Mill agrees that the mischief a person does to himself can affect others, and he finds that it is right to bring to bear moral disapprobation,
Whenever there is a definite damage, the case moves out of the province of liberty and into that of morality or law. With reference to that which is merely contingent, however, society can afford to bear the inconvenience (Magid 799-800).
Mill in his work on Liberty proposed a simple principle for determining whether society has a right to limit individual freedom, a principle based on utilitarian concepts and applicable to the individual in his or her dealings with society. that principle can be stated as follows:
The only thing of ultimate value is the happiness of individuals, and individuals can best achieve their happiness in a civilized society when they are left free to pursue their own interest with their own talents as these have come to be understood and developed by them under an adequate system of education. (Magid 797)
Mill thus asserts the principle of non-interference where the individual is concerned, though this applies only to adults and not to children. An examination of the elements of Mills analysis and of the rationale behind it can be used to consider whether government has the right to enforce morality and to examine this in terms of the contentious contemporary issue of abortion.
Mill bases his idea on the self-development of the individual. He does not, however, base this idea on any sense that there is a natural right on the part of the individual to develop himself freely, and instead he bases it on the principle of utility. This principle says that each individual should be free to develop his or her own powers and abilities according to his or her will or judgment as long as they do so in a way that does not interfere with the rights of others. From the standpoint of society, says Mill, this is also desirable because it is preferable that individuals develop themselves freely since this enhances society, while having everyone conform does not. The free development of the individual is one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and therefore it is a utility for the individual to develop himself freely as a way of achieving that happiness.
Mill emphasizes that it would be wrong to think that his statement that it is not acceptable to interfere with the decisions of an individual if those decisions do not affect someone else is nothing more than selfish indifference. He says it is also wrong to assume that he is saying no one should concern themselves about the well-being of another unless their own interest is involved. What he is saying is that such interest should be expressed in persuasion and not in compelling behavior or belief. This is especially important in terms of the right of society to enforce morality, which is a matter of belief and is something of which people should be persuaded rather than forced to accept. Mill makes a distinction between that part of one's life that belongs specifically to the individual and that which belongs to society, and belief clearly belongs to the individual, where behavior may belong to society.
Mill's reasons for taking this view begin with the fact that there is a tacit agreement between society and the individual that because the individual receives the protection of society, he or she owes a return for this benefit. The mere fact that one lives in society means that one is bound to observe certain conduct toward the others in society. The first element of such conduct is not to injure the interests of one another, and such interests should be considered rights; the second is that each person should bear his share of the labors and sacrifices incurred for defending society or its members. The individual whose conduct becomes such as to affect prejudicially the interests of others may be punished because at that point society has jurisdiction over such conduct. The fact that the individual has sovereignty over his own actions until those actions become prejudicial to the interests of another, however, means that society has no right to interfere in those actions until they become prejudicial to the interests of another. This assumes that all the people involved are adults and have the ordinary amount of understanding. Mill's assertion of individual liberty imposed two conditions upon the individual: the individual's conduct must not injure the interests of another, and each individual had to bear his or her share of the labors and sacrifices necessary to defend society or its members from injury or molestation. Society was justified in enforcing these two limits at all costs by the exaction of either legal or social penalties (Himmelfarb 92-93).
The individual is, as Mill notes, the person most interested in his or her own welfare. Mill admits that many people refuse to recognize the distinction between that part of a person's life that concerns only himself and that part which concerns society. They state that the conduct of one member of society clearly affects the conduct of others and that no one is entirely isolated. Even if he does not injure others directly, he does so by serving as an example. They would limit the actions of the individual and allow government to enforce morality because only in that way could government teach morality to others. Mill agrees that the mischief a person does to himself can affect others, and he finds that it is right to bring to bear moral disapprobation. Whenever there is a definite damage, the case moves out of the province of liberty and into that of morality or law. With reference to that which is merely contingent, however, society can afford to bear the inconvenience. Mill says that it is a worse example to bring force to bear and to thus do more damage directly than the individual is doing indirectly.
Carlyle was noted for writing sermons and in Past and Present uses the same approach, with a narrator who seems to be preaching to the reader. His intent is to raise questions about the past and thus to suggest changes in the present that will then shape the future. Carlyle also sees the actions of life in terms of a long timeline and finds foolish those who see only the immediate consequences. Personal freedom is to be prized, but those who substitute personal freedom for the greater good are mistaken. There are powers greater than the individual and even the individual nation, and offending those powers through actions that are counter to the greater good can lead to disaster, though it may take some time before this disaster manifests itself. As he states, those who offend the powers of Nature may not recognize what they have done but will suffer for it: "Properly it is the secret of all unhappy men and unhappy nations.
Had they known Nature's right truth, Nature's right truth would have made them free" (Carlyle Book I Chapter II).
Instead, as Carlyle says, those who fail to see this truth are enchanted and "stagger spell-bound, reeling on the brink of huge peril, because they were not wise enough" (Carlyle Book I Chapter II). He also notes that those who do not see disaster on the immediate horizon may believe that they have chosen rightly and that there are no untoward consequences, but they are mistaken. As he writes,
Foolish men imagine that because judgment for an evil thing is delayed, there is no justice, but an accidental one, here below. Judgment for an evil thing is many times delayed some day or two, some century or two, but it is sure as life, it is sure as death! (Carlyle Book I Chapter II)
With freedom there is responsibility, an idea mirrored in Mill and considered by Carlyle in terms of what may happen to the nation as a whole over time.
Carlyle never uses the term "greater good," but the idea is inherent in much of what he writes about how individuals exercise freedom and how they fail to see the long-term consequences. Given that the damage may not appear for a century or two, such consequences are not likely to affect the fortunes of the individual exercising his freedom. The consequences will fall on others and especially on the nation as a whole. What Carlyle says about the actions of government can apply to the actions of individuals as well. Carlyle says that Parliament and the Courts of Westminster are venerable to him but also have to be seen as made up of human beings who struggle with the good and the bad within them each day, "For a thousand years and more, Wisdom and faithful Valour, struggling amid much Folly and greedy Baseness, not without most sad distortions in…