A friend and I were trying to come up with the most basic rule that, if followed, would lead to a functional (and preferably good) society.

He said: "People should be free to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't affect other people's ability to be free do to whatever they want"

I thought this might work... but felt it was off somehow. I want to clarify that I am by no means a philosopher, just a curious person. Would my friend's rule work out?

  • I like the rule and think it covers lots. The 'recursive' nature of it means that it is set-up to defend against lots of attacks.. as far as a rule goes right? I think the other side of the coin is that you have asked whether this rule will lead to a functional and good society in general. So I think those points / the structure of your question might be considered as well. Considering the structure of the question isn't as fun as considering the rule. But I have to say I think the part about 'functional' is a little off. I think if you wonder about human nature, you might say that your rule i
    – Chris
    Oct 21, 2019 at 18:28
  • It is a nice sentiment, but... anything people do, even playing in a sandbox, affects other people's ability to do that or something else. To follow it, taken literally, one would need to not exist. As is, it is not a rule, it makes no sense. Holmes, who gave a better version of this quip, understood that it is of little use until personal spheres and boundaries are established by other means:"My freedom to swing my arm ends where the other fellow’s nose begins. But the other fellow’s nose doesn’t begin in my brain, or in my soul either, as the religionists would have it".
    – Conifold
    Oct 21, 2019 at 21:01
  • @Conifold Thanks! I've never thought about it that way before.
    – jazhang
    Oct 21, 2019 at 21:35
  • Also look into en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stuart_Mill (#Liberty)
    – christo183
    Oct 22, 2019 at 7:22
  • This is an interesting question. I think it needs a bit of critical examination, which I have offered below. It's just the kind of question that occurs when you're starting to do philosophy, however, and with this comment I welcome you to PSE.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 22, 2019 at 7:56

3 Answers 3


This rule is the standard Libertarian formulation of the problem. It's superficially fine, as long as we are willing to make a lot of (problematic) assumptions about equal playing fields, but in practice it generally ends up being fairly oppressive.

It ends up being oppressive in that sense because it (consciously or not) neglects the fact that human beings are intrinsically and intractably social in nature. A human 'in the wild' (as it were) would have effectively no freedom. His days would be spent hunting, growing crops, creating clothes and tools and shelters, or otherwise in forced labor for his own self-preservation, and in the few hours that he might be free of such menial tasks he would have nothing to do: no books, not entertainments, no people to talk to... Other people are required for any of the behaviors that we generally consider to be free:

  • They provide a choice of goods and activities through distributed production
  • They provide leisure time through the benefits of mass production
  • They create material and intellectual infrastructures so that our cognitive and material resources can be distributed and developed more efficiently

We cannot effectively discuss the concept of freedom in such simplistically individualistic terms, not at least without doing significant damage to the concept. Freedom is something that springs out of our interactions with others.


Welcome, jazhang

I think the link between freedom and the good society and the idea of maximising freedom need a bit of scrutiny. I offer this below.

The free society and the good society

If freedom is the sole good, then a society that maximised freedom would be a good society. But freedom isn't the sole good; and I can't see any principle of freedom such that if that principle were to be applied maximally, the resulting society would be just, kind, empathetic, caring or embody any of the other of the plurality of values. I wouldn't be prepared to say that in a society in which these values were suppressed or overriden, it was at least one good element in the situation that people had had maximal freedom to bring this state of affairs about.

Freedom and the hierarchy of freedoms

Not all freedoms are of equal value, so merely maximising freedom is an inadequate social ideal. Being free to marry (or not) is a more important freedom than the freedom to walk in a public park; and the freedom to practise one's religion if one has one is more important than the freedom to buy a lottery ticket. Freedoms aren't like coins of the same value; some are worth more than others. Talk of maximisation masks this vital point.

John Stuart Mill and the harm principle

Mill greatly valued freedom but did not regard it as the sole value. His rule of freedom was constrained by the harm that freedom can cause :

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, 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 the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with[Pg 18] any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 1859: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm.)

The notion of harm can take and needs refinement but harm to others strikes me as a limit within which freedom should be confined, so I'd endorse not 'freedom so long as it does not affect others' freedom' but 'freedom so long as it does not harm others'.


No. Your statement sounds reasonable but is not sufficient. If everyone has the right to buy land, what happens when someone buys all of the available land? So right from the start, this freedom is limited or it abridges the freedom of others. What if everyone has an unlimited right to buy food. So someone buys up all of the food, and others die of starvation. But they still have the theoretical right to buy unavailable food. So freedom is not the only good. Is having food a greater good? It is certainly a more immediate and necessary right. Would free people give up their freedom just to eat? Well they have done so. Is freedom necessary? Food is certainly necessary. Is freedom a fundamental right? Rhetorically, yes. It appears that even food is not a practical right. People starve every day while others exercise their freedom. Do the others oppress those who starve by exercising their freedom? I would recommend John Stuart Mill on liberalism.

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