Monday, December 28, 2009

John Stuart Mill - On Liberty

Modern European Intellectual History - 8

In this essay Mill is focusing on civil or social liberty (not the issue of free will). He is concerned with the limits of the power that can be exercised by society and government over the individual. Before the spread of representational governments, the struggle between liberty and authority was primarily a struggle between subjects and governments, and people sought ways to limit the power of authoritarian rule. With the rise of representational governments and the notion of a government by the people and for the people a new threat arises, however, that of democratic tyranny or a tyranny of the masses. The problem arises because the power of the people often really means the power of the most numerous people, or because the people who are exercising the power are not the same people as those over whom the power is being exercised. Self-government is not government of each by themselves, but the government of each by all the rest.

Mill believed that the only reason for society to interfere with the liberty of an individual was for self-protection or to prevent harm to others. Protecting an individual from their own actions was not grounds for interference. The only part of an individual’s behavior that society should be concerned with is that which concerns others. Any action of an individual that concerns only themselves, or like-minded adults, is not the concern of society at large. Mill had noted the tendency of society to try to enforce its customs on all members through either social pressure or laws. This pressure to conform stigmatizes individuality and leads to mediocrity because individuality is connected, in Mill’s mind, with self-development. The only way for humanity to grow and develop is for its members to be free to grow and develop. By enforcing conformity society hindered the further development of its members and ultimately of itself.

But being free to think our own thoughts is not enough, we must also be free to express them. We are never justified in silencing the opinion of others. Mill gives several grounds for the necessity of this freedom of expression: 1) the opinion being expressed may be true, to silence it assumes our own infallibility; 2) even if the opinion may be in error, it may still contain some truth and it is only through free discussion that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied and 3) if the opinion is true, it must still be vigorously discussed and contested lest it become a prejudice that is not held on any rational grounds.

Being free to form and express opinions is an essential part of individuality and the development of the intellectual and moral character of man, but we must also be free to act on those opinions. We must be able to carry out our lives, without hindrance by society, so long as in doing so we do it at our own risk and peril. So long as we do not molest others, we should not be molested or interfered with. Some would claim that without societal pressure, mankind would behave in an immoral fashion, but Mill believed that the moral development of man is an important component of the intellectual development and was an advocate of personal responsibility. An individual’s behavior should be a balance between personal freedom and moral responsibility.

Education is essential to the development of humanity, but it should not be left in the hands of the government. It may enforce universal education through examinations, but should not necessarily provide it. Instead it should facilitate by helping to defray costs. The only time it is justified in establishing and controlling education is if the society is in such a backward state that there is no other way for the members of that society to be educated. Governments should concern themselves with those tasks that they can perform better than individuals rather than interfering in the lives of its peoples. It should aid and stimulate individual development, because the worth of a state is the worth of the individuals comprising it.

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