The Macksey Journal

Article Title

Mill on Paternalism and Happiness


One of John Stuart Mill's primary aims in On Liberty is to establish that power is illegitimate when used for paternalistic reasons. According to Mill, the individual's independence is "of right, absolute" when the conduct of the individual is purely self-regarding (On Liberty 8). There is, however, a tension between Mill’s blanket rejection of paternalism and his commitment to utilitarianism: it is not clear that complete freedom from a paternalistic authority would generate maximal happiness in all cases. Assuming that classical utilitarianism is the relevant evaluative standard, the utility of such interference involves some degree of contingency. That is, whether paternalistic interference would promote maximal happiness in any given case depends, to some extent, on the particulars of that case. Why, then, is Mill's anti-paternalism so uncompromising? In this paper, I propose an interpretation of Mill's conception of happiness that renders his absolute rejection of paternalistic interference more plausible. Specifically, I argue that the perfectionist elements in Utilitarianism and On Liberty substantially reduce the tension between the anti-paternalist principle and the contingency of utilitarian assessments of paternalistic interference. I then argue that the proposed interpretation yields a satisfactory answer to the question of why Mill excludes the creation of slavery contracts from the protected domain of liberty generated by the anti-paternalist principle. I conclude by considering whether the principle can be properly regarded as absolute when the slavery contract exception is taken into consideration.