Chapter Six: Enforcing Shared Values -- Religious Toleration and Moral Toleration

Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

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Chapter 6, part 5, of the author's Mill on Liberty, which Clarendon Press published in 1980. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author and of the Clarendon Press, which retains copyright.

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decorative initial 'D' evlin also attempts to rebut Mill's case for the extension of toleration from the religious sphere to other areas of conduct. He distinguishes between religious toleration and the toleration of those who violate the shared morality of society by claiming that religious toleration is practicable because each person regards the religion of others as a lesser good rather than as evil (p. 121). But this fails to capture the depth of some religious differences. In any case, religious toleration also includes the toleration of atheists and agnostics, and the disagreements between some believers and militant atheists are much more profound that Devlin's account suggests. Devlin's argument carries the dangerous implication that religious toleration is not feasible or acceptable if we regard others' religion as evil.

To drive the wedge between religious toleration and what he calls "moral toleration", Devlin also argues that we allow the law to punish the corruption of youth and public acts of indecency, whereas the religious conversion of a youth is allowed, and we do not try to suppress public religious ceremonies on the ground that they are offensive (p. 120). But Devlin misunderstands the rationale of prohibitions on offensive nuisances. Public acts of indecency are only one type of offensive nuisances, and acts which do not violate the shared morality of society can also be regarded as offensive nuisances. We try to regulate the time and place for the performance of certain acts. Even religious ceremonies can become offensive nuisances if they are conducted at inappropriate times and Places. A noisy religious ceremony at a time when most people are asleep may be stopped, independently of whether we think the religion is true or false, good or bad. [107/108]

It is odd that Devlin should respond to Mill's case for the extension of toleration by bringing in the offence of corrupting youth. The treatment of children falls outside the area of toleration demanded by Mill's liberty principle. Mill argues that we are not entitled to interfere with the conduct of normal adults simply because we disapprove of it. But the treatment of children falls under the legitimate scope of intervention. So both in the area of religion and sex, the law may properly interfere with the conduct of adults towards children. But whether it should actually interfere in each case depends on balancing a number of considerations, with the interest of the children being the most important factor. It does seem to be the case that greater latitude is given to parents in the religious instruction of their children than in their sexual instruction. But this is not because we think that parents should have absolute freedom over their children in religious matters. The decision of a Christian Scientist not to allow a blood transfusion to be given to his dying child may be overridden, even though a similar decision in the case of the adult himself should be respected. But religion often plays such a pervasive role in the lives of religious people that to refuse parents the right to convert their own children is to exclude children from participation in many activities. This removes one source of a happy family life organized round common activities and interests. But it may be that parents have been given too much liberty in religious matters. If it were practicable, it would be desirable to prevent parents from indoctrinating their children (cf. Mackie, p. 182).


Devlin, Patrick. The Enforcement of Morals. London, 1965.

Mackie, J. L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin, 1977.

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Last modified 20 April 2001