November 4, 2004 (Ira Pilgrim)


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 sufficient warrant.

John Stuart Mill, 1859

I have just read John Stuart Mill's (1806-1873) book On Liberty. This short book brings together all of the thoughts that have been enunciated by thinkers and doers of the past, from the ancient Greek to the English and American experiments with freedom. His writing is exquisitely clear, yet it is a difficult and very slow read. That is because I find that the thoughts expressed all have to be weighed in the light of my own personal experience. Every sentence congers up thoughts of the exceptions and difficulties that exist around each principle that he enunciates. As I continued to read, I found that Mill pretty well covered all of the questions and reservations that I had.

The words "liberty" and "freedom" mean the same thing. The only problem is that nobody is sure what is meant by either of those two words. They are what a semanticist would call high level abstractions. The things that an adult can or can't do are quite different from what a child can or can't do. Each person is subject to restrictions on his/her behavior. These restrictions can come from an individual with power or from society as a whole. Any time that you have two or more people, there are rules or laws that have to be obeyed. These are learned very early in childhood. In a well managed family, the rules change as a person matures. A 16 year old has much more freedom than does a 4 year old.

Governments can vary from countries where an individual has little or no personal freedom, to where almost anything goes. Even murder goes unpunished in some countries, if a person is wealthy enough.

In some cultures everyone goes naked. At the other extreme, such as fundamentalist Moslem cultures, women are required to cover everything but their eyes in public. Men usually cover everything but their faces.

Within a person's home anything goes, for the simple reason that a right to privacy in one's home is universally accepted. I know of no exceptions to this principle, but my experience is very limited. Even if certain things, such as forms of sexual behavior, may be forbidden by church or government, what governments or church agencies don't know cannot be interdicted in practice.

In the last hundred years, in the US, dress codes have changed drastically from where almost every part of the body except the head of a woman or female child was covered, even on the beach, to now, where only her pubes and nipples are covered. There are nude beaches where people frolic naked. Fashion now tries to emphasize, rather than conceal, the female anatomy.

In other words, almost everything is permitted if a person can find the right culture that goes with his/her preferences.

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