John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is an intellectual discussion on just how far society’s reach can influence and direct the actions of individuals. Mills required several criteria to evaluate the discussion of cigarette advertising, its impact, and whether it is a health issue. His work can be summarized into the following points:
1. An individual has the right to act as he wants as long as their actions do not harm others.
2. Society has no right to intervene if the individual is only directing his actions upon himself.
4. Everyone is entitled to free speech regardless if that speech is erroneous.
5. Debate is necessary to find truth.
6. We must protect the ability to choose.
Mills would have no issue with cigarette advertising. Under his philosophy the manufacturers of cigarettes and those advertising for cigarettes would be entitled to do so. What Mills would argue is that although these companies have the right to free speech they would have to tell what the health costs of cigarette consumption as documented by every major health agency. Mills would propose that cigarettes be taxed and the individual be warned of associated health issues from cigarette consumption.
If the individual is properly educated about the risks and still decides to purchase and consume cigarettes, according to Mills the individual will have assumed all the risk because the individual has been educated about the risks of cigarette consumption and has still decided to pursue that action in spite of that knowledge.
Mills’ decision would not solely be based upon whether the issue is health related or an issue of free speech regarding cigarette manufacturer’s ability to have their product advertised. Mills would take into account all aspects and produce a judgment. His utilitarian philosophy is never separate from any of his decisions and is expressed, “… one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (Mill 59-74).”
Following this logic cigarette advertising would be accepted; the cigarette advertising would have constraints such as proper disclosure of the health risks associated with cigarette consumption – in other words no deceptions. If, in spite of this information regarding cigarettes, the individual still makes a decision to use cigarettes, Mills would conclude that it is within the individuals’ power to control their actions, so if anything detrimental happened to them, they were fully aware of the consequences.
What Mills would argue is that it would be wrong to influence children and others not qualified to properly take care of themselves. Constraints such as cigarette tax, proof of age would be acceptable as constraints because they do not infringe upon an individuals right to choose. The production of proof would be viewed as an indication that the individual understands the risks and willing to assume the risks associated with cigarette consumption.
The cigarette producer requests that cigarettes be advertised. The advertisement would conform and give the risks inherent with cigarette consumption. In recognition of the risks, certain constraints such as requirement of understanding the health risks and proof that one is of legal age to understand these risks, Mills would have no issue.
Mills would have issue if the individual wasn’t told of the health risks in the cigarette advertising. Mills would have issue if the cigarette manufacturers and cigarette advertisers forced individuals to consume cigarettes. Mills would have further issue if the individual was told he couldn’t choose or would have a choice either way – to choose to use cigarettes or to choose not to use cigarettes based upon advertising.
Mills would advocate that if cigarette manufacturers, advertisers did not provide the means (information, education, relevant disclosure) they should be punished. Applicable laws, fines and imprisonment would be considered. These judgments would be considered because the manufacturer and advertiser would knowingly be inflicting pain upon the individual by not disclosing the health risks associated from consuming cigarettes and the advertising of the product.
Simply, “… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (68).” Because harm would come to the individual without proper information, the prevailing judgment would be to enforce a law so as to cause other manufacturers of cigarettes and their advertisers to rightfully inform the individual. Also, “… each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual (71-72).”
The process of discussing the effects and how cigarettes affected the individual would be rigorously encouraged by Mills. “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still (76-77).” Further, Mills would argue that the opinion regarding cigarettes couldn’t be suppressed anyway because others’ opinions around the world would exist.
Cigarette advertising would be viewed rather positively. The advertising would pose a forum to discuss the benefits and risks – whether physical, mental or spiritual. The reason would be many areas of argument would be heard, and out of this an ability to judge for one’s own self would become evident. As further proof and evidence would become clear, the benefits and risks would also become clear. The individual then would be able to decide ultimately for himself.
As it is known the health effects of cigarette consumption, Mills would impose a tax based upon utility. That is, cigarette consumption is used by some. Since some derive some benefit from cigarettes they should be allowed to do so. Indeed, Mills would view the attempt to prevent an individual from whether to choose to consume cigarettes, even with the health risks explained as an attempt to prevent the ability to choose. Mills would take into account these health risks and place a tax on the product. This tax in turn could further the education about cigarette consumption and quite possibly be put to further the research into cigarettes.
The health issue of cigarettes would provide a great forum for debate because through debate the raw essence of truth would surface. The raw truth, not society’s truth, your neighbor’s truth or another form of spoon-fed truth, but the raw truth would reveal itself. It is this raw proof through debate that Mills would have humanity embrace. It is through the, “… Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other means can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right (79).”
