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Unit IV: Personal Freedoms

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

John Stuart Mill explains “The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” This timeless essay addresses points that resonate into our twenty-first century world.

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) is the classic statement and defence of the view that governmental encroachment upon the freedom of individuals is almost never warranted. A genuinely civil society, he maintained, must always guarantee the civil liberty of its citizens—their protection against interference by an abusive authority. This is true even when the government itself relies upon the democratic participation of the people. (On Liberty 1) The tyranny of the majority is especially dangerous to individual liberty, Mill supposed, because the most commonly recommended remedy is to demand that the recalcitrant minority either persuade the majority to change its views or learn to conform to socially accepted norms.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau




  1. Respond: (idea) by Ashley Pomeroy Wed Sep 26 2001 at 9:36:48


Freedom is a balance between justice and liberty; between repression and chaos; Dirty Harry and Mad Max; repression and isolation. Both extremes appeal to different people, and in the airy world of theory both extremes would lead to perfect societies - an ordered society of social openness for authoritarians, and a fragmented mass of individual privacy for libertarians.


But the world of theory, of ideas, is not the real world. In reality, the inherent fallibility and emotional imperfection of humanity has historically led to East Germany and the Stasi on one side, and Mogadishu and Somalia on the other.


A society of total freedom would only work on a planet with one person, for no matter what the objectivists say we have to modulate our behaviour to take account of the needs of others; and a society of total justice would only work on a planet with one mind, for no matter what the authoritarians say we have to modulate our concern for others with the need to take care of ourselves.

  1. Is freedom the absence of constraint?
  2. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Freedom is the sum of what one can accomplish. According to the Swiss Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one has a certain set of freedoms granted by nature and defined by the actual physical capabilities of our bodies. He said that we should give up that natural freedom for a set of freedoms within society. While we do lose some of our liberty, like the right to drive on the sidewalk or kill and eat people, we gain the capacity to live in a lawful and just society. In trading one set of rights for another, we can improve our lives.
  3. Freedom of religion is not Freedom from religion. Which do we have? Explain.


A comparison of personal freedoms and liberties in developed nations

1. Probable cause and seizure

a) In Canada and other places, the police must have probable cause to detain someone, whereas in the US anyone can be detained for any reason and it is only the formal designation of 'arrest' that requires probable cause.

b) In no other western nation can one be arrested and held for up to 36 hours following a minor traffic offense, with no justification or explanation needed whatsoever. We can thank a recent ruling of the Rhenquist court for this one.


2. Speech and expression

a) In no other western country are schoolchildren required by the state to begin their day reciting the words "Under God"

b) There's only one western democracy where it is punishable by jail time to merely hyperlink to a web site that explains how to crack copyrighted material...and it's the one south of Canada.

c) I'm not aware of anywhere else where it is a crime to possess written descriptions of pedophilic activity, as it is in several U.S. states.


3. Personal sexuality

a) In western Europe, and in Japan and Australia and Canada, homosexual sex between consenting adults is not a crime, as it is in 15 or more states of the U.S.1

b) In none of these nations is heterosexual anal or oral sex illegal as it is in several U.S. states.1

c) I'm not aware of any other nation in which it is illegal to 'use a dildo for its intended purpose,' as it is in at least one U.S. state. Read about that here.

d) An adult paying another adult for sex is not illegal in many countries of Europe, and is decriminalized in others. Not so in America.

e) In many countries of Western Europe, and in Australia, committed homosexual couples can be married and receive the same benefits under the law as committed heterosexual couples, as they cannot in the U.S.


4. Personal drug use

a) In many countries of continental Europe, possession of a small quantity of marijuana is not a felony punishable with prison time, as it is in most jurisdictions of the U.S. Some nations have even gone so far as to decriminalize it entirely.

b) In no other western country is possession of a gram of any drug punishable by a life sentence, as with crack cocaine is in the U.S.

c) The drinking age is not 21 anywhere else.


5. Random stuff

a) In Texas, it may soon be illegal to bicycle in groups of three or more on public highways. (http://www.bicycle-law.com/txaction.htm) 2


I reluctantly conclude that the United States is not the bastion of personal freedom, and that bastion must be somewhere else. I'm grateful for the freedoms that we do have, I just wish we lived up to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill Of Rights and had more.


1 As of August 2003, the Lawrence V. Texas Supreme Court ruling has struck down laws against Sodamy when applied exclusively to homosexuals. Still, the ruling allows laws against heterosexual and homosexual sodomy, which are on the books in four states.

2 I have been informed that this bill has been defeated in the Texas legislature for this session. Lance Armstrong is safe for now.

From: http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1241813

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