John Stuart Mill authored On Liberty in a period during which the first societal debates over alcohol prohibition were emerging. Thus, it is not surprising that Mill’s consideration of the rights of individuals in proportion to society and the government, which were forged in the midst of such heated social controversy, would directly confront the important questions of these relative liberties. “The object of this essay,” Mill declares, “is to assert one very simple principle…
that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection… that is to prevent harm to others,” (10-11). This is known as the Harm Principle, and is central to Mill’s analysis of individual liberty and particularly, to the sale and consumption of alcohol. Government interference, according to Mill, is only appropriate when a person engages in conduct that threatens the interests of others. What happens inside a person’s body or mind is that person’s private business, not the business of society nor the government.
This is made very clear by Mill: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” (11). However, the sale and consumption of alcohol presents a contentious issue in what might otherwise be seen as an all-encompassing rule. Social pressure groups at the time, such as the United Kingdom Alliance of Legislative Suppressions of the Sale of Intoxication, highlighted the often violent, dangerous and irresponsible effects alcohol can have on a portion of those who choose to consume it.
They claimed that drunkenness was responsible for “constantly creating and stimulating social disorder,” and “weakening and demoralizing society,” (83). It seems that Mill has taken this into consideration in his analysis of legitimate government intervention into alcohol sales, despite his obvious anti-prohibition outlook. On Liberty champions responsible alcohol inebriation as a private pleasure which the government has no authority to interfere with as long as the drinker is not harming anybody else.
It seems to be Mill’s opinion that, provided that the drunken person’s actions do not violate the foundations of the Harm Principle, that person should have “perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the actions and stand the consequences,” (70). This becomes the line that Mill attempts to establish. He does not try to refute that alcohol, under some circumstances, does in fact lead to harm. He merely suggests that this minor harm, contained as it is, is nothing more than an “inconvenience… which society can afford to bear for the sake of the greater good of human freedom,” (76).
There are, however, instances in which Mill would support regulation of alcohol sale/consumption based on legitimate threats to the well-being and general goodness of society as a whole. These concessions will become the focus of this essay. Firstly, although Mill never directly addressed it, is the issue of children and their access to intoxication. In his introductory explanations of the main themes in On Liberty he discusses some of the foundational and irrevocable principles for society to live by.
These rules precede any possible exception and cannot be challenged as threats to liberty because, according to Mill, they’re necessary to society. Children, whilst still under the care of an adult, “must be protected against their own actions as well as external injury,” and therefore it is necessary for society or the governing authority to act paternalistically towards them on some matters, and alcohol would seemingly be one of them. Not surprisingly, Mill rejects the assumption that a person’s actions are inherently connected to society, and an act which harms that individual, harms society as a whole.