There is a lot to say about this passage from On Liberty, Chapter IV, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual” paragraph 12, but let me encourage you to read it first:
And a person’s taste is as much his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse. It is easy for any one to imagine an ideal public, which leaves the freedom and choice of individuals in all uncertain matters undisturbed, and only requires them to abstain from modes of conduct which universal experience has condemned. But where has there been seen a public which set any such limit to its censorship? or when does the public trouble itself about universal experience? In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom thinking of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from itself; and this standard of judgment, thinly disguised, is held up to mankind as the dictate of religion and philosophy, by nine-tenths of all moralists and speculative writers. These teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so. They tell us to search in our own minds and hearts for laws of conduct binding on ourselves and on all others. What can the poor public do but apply these instructions, and make their own personal feelings of good and evil, if they are tolerably unanimous in them, obligatory on all the world?
One thing this reminds me of is my post “David Byrne: De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum,” where I wrote:
Economists use the Latin adage “De gustibus, non est disputandum”—“There is no disputing of tastes"—to express the idea that in assessing an individual’s welfare, economists should use that individual’s preferences, not their own. This doctrine of deference to the desires, likes and dislikes of those who are affected by a policy is also evident in the praise economists usually intend when they use the word ”non-paternalistic.” What this doctrine means in practice is that when economists are acting in their capacity as policy advisors, their self-appointed task is to arrange things so that people get more of what they want, whatever it is that they want.
I strongly recommend the passage from David Byrne I quote in that post, which is long enough I won’t repeat it here.
Sometimes we think of the rule of deference to people’s own tastes when they make their decisions only in relation to government interference. But in matters of taste, interference from social approval or disapproval is often just as important. Throughout On Liberty, John Stuart Mill is greatly concerned with interference from strong social disapproval as well as government interference.
Sometimes social disapproval causes people to avoid something that they like which should be considered innocent. Sometimes it only causes them to hide the fact that they like something (say, one music playlist to show, another to listen to in private). Unfortunately, keeping an aspect of one’s preferences secret makes it easier for social disapproval to cause someone else to avoid something they like that should be considered innocent. So there is a positive externality for freedom whenever someone comes out as liking something that often meets with social disapproval but is fundamentally innocent. My use of the words “comes out” point to the obvious example of people contributing to freedom by telling the world that they are attracted to members of the same sex, if in fact they are. I can’t honestly contribute to freedom in that way, because I don’t happen to be homosexual, but I can tell some of the preferences I have that are sometimes looked down upon.
In giving this partial list, let me say first that any defensive notes in my remarks about each thing are a reflection of the social disapproval I have sometimes felt. Second, let me say that I am only so brave. Like almost everyone, there are other preferences I have that I am not willing to share! They fall under what I said in “The Government and the Mob”:
… the selective revelation of one person’s secrets and not the secrets of others makes the person whose secret is revealed look much worse than if all secrets were revealed. I think I would fare very well if the day ever came that Jesus predicted when he said:
For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. (Luke 8:17)
But I have no doubt that if someone revealed all of my secrets, while everyone else got to keep theirs, I could be made to look very bad.
Here is my partial list of things I like that are sometimes looked down on or sideways at:
- I like TV. We are living in the golden age of TV, when TV is one of our premier arts, but unthinking negative statements about TV are extremely common in our culture.
- I like scented candles. This is only dicey because of gender norms.
- I like Country Music. I have often been struck with how strong a negative class marker this seems to be within academia.
- I like German-language Schlager music, which seems to be an even stronger negative class marker in German-speaking countries than Country Music is in the US. (In my Powerpoint file for class on International Finance that complements my post “International Finance: A Primer,” I use the purchase of downloads of Helene Fischer music as an example of a purchase of a foreign good.)
- I also like many other genres of music, including the unusual taste for a nonsupernaturalist of liking Contemporary Christian Music, as I mentioned in my post “Godless Religion.” But perhaps one of the most unusual things about my musical tastes is that my vast music collections is about 99% female vocalists. In general, there are enough more male singers in the business than female singers that I think the opposite preference of liking male singers more might actually not be noticed, but my relatively strong preference for female singers seems to be unusual.
- I like Science Fiction. There are a lot of great things that can be said about Science Fiction, but the literary snobs who not only look down on it but urge everyone else to look down on it are legion.
- I like comic books. For anyone who shares this taste, I strongly recommend a trio of books by Scott McCloud:
I would be glad for comments about things that you like that deserve to be considered innocent for which you have felt some degree of social disapproval.
Note: On gay rights, which I touched on briefly above, you might be interested in my column “The Case for Gay Marriage is Made in the Freedom of Religion.”