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Liberty and Sex on the Sidewalk

Mill said that “… the sole end for which mankind are warranted … in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection”. Do you agree?

Image blatantly stolen from Books booksshouldbefree.com

Image blatantly stolen from Books booksshouldbefree.com


In this essay I shall argue in agreement with Mill but propose a modified liberalism in response to prevailing critiques.

Mill contends that every individual is entitled to liberty to the point where it infringes upon that of others.

It is worth noting that

the use of ‘self-protection’ might be misleading. Suffice it to say that Mill is not merely referring to the self-protection of oneself but to the self-protection of mankind in general. Therefore, it is not the case that Mill’s liberalism requires one to stand passive observer to a perpetrator’s infliction of harm upon others. In the very next passage Mill goes on to say:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (Mill, 1865, p. 6).

What constitutes harm to others? We all agree that some acts are indubitably harmful and others not – yet it is difficult to draw the precise line between the two.

Should offensiveness be considered harmful to others? Mill argues no (ibid., p. 31) because any argument, which holds any weight, is offensive to those whose opinion it is directed at. It is therefore prudent to make a distinction between distress and harm. It can be argued that offence necessarily entails distress. Yet if we are to remain consistent, distress alone cannot count as harm.

What then of inconvenience? Can an act, which will consequently cause other people great trouble, be considered harmful? It would certainly be an inconsiderate act, yet we should perhaps be disinclined to go as far as decreeing it harmful. A man committing suicide might be considered sovereign over his body and mind (ibid., p. 6) and therefore well within his liberty. Even if this would assuredly be inconvenient and distressful to someone, we have already established that distress in itself is not sufficient to curtail individual liberty.

However, if we concede the point that an inconsiderate act of inconvenience to others does not necessarily qualify as harm. What then is our justification for legislating against theft  – provided the thief is careful enough to merely steal to the point of inconvenience, never crossing into the realm of harm?

An answer to this challenge might be found in Mill’s assertion that:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it (ibid., p. 8).

Theft on a small enough scale might fall short of depriving an owner of his liberty to pursue own ends. Nevertheless, theft of any kind, no matter the scale, must at least be considered an impediment of the proprietor’s efforts to obtain the commodity in question. This then might seem as relinquishing the claim that the prevention of harm and protection thereof is the sole justification for the exertion of power over a person against their will.

I would contend, though, that this is an underestimate of how far the applicability of the concept ‘harm’ extends. Harm might not only be interpreted as the act of damaging a person’s mind or body. Rather in this context ‘harm’ is properly understood as the act of damaging a person’s pursuit of his own good – by deprivation and impediment alike.

However, I should now argue against Mill in that this newly gained understanding will also have relevance to our previous consideration of inconvenience. Any individual is, by all means, the sovereign of his own mind and body – yet within the constriction of responsibility for not letting either become an impediment to others by sheer selfish recklessness. In other words, even within the liberty to do as one pleases one would still be obliged to a modicum of self-preservation – if not merely for one’s own sake then that of others. This, I would claim, is entirely consistent with the Principle of Liberty and as such might also serve as an incomplete response to a communitarian objection of liberalism’s devaluation of community (Bell, 2008).

An issue raised in An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff is that of public indecency (Wolff, 2006, pp. 126-127). Wolff argues that there is an apparent incongruity between Mill’s condemnation of public indecency (Mill, 1865, p. 58) and his Liberty Principle. Wolff argues by the example that sexual intercourse between husband and wife would be in no way condemnable if performed in privacy, yet deemed unacceptable in public. Should Mill not bite the bullet since, by his own insistence, offence is not enough to invoke the principle of harm?

This ties in with our previous consideration that distress alone does not sufficiently justify the censorship of free expression – even if that expression is coitus on a sidewalk. Consistency then demands that we must either allow such indecency, ban freedom of speech alongside it, or somehow make the case that even public indecency is an impediment to the general freedom.

At this point it is helpful to consider the distinction between positive and negative liberty (Carter, 2008). Since all must share the public sphere, the appropriateness of any action must be weighed on the scale of the freedom to do the deed versus that of others from being exposed to it.

An ongoing controversy is that of the Westboro Baptist Church protesting at funerals against homosexuality (Booth, 2007). By our previously established principles their freedom to do so is only an entitlement up to the point where it impedes the bereaved in their freedom from being exposed to such insensitivity at a time of grievance. The example of public coitus might seem trivial in comparison but the same principles apply. Speaking your mind on the radio is freedom of speech because anyone is free to turn it off. Incessantly speaking your mind while tailing someone around against her will is harassment.

In conclusion, I agree that mankind’s sole justification for interference with liberty is self-protection of members from harm. Inasmuch as ‘harm’ is understood in the broad sense of deprivation and impediment of freedom – even to a degree where others become intrinsically involved in the individual’s well-being. I dissent from Mill in willingness to consider individuals entirely as islands, yet I believe my position adheres to the Liberty Principle with the added benefit of greater consistency against prevailing criticism.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main (Donne, 1959, p. 108).



Donne, John, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Together with Death’s Duel (University of Michigan Press, 1959)

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, (Longman, Green et. al., 1865)

Wolff, Jonathan, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, revised ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)


Bell, Daniel, “Communitarianism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/communitarianism/>.

Booth, Jenny and agencies, “US anti-gay church that demonstrates at military funerals fined $10.9m”, Times Online (November 1, 2007) URL = <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article2783974.ece/>

Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/liberty-positive-negative/>.

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