest of us to let you practice it. Mill goes so far as to defend the legality of polygamy and opium on these grounds. His views were very liberal for the time (1859): even though opium was legal, polygamy usually was not, and many people advocated attacking the Mormons of Utah with military force in order to stamp out polygamy.

Mill thus defends freedom of conscience, speech, and lifestyle on completely “practical” grounds, but he leaves some significant loose ends in On Liberty. For instance, there are lots of examples of “harms” that the government shouldn’t regulate, like breaking up with a longtime boyfriend or girlfriend. It may cause emotional damage to break up with someone, but there’s no justification for forcing someone to stay in a romantic relationship. So the Harm Principle may establish a necessary condition for government regulation but not a sufficient one (in other words, the government should regulate nothing but harms, but not all harms).

Another hole in the argument comes up in Mill’s discussion of trade. He advocates keeping opium and alcohol legal because society benefits when buyers have the freedom to experiment with consuming those things, but he says that the seller’s freedom doesn’t matter at all. He says government can regulate trade because trade “is a social act” that “affects the interests of others” (p. 94). But discussion is also a social act that affects the interests of others! So if Mill doesn’t want to regulate discussion even though it’s a social act that affects others, he can’t turn around and argue for regulating trade simply because it’s a social act that affects others.

Finally, while we might find Mill’s practical arguments for allowing free speech and lifestyles persuasive, those arguments aren’t the only grounds for supporting those freedoms. John Locke's theory of natural rights provides even stronger moral reasons for not taking away people's freedoms to choose for themselves.

This post has been adapted from an earlier post at