Limits on Freedom


John Stuart Mill pointed out, more than 150 years ago, that much of what makes life good is dependent upon controlling or limiting interference by other people. This is really the basis of liberalism. This limitation is critical to the enjoyment of life. Some limits are absolutely necessary, while others are not.  His book On Liberty tries to define those limits. It is worth reading. I recently re-read it after many years.

In essence the problem, as Mill defined it, is that even in a democracy we must be able to resist the imposition of duties by the majority in some cases, though not all. For example, no one would argue that it is wrong to prohibit murder or assaults. Would the imposition of a vaccination mandate by the majority as represented by its elected  government fit into the category of permitted or non-permitted infringements of freedom? That is the question I am trying to answer in a meandering fashion. Mill sought a principle that would assist people in determining into which category an example or proposed example of government interference would fit.  I think that is a worthy goal.

This is the principle that Mill proposed:

“That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forebear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him,  but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amendable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”


That is the reasonable limit on a person’s freedom.

Mill also reminds that this does not mean one can do whatever one chooses to do no matter what the consequences.  Famously, others have said, ‘your freedom to swing your hand stops at my nose’. They really mean at anyone else’s nose. Mill put it more elegantly this way: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our good in our way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

 Mill accepts only 1 important qualification, that this principle is only for the benefit of “human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” Children cannot claim the benefits of this principle, in Mill’s view, and must abide by instructions imposed on them by their parents, and to some extent even others.

With some qualifications that I won’t get into here, I accept this principle. How does this principle apply to the question at hand? How does it apply to the case of whether or not it is permitted for society to say we demand everyone to be vaccinated unless there is a good  reason for not doing so?

Clearly, on the basis of these principles, we should be allowed to take the vaccine or not, as we choose, so long as we do not harm others by our choice. I agree with that. Does refraining from taking the vaccine harm others? On its face, the vaccine is designed to protect ourselves from the most harmful effects of Covid-19. But this does not resolve the matter. Our choice can affect others. In other words, if the evidence establishes that my refusal to take the vaccine affects others that is significant, and if the harm caused is great enough could warrant an imposition that compels me to take the vaccine to some extent at least.

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