John Stuart Mill, Liberty and the London Bombings

The summer months have been dominated by discussions about the London bombings, their causes and appropriate responses to that. Debates in the media frequently refer to the tension between the civil liberties that citizens ought to enjoy and the need to have tighter security in order to prevent further attacks, as much as possible. This touches on an important ethical tradition, Libertarianism. John Stuart Mill famously wrote in his text On Liberty (1859), that there is one very simple principle underpinning the governance of people and the extent to which individual liberties should be restricted. He said that the only principle was self-protection. Power can only be exercised over another member of the community to prevent harm to others. In a time when there are direct attacks on the civilian population, fear and anxiety is heightened and there is a sense of feeling that freedom must be restricted. So we consider things previously placed out of bounds such as the use of lethal force against suspected suicide bombers. This is in keeping with the rule of self-protection that Mill underlined. But Mill warns us of other dangers to our freedom. He is concerned about our protection from the government. Will Muslims carrying backpacks on the tube be identified as suspect suicide bombers? Will the measures put in place at a time of anxiety move the country away from its liberal democratic credentials?

Mill is also concerned that we are protected from the majority opinion, a serious weakness which he identified in Jeremy Bentham’s form of Utilitarianism. Simply doing the greatest Good for the greatest numbers might lead to injustices being done to a minority. There is a backlash against British Muslims with a very significant rise in threats and attacks on mosques and Muslims. The hostility shown doesn’t represent the majority opinion in the British public but what if further attacks take place and the prevailing climate in the country should change to one of hostility towards a group perceived to be the source of the threat? The shadow of the holocaust should remind us of what is possible when a government identifies a minority group as the cause of the county’s problems. Mill is just as concerned that the liberties of such a minority are protected from popular hatred. In this time there is an increase in the dialogue of ‘them and us’. This distancing of a minority community from the perceived majority community is dangerous to the principles of liberal democracy  in which diversity and difference have important roles to play, and can lead to the alienation and exclusion of a group. Mill felt that “while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions; so it is that there should be different experiments of living.” (On Liberty p.260). Mill advocates that there will be diversity in the world and difference approaches to life and this feature of Mill’s thinking has become embedded in the idea of liberal democracy found in the modern world. John Rawls, the important contemporary libertarian notes that in a democratic society, a plurality of ideas about how to live is inevitable and any system of Government must work with that inevitability. Mill’s work can teach us a lot about how to respond to the current situation and from a reading of On Liberty it is clear that freedom and plurality and diversity in liberal democracy must not be the causalities of the war on terror.

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