In discussing “illegitimate interference with the rightful liberty of the individual,” John Stuart Mill uses as an example Victorian temperance advocates who wish to prohibit other people from drinking alcoholic beverages. In doing so they improperly constrain “acts and habits which are not social, but individual”. Whereas selling liquor “is trading, and trading is a social act” (On Liberty, 288), forbidding others to drink alcohol infringes on the individual and his or her rights. Mill then quotes the Secretary of a temperance society, who takes a position very dangerous for both other people and the state when he says, “I claim, as a citizen, a right to legislate whenever my social rights are invaded by the social act of another. If anything invades my social rights, certainly the traffic in strong drink does. It destroys my primary right of security, by constantly creating and stimulating social disorder. It invades my right of equality, by deriving a profit from the creation of a misery, I am taxed to support. It impedes my right to free moral and intellectual development, by surrounding my path with dangers, and by weakening and demoralizing society, from which I have a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse” (288-89; emphasis added).
However appealing this notion of social rights might at first seem, especially as a protection for individuals with delicate sensibilities, Mill points out its terrible dangers for individual and nation:
A theory of “social rights,” the like of which probably never before found its way into distinct language—being nothing short of this—that it is the absolute social right of every individual, that every other individual shall act in every respect exactly as he ought; that whosoever fails thereof in the smallest particular, violates my social right, and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance. So monstrous a principle is far more dangerous than any single interference with his liberty; there is no violation of liberty which it would not justify; it acknowledges no right to any freedom whatever except perhaps to that of holding opinions in secret, without ever disclosing them: for the moment an opinion which I consider noxious, passes any one’s lips, it invades all the “social rights” attributed to me by the [Temperance] Alliance. The doctrine ascribes to all mankind a vested interest in each other’s moral, intellectual, and even physical perfection, to be defined by each claimant according to his own standard. [289; emphasis added]
The tyrannical twenty-first century notion of “micro-aggression” employs such a conception of social rights that transfers liberty — and power — from one individual or set of individuals to another individual or set of individuals, who claim victimization as an justification for denying others their liberty.
- The full text of Chin Liew Ten’s Mill and Liberty (Clarendon Press, 1980)
- Alcoholism in Victorian England (sitemap/homepage)
- Temperance, Teetotalism, and Addiction in the Nineteenth Century
Mill, John Stuart. The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill: Ethical, Political and Religious. Marshall Cohen, ed. New York: Modern Library, 1961.
Last modified 16 June 2019