By: Ronald F. White, Ph.D.


Liberty is the principle of self-direction. Liberals believe that human beings ought to be able to do, pretty much, whatever they want. Many philosophers follow John Stuart Mill’s idea that utility and liberty are mutually supporting principles. After all, if a happy society is necessarily composed of happy individuals, if we as individuals, know what kinds of things make us happy and other people and the government do not, then civilized society must protect an individual's right to pursue the things that make her/him happy. But as we have already seen, sometimes the pursuit of pleasure by some individuals conflicts with the pursuit of pleasure by others. Of course, there are varying degrees of conflict here. After all, in modern society it is almost impossible for us to act without interfering with another individuals private pursuit of pleasure. For example, my elderly neighbor finds her pleasure working in the tranquil and serene confines of her garden. I enjoy playing electric guitar at a near-deafening volume level, but my elderly neighbor complains that my playing is both physically and aesthetically painful to her. Another neighbor experiences pleasure from raising vicious pit bulls, while my children derive pleasure running around the neighborhood playing "Capture the Flag" on warm summer evenings. Any society committed to the private pursuit of pleasure or happiness and the liberty necessary to sustain it, must provide for the resolution of this natural conflict between private and public interests. So over the years, philosophers have proposed a variety of liberty limiting principles..


Libertarians recognize only one liberty limiting principle, harm to others. Their strategy is to distinguish between self-regarding acts that do not harm or violate the rights of others and other-regarding acts that do. They argue that a liberal society may regulate other-regarding acts which violate the rights of others, but not purely self-regarding acts. Of course, it takes "thick skin" to live under a libertarian regime. My children and I must tolerate my neighbor’s vicious barking dogs, unless I can prove that it probable that they might escape and harm my children. My elderly neighbor might occasionally have to wear earplugs to blot out my loud guitar playing, barking dogs, and screaming kids. At any rate, unless there is harm to others involved, these kinds of disputes are to be resolved by the individuals involved and not by the coercive power of the state. Of course, if my dog-loving neighbor's pit bulls periodically escape and bite my kids, then the government could justify regulating his actions (or the actions of his dogs). 


Libertarians consider speech to be (almost always) self-regarding, in the sense that words rarely "harm" other persons. (Remember when we were kids we used to say, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!") Some libertarians, like John Stewart Mill, defend free speech on utilitarian grounds by saying that by leaving speech unregulated we are more likely to find the truth in a diversity of expressed opinions.


But clearly, some forms of speech do harm others. As Mill suggested, if I falsely yell, "FIRE!" in a crowded theater, and if I know that there really is no fire, my words may unnecessarily harm others. Sometimes in the exercise of free speech, we harm others by making false derogatory statements or by advocating violence against them. Other forms of speech might harm public institutions. For example I might make a public speech in which I advocate tax evasion as a means of protesting tax policy in the United States. However, if harm to public institutions were used to limit free speech, many morally repugnant institutions (such as slavery) might never have been repealed.


Over the years philosophers have proposed a number of liberty-limiting principles; such as: harm to others, harm to self, offense, and legal moralism. Of course, Mill recognized “harm to others” as the most salient, and perhaps the only justifiable liberty-limiting principle. Many argue that “harm to self” can sometimes be invoked as a liberty-limiting principle. Acts of paternalism involve violating a moral principle, usually liberty, for in order to provide an unwanted benefit or prevent someone from a harming themselves. Hard paternalism is when you either provide an unwanted benefit or remove a harm from a rational person. Soft paternalism is when the unwilling target of our beneficent acts is irrational.  Paternalism can be exercised by either individuals, groups, or even government. Of course, not all acts of paternalism can be morally justified.    


Another often proposed liberty-limiting principle is the offense principle, which states that I am at liberty to pursue my own private interests as long as I do not "offend" others in the process. The difficulty with applying this principle is the fact that we all have different levels of sensibility. Some people are offended very easily. For example, some thin- skinned individuals are offended when mothers breast-feed their children in public places. They insist that it ought to be performed only in private places. But if we regulate public places in such a way to avoid all possible sources of offense, our collective liberty would be severely curtailed, and our public places would not be much fun for anyone. What I consider to be offensive might not be offensive to others. At least some people are offended by rap music, public nudity, burning the American flag, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and houses painted pink. Therefore, the widespread use of the offense principle as a liberty-limiting principle may lead to a pretty dull life. That's why the offense principle requires some objective, mutually agreed upon, public standard. All libertarians agree that that principle might is voluntariness. Hence, we might argue that public acts that offend a large number of people can be restricted, only if, they are imposed on others without their consent. For example, if you voluntarily attend an art exhibit knowing that it contains homo-erotic material, then you cannot subsequently claim to be offended. Logically, you cannot be voluntarily offended! But voluntariness alone doesn't seem to solve much. 


The liberty-limiting principle known as Legal Moralism holds that civilized society can justifiably enforce rules of morality. Hence, advocates of this principle believe that the liberty of individuals can be justifiably limited by a moral code imposed and enforced by government, even if there are no harms or offenses committed. For example, I cannot buy beer or wine on Sunday morning in Cincinnati. The city cannot justify that law by arguing that buying beer either harms others, harms me, or offends others. Apparently the law exists because the city simply believes that it is immoral to purchase beer at that time when you ought to be in church. Some forms of legal moralism also encroach upon the private, self-regarding sphere. Laws against, polygamy, fornication, and sodomy might be good examples. The basic problem with using the power of government to enforce morality is determining which moral principles to enforce. Given the variety of moral convictions expressed by the numerous religious groups practicing in the United States, legal moralism could also make for a very restrictive public and private life.


In summary, there have been many proposed liberty-limiting principles. The more the government limits liberty in public and private spheres, the less room there is for individuals and groups to pursue happiness as they see fit.




Liberty-Limiting Principles-

Harm to Others-

Harm to Self-

Hard and Soft Paternalism-

Offense Principle-

Legal Moralism-

Issue to Think About

Can you think of an example where the liberty principle might conflict with the principle of beneficence? Utility? Or Nonmaleficence?