Public Health and Liberty: Beyond the Millian Paradigm

Public Health Ethics, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2009

12 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2015

See all articles by Bruce Jennings

Bruce Jennings

Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society; Center for Humans and Nature; The Hastings Center; Yale School of Public Health

Date Written: 2009


A fundamental question for the ethical foundations of public health concerns the moral justification for limiting or overriding individual liberty. What might justify overriding the individual moral claim to non-interference or to self-realization? This paper argues that the libertarian justification for limiting individual liberty known as the “harm principle” or the “Millian paradigm” is inadequate as a basis of public health ethics and policy. But simply pitting some collectivist value or utilitarian criterion over against individual liberty is not theoretically satisfactory, either. John Stuart Mill himself was not a Millian, in this sense, and his utilitarianism does not pit itself against individual liberty as a situation of balancing conflicting values. A reconsideration of Mill, particularly in light of the later work of Berlin on liberty, points toward a conception of relational liberty that is crucial for public health ethics because it contains within itself the basis for its own moral limitation.

Keywords: communitarianism, Isaiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, liberalism, liberty, libertarianism

Suggested Citation

Jennings, Bruce, Public Health and Liberty: Beyond the Millian Paradigm (2009). Public Health Ethics, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2009, Available at SSRN:

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