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Liberty or licence

Peter Saunders | 18 July 2014

peter-saundersAs every libertarian knows, John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty argued that people should be free to do whatever they want, provided their actions do not harm others.

What is less well remembered is that Mill also thought that, provided they were well educated, free individuals would chose to use their liberties to pursue 'higher pleasures' rather than base, animal ones: 'No intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base.'

Mill was no moral relativist. He understood that base desires are more easily satisfied, but he insisted that enlightened, 'cultivated' people would and should seek to express 'nobleness of character' by exercising their 'higher faculties.' Only this would result in the greatest happiness all round.

Which brings me to the Magaluff nightclub in Majorca, where an 18 year-old British woman reportedly performed sexual acts on 24 men on stage to win a prize. The Sun suggested that competitions like this were now common in a number of holiday resorts frequented by British youth, and concluded that 'binge-drink Brits' had sunk to a 'new low.'

The libertarian news site, Spiked Online, responded with an article by assistant editor Tom Slater which attacked both The Sun and various feminist commentators for their censorious hypocrisy. He dismissed their condemnation of the incident as the latest in a long tradition of middle class 'moral panics about the habits, the sins and the excesses of the lower orders.' The only people who could judge this behaviour, he said, were those involved in it.

Foolishly, I posted comments on Slater's piece suggesting that he and others like him were abdicating their responsibility to make moral judgements about good and bad behaviour. Just because something is legal does not make it acceptable - certainly not in public - and the suggestion that only snobby middle class people find this sort of behaviour unacceptable showed how little Slater knows of traditional working class values.

Soon, the 'libertarian' readers of Spiked Online piled in to trash my comments. 'God save us from the new puritans,' said one. 'Nothing wrong with it,' ventured another of the nightclub competition, adding: 'If you don't like it then piss off and stop interfering in other people's business.'

In response to my question, 'would you want your daughter behaving like this?,' one man said he could have no grounds for criticising her, while a woman wrote: 'I'd want her to have the choice.' Someone else likened my question to the famous, bumbling comment of the judge at the Lady Chatterly censorship trial fifty years ago: 'Is Lady Chatterley's Lover the kind of book you would wish your wife or servants to read?'

As for my suggestion that no society could flourish in the absence of shared norms of decency, one response summed up the general view: 'How's about a society with a shared code of minding your own bloody business?'

It is easy in today's permissive culture to invoke Mills' core liberty principle in populist appeals to self-determination. It is much less comfortable thinking through the consequences. In an age of mass, free education, Mills' fond belief that people would learn to use their liberties to make enlightened, life-enhancing choices has spectacularly been proven false.

The question is: does this matter? Are we happy allowing people to do whatever they want (short of harming others), even if the consequence is degraded human beings and a society dragged down to its lowest common base?

Professor Peter Saunders is a senior fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.