Sample Essays on The Balance between Liberty and Morality

The Balance between Liberty and Morality


Striking a balance between liberty and morality is an issue that has continued to attract different opinions among scholars. There are those who have argued against the idea of the state making people behave morally by law, while others have supported this practice. John Stuart Mill is one philosopher that has provided a balanced view on liberty and morality (Adams, 2005). Mill came up with what he called a “standard of moral good and evil”. Using this standard, Mill differentiated between true morality and false morality. According to Mill, true morality is preventing acts that harm others such as beating, cheating, and neglecting one’s family among others. It is right for society to apply true morality through legal acts such as imprisonment fines, and even executions (Adams, 2005).

On the contrary, false morality considers personal acts that do not harm others like polygamy, gambling and drunkenness to be unethical. Mills maintained that only true morality need to be enforced by law. Enforcing false morality by law amounts to violation of personal liberty (Adams, 2005). This paper is going to challenge the court’s decision in Reynolds v. U.S case because polygamy falls under the category of false morality and the law cannot sanction it.

Challenging The Court’s Decision in Reynolds v. U.S Case

            George Reynolds, the defendant in this case lived in the state of Utah. Reynolds was married to Ann Tuddenham, and went ahead to marry Amelia Schofield without divorcing his first wife (Bill of Rights Institute , 2008). Federal law at the time (1878), stated that a person who is married and goes ahead to marry another whether within his/her territory of residence or outside, where the U.S has authority is guilty of bigamy, and answerable to a punishment of a fine of 500 dollars, or imprisonment for five years. In defense, Reynolds argued that the federal law was unconstitutional because it violated the right to exercise religion freely as protected in the first amendment (Bill of Rights Institute , 2008).

George Reynolds belonged to a church called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. This church encouraged its follower to practice polygamy as one of their religious duties. This case acted as a measure that tested the limits of freedom of religion in America. In its ruling, the court one hundred percent decided that the law prohibiting polygamy was constitutional, and did not limit personal right to exercise religion freely as protected in the U.S constitution (Bill of Rights Institute , 2008).

As stated earlier, polygamy falls under the category of false morality and the law cannot prohibit it as in the above case. According to Mill, true morality is made up of two moral duties. The first duty is avoiding harming those who are not harming other people or us (Adams, 2005). Acts such as physical assault, deception, and neglecting those that depend on us are examples of acts that harm those who are not harming us; hence, they are immoral. Polygamy, gambling and drunkenness are examples of acts that do not harm others. Therefore, polygamy does not interfere with the first moral duty, and this means that polygamy is not an immoral act (Adams, 2005).

Passing laws against actions or behaviors that do not harm others violates individual liberty. Liberty implies doing whatever one wishes as long as his/her actions do not violates the rights of others or prevent them from enjoying their freedoms as guaranteed by the constitution. A man marrying two or more wives like in the case of Reynolds does not interfere with the rights of other men, nor does he prevent them from enjoying their freedoms as guaranteed in the constitution (Adams, 2005). Moreover, to condemn polygamy through legal means such as imprisonment and fines amounts to limiting the liberty of others in following their wishes. This is harming others who are not causing harm to us; and a violation of the first moral duty  (Adams, 2005).

The second moral duty, according to Mills, is the duty to harm those who are harming us, or harming other people when these people are not harming them. Harming those who are harming others is right especially if it promotes general wellbeing of society. Acts like physical assault harm others, and ourselves. Limiting the freedom of others to engage in harmful acts through legal means promotes the welfare of all; hence morally correct (Adams, 2005). This means that it is only right to promote morality by law when it protects the wellbeing of all. Prohibiting polygamy by law as it is in the federal law of America does not promote the wellbeing of all because polygamy is a personal choice and does not harm others (Adams, 2005).

Polygamy being a person choice does not violate morals because according to Mills, one does not have moral duty to himself. People only have moral duties to others or society. Mills maintains that morality consists of moral virtues and moral duties. Moral duties refer to the rules that determine how individuals should behave (Adams, 2005). Moral virtues are personal characters that make people fulfill their moral duties. For example, when an individual says that he/she will keep his/her promise; this is a moral duty to others and not to themselves. Polygamy does not have a moral duty to others, and laws prohibiting it should not exist (Adams, 2005).

Criminalizing polygamy on moral grounds is a form of false morality just like criminalizing prostitution and homosexuality. The Wolfenden Committee formed in the UK to investigate the issue of legalizing homosexuality and prostitution concluded that it is not the duty of the law to determine what is immoral, and prostitution and homosexuality should be decriminalize because of freedom of choice and the fact that morality is a private issue (Adams, 2005). However, Patrick Delvin one of the contributors in the debate argued that law without morality interferes with freedom of conscience, and it is the perfect formula for oppression. Delvin favored the idea of having a moral fabric in society. He further added that criminal law should respect and safeguard moral norms in society to prevent social disorder (Adams, 2005).

Delvin’s view was that behaviors such as polygamy, homosexuality and prostitution have the potential of disrupting social cohesion. This is the reason society needs moral laws in order to protect itself against behavior that break the moral fiber of society (Adams, 2005). Delvin also stated that members of a given society have a shared sense of morality, and immorality is anything a sound-minded person considers immoral (Adams, 2005).

Delvin’s views on morality not only opposes Mills views, but if they were applied they would greatly limit individual freedom. The argument that immorality is anything a sound-minded person considers immoral would greatly limit individual freedom because different people have different view of morality. For example, some people consider certain dressing styles immoral. If laws that prevent people from engaging in acts that members of society consider immoral are enacted, then individual liberty will be completely gone, and people would live as slaves. This is why Mills categorization of morals into false and true is important, because it determines what the government can regulate using law.

Throughout history, governments have made laws based on false morality and this has infringed on individual liberty. For example, in 1533, the government of England passed a law that criminalized homosexuality and proscribed capital offense for those caught engaging in the act. In 1610, the colony of Virginia in America also enacted laws proscribing capital offense for sodomy. These laws were not only based on false morality, but also instituted cruel punishment for those who engaged in acts society considers immoral.


From the above discussion, it is evident that morality cannot be used as an excuse to limit individual liberty. Mills offers a solution in balancing morality and individual liberty. He differentiated between true morality and false morality. True morality refers to acts that harm others like physical assault and deception. Mills states that governments can only pass laws that prohibit acts that harm other because they are immoral. On the other hand, false morality refers to acts that do not harm other when an individual engages in them, and they include things like polygamy, drunkenness and homosexuality. Government should not create laws on these acts because they limit individual liberty, which is protected in the constitutions of most democracies. Hence, the decision by the court that Reynolds was guilty of bigamy interfered with his right to exercise freedom of religion as protected in the first amendment.



Adams, D. M. (2005). Philosophical Problems in the Law. henceforth PPL: Wadsworth.

Bill of Rights Institute . (2008). Reynolds v. United States (1878). Retrieved February 27, 2014, from