In the previous discussion of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty we talked about the deleterious effects unchecked erosion of individual liberties has on human development. In the penultimate section of the essay, Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual, Mill asks a series of interrelated questions. Are their limits to individual sovereignty over one's self? At what point does the authority of society begin? Where does the individual and society exercise shared sovereignty - are the poles apart? The starting point for Mill is this; "to individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society" (1929, p.92). Easier said than done.
Unpacking this Mill turns to a social contract perspective. Despite its encroachment upon liberty society manages to afford individuals a measure of protection, in return for which it can reasonably expect a certain mode of conduct. This expectation does not injure individual interests, the sorts of responsibilities he had in mind - bearing a share of social responsibility and sharing the costs of society - can be unproblematically justified by the very act of preserving society. But also they can act as a benchmark for judging conduct. If the harm or injury caused by someone's conduct is less than the inconveniences social responsibility burdens the individual with then the appropriate sanction is punishment by opinion. If it is greater, then it's a matter for the law. What this means for individual conduct is as long as someone is "capable", they have the full freedom to act in a manner harmful to their self-interests, even if it is more damaging than the responsibility society levies.
This for Mill isn't a recipe for hard-heartedness - quite the contrary. He believes it's part of our general responsibility to promote good over ill and favour the cultivation of our higher faculties while avoiding the debauched and the degrading, and this includes a benevolence towards others. But that is where the line is drawn. We can promote good living, we cannot make it compulsory - even against those damaging themselves. For Mill the principle can be justified in terms of self-interest. The individual is the person most interested in their well-being. The interests others have in this, apart from close friends and family, is comparatively small. Therefore the interest society has in this well-being is less than even this and is necessarily indirect. The individual then has a greater understanding of the self than any other, meaning that not only do they have the right to exercise their spontaneity within generally accepted limits they are also the final judge of things that pertain to them. Regardless of how damaging or self-destructive they are, forcing behaviours on them is more injurious to liberty than anything they could do to themselves. Others are perfectly free to warn them and others of the dangers of their conduct, free make known their disapproval, free to avoid them, free to enforce customary (non-institutionalised) sanctions, but no freedom to force them to look after themselves. The flip side of this is (provided the individual is capable) there is no one but themselves to blame for their situation, and they have no cause to complain about the opprobrium they call down on their heads.
Obviously if the conduct injures others and infringes their liberty society reserves the right to apply legal sanctions. But, Mill asks, what if their behaviour causes to heap burdens indirectly onto the shoulders of others? Examples here would include making life difficult for dependents, causing unhappiness, reducing resources held in common by the community, and setting a damaging/subversive example. For Mill if it violates a distinct obligation then the demands of the obligation outweigh the liberty to discard it, but punishment and correction is a matter of those to whom the obligation is owed. Society should, as a rule, avoid getting enmeshed in such disputes.
A good example of this is religious liberty. While there should be freedom of religion, it should be accompanied by an equivalent freedom from religion. Communities of believers only have the right to morally enforce their doctrines on other believers. Sanctions that go beyond this, or attempts to extend them to non-believers is not in their interest as it invites resentment and opposition.
Mill's overall argument in this section is pretty simple and speaks for itself, but one problem is the vagueness he treats authority and society with. Society has a right under the social contract to enforce certain expectations, but what is society? Is it the state? Is this the only body with the legitimacy to compel people to meet the basic obligations of the social contract? And what about liberty and authority in a society riddled with conflicting classes and fractions of classes? These issues will be explored in the last piece in the series as Mill attempts to theorise practical applications for his philosophy.
Edit: A complete list of posts on On Liberty can be found here.