Mills would state further that the validity of health issues associated with cigarette consumption would stand the test of time. That is regardless of who said what, evidence to support the health risks associated with cigarette consumption would be consistent regardless of who wants to test the validity. The testers would find the same evidence and would come to the same conclusions. There would be no reason to inflict one’s will to assume the truth. The government would not need to intervene because the individual would be aware and educated to what the benefits or risks of cigarettes and cigarette advertising.
Mills would also justify that if cigarettes were advertised and sold to minors or those who are not yet old enough to form an opinion that the sellers of cigarettes would be punished under the law. The reason is that he would view this as a form of slavery – slavery or imprisonment of one’s ability to be properly educated and the ability to freely choose. Mills would argue those minors or those not yet old enough or have sufficient maturity are not quite capable of making a strong mental decision.
Therefore, the cigarette manufacturers’ and their advertisers would be in violation of not disclosing what they know, that is the associated health risks of cigarettes. Mills would also view those who consumed cigarettes in the presence of others who didn’t consume cigarettes equally unjustifiable. Mills would state that the happiness of the individual who did not consume cigarettes as being infringed upon and his ability to choose whether to be around another individual and knowing or not knowing the consequences of such action would not nullify the existence of those actions and thus infringe upon that individuals ability to remove himself from possible health risks.
Mills would further argue because another individual inflicted harm upon another then certain fines or other punishment would be enforced. This would also involve cigarette manufacturers and their advertisers. Mills would include fine, imprisonment or other penalties if those parties did not disclose information that they had available that was relevant and affected the individual.
Mills methodical approach would be applied to every situation. He would ask the same questions regarding any problem. As applied to cigarette advertising Mills would ask, ‘Who does this affect?’ If this affects individuals negatively, he would say, “This is bad for the good of individuals so the cigarette advertisers should be fined or imprisoned because they are harming others (119).”
If cigarette advertisers were to publicly announce that cigarettes are horrible and pose numerous health risks and the individual still chose to consume cigarettes, then that is the individuals choice and society should not intervene The reason is simple: the individual armed with the knowledge that cigarette consumption poses health risks and is dangerous and still continues to pursue this task, then that individual has been warned. Since that individual has been warned they take and assume all responsibility for their actions.
Mills’ logic would not stop there. Mills would require that the individual who consumes cigarettes, as a result of cigarette advertising, be truly and wholeheartedly aware of what consequences this course of action may bring. Further, if those individuals were not mature or mentally aware, fines or imprisonment against cigarette advertisers’ and their manufacturers would be at the core of justifiable punishment.
Mills was concerned with the ability of the individual to choose. If the individual was not able to choose regardless of whether that choice was considered wrong then that individual’s liberty would be taken away. As such, society would impress upon the individual its choice and deny that individual any means of exploring that option for themselves.
At heart of this ability to choose is necessary debate. Debate and intellectual discussion at its core would disclose assumptions and get at raw truth. The truth has to be, “…fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed (96-97).” Or else it would not be,”… a living truth (97).”
No one from society to other individuals including the individuals themselves should impose any thought or action that would deprive them of their freedom. Freedom in the sense that the “…individual can pursue their own good in their own way (71-72)”, and not “…attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it (71-72).”
Mills would view cigarette advertising from all positions. It would not be sufficient to just argue on point and then conclude that to be the truth. Mills would argue that if cigarette advertisers and their manufacturers did not disclose any relevant risks associated with the consumption of cigarettes then they should face penalties because those agencies would be denying individuals necessary information that affects their well-being.
Mills also would view any issue of health as a matter of disclosure. Inevitably some individuals would say they benefit from cigarette consumption. Mills would say those individuals are willing to take the risks and also say they benefit from cigarettes. Society should not impose any restrictions on their ability to choose. However, since cigarettes and cigarette advertising have health risks, they need
to be taxed. Taxation would not be viewed as a prohibitive measure on an individual’s ability to choose rather as a means to ensure that those who manufacturer and advertise cigarettes understand their role in providing the individual with proper disclosure. Payment through taxation would be a means to accomplish this task.
Utilitarianism is considered at every step of the decision making process. Utilitarianism would not be viewed as a separate thought process or as a separate means at arriving at a decision. Utilitarianism would state that the taxation imposed upon cigarettes is not prohibitive to the individual. Rather it is prohibitive to the manufacturer in that it forces them to disclose the health risks or face further penalties outside of taxation.
Regardless of the argument presented – if cigarette advertising is wrong, it wouldn’t only be a matter of free speech, a health issue or would utility help in explaining, Mills would state that it is the argument that enables the truth to be told. It is with constant debate that this truth would finally be realized.
Not the truth as we would want it, imagine it, think it or have it told to us; pure truth. It is the freedom to be able to discuss that truth, to be able to think through the steps to arrive at that truth, and the ability after the truth is found not to enforce that truth on anyone unless that individual intended to harm another with that truth. It is with this truth that we as human beings can be better and achieve great things.
Mill, J.S. On Liberty. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1974.