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Freedom: John Stuart Mill Essay

1. John Stuart Mill: Freedom

Freedom is generally defined, by a dictionary, as the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think, etc. whatever you want to, without being controlled or limited (Cambridge). This means there is no interference or influence in ones’ actions or opinions by anyone else. There is no domination or dictatorial government who affects these actions or opinions. John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher and economist, gives a similar view on freedom as the Cambridge dictionary, and looks at the ‘nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual’ (Mill, 6). Mill’s view of freedom, as he writes in his book On Liberty, is that “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” (Mill, 13). By this he means that an individual is free when they make independent choices, have independent opinions and have independent actions.

When a person thinks and acts without the influence of outside opinion, a person exercises his or her own freedom. Mill divides human liberty into three regions. The first is the ‘domain of the conscience’ and ‘liberty of thought and feeling,’ (Mill, 15). The second is the ‘liberty of tastes and pursuits,’ and ‘framing the plan of your life’ (Mill, 16). The third region is ‘the freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others’ (Mill, 16). He states that if a society has a respect for these three regions of human liberty, then a society is free (Mill, 16). ‘The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it’ (Mill, 16).

However, he states that if an individual exercises their freedom in a way that threatens harm to another, there should be interference to prevent harm from being done. He asserts that the only time anyone can interfere with or exercise power over an individual’s liberty is when that individual is threatening harm to another and this interference is used for self-protection, (Mill, 13). If an individual is practicing their own freedom in their own way, without preventing others from doing so, then there should be no interference with the individual. For example, if an individual decides to drink an alcoholic beverage, such as a beer, at 10 in the morning, then there should be no interference with that. He knows alcohol is harmful, he is choosing to drink the beer and as long as his actions do not interfere with anyone else then he should not be interfered with.

However if his drinking makes him violent, and he decides to start a fight with someone else, there should be interference to prevent the intoxicated individual from causing harm to another individual. Mill’s states that the right of liberty does not apply to children, ‘those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others’ or ‘backward states of society’ (Mill, 14). Another struggle discussed by Mill in his book, is the struggle between society and the individual about which should have control over the individual’s actions. Mill observes that the world seems to be in a place where in a society, laws and public opinion have more power over an individuals’ actions and thoughts, than the individual has over himself.

However society seems to prefer conformity and even demand it. Mill argues that due to conformity, an individual is unable to make meaningful choices, which keeps him from personal development. He believes that freedom, along with individuality, is essential to both individual as well as social progress (Mill, 66). Conformity keeps people from learning from each other and they are unable to approach their life in an appealing way. In his opinion, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race,” (Mills, 19.)

When contrasting Mill’s view on freedom with the Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinozas’ view, there is a clear difference. Spinoza defined freedom as self-caused, which implied that only God can be free (Kisner, 8). He did not believe that humans could be free because we are not free from being determined by outside agents (McKinnon, 109). He also believed that finite things, such as a humans’ brain, could not make a choice that was not caused by external factors. In Spinoza’s IIp48 he asserted that “In the Mind there is no absolute, or free, will, but the Mind is determined to will this or that by a cause that is also determined by another, and this again by another, and so to infinity.”

He did not believe in free will, because he strongly believed that something cannot be caused by nothing, therefore God is the only entity that is free, as he is not limited by outside agents (Kisner, 12). For example, an individual taking a sip of water could argue that they did so because they chose to do so. However external factors are involved as the choice to drink water could be because they wanted to prove that they have free will, which would be because they believed in free will. The individual could also have chosen to drink water because of thirst, which was caused by the individual’s body losing water, which could be a cause of playing sports in the hot sun, due to being part of a school sports team, and so on until infinity.

Friedrich August Hayek, an Austro-Hungarian economist and philosopher, has an interesting similar yet opposing view from Mill’s. His view of freedom is when an individual is not a part of ‘coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others’ (Lukes, 160) but also that it is ‘not the absolute liberty to do as one pleases, rather it is a recognition of the necessity of law and morality in order to ensure that human interaction is cooperative and orderly,’ (Horwitz). For Hayek freedom depends on whether an individual can make his own individual decisions on what course of action to take, or whether somebody else uses power to manipulate this person’s choice of action, to make the individual act as they want them to (Lukes, 160).

Hayek states that a society with law should try and maintain negative freedom, the freedom to not do anything prohibited and to avoid positive freedom, giving people the power to do things, which allows people to be absent from coercion, as there is no inequality in power under the law (Roberts). Hayek and Mill share the belief that freedom involves no coercion. An individual should not be manipulated or forced to do something that the individual did not decide himself. However Hayek and Mill disagree on the view of conformity. While Hayek states that law and morality are important for a society, Mill disagrees and says that it keeps individuals from progressing, and that it hurts a society as a whole.

In conclusion, there are many philosophers who have contrasting as well as similar views on freedom as John Stuart Mill. Mill believes that a person is responsible for his or herself, the way the act, what their opinion is, and should not be interfered with unless the individual poses a threat to someone else.

Bibliography MLA

Cambridge University. “Definition of Freedom Noun from Cambridge Dictionary Online: Free English Dictionary and Thesaurus.” Cambridge Dictionary Online: Free English Dictionary and Thesaurus – Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University, 2010. 11 Sept. 2011. <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/freedom?q=freedom>. Horwitz, Steven. “Hayek and Freedom.” The Freeman. May 2006. 13 Sept. 2011. <http://www.thefreemanonline.org/>.

Kisner, Matthew J. Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy and the Good Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2011.
Lukes, Steven. Power: a Radical View. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. McKinnon, Catriona. Issues in Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty: 1859. 4th ed. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869. < http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/mill/liberty.pdf> Roberts, Andrew. “Friedrich Hayek and Freedom.” Study More. Middlesex Universty, 2007. 13 Sept. 2011. <http://studymore.org.uk/>.


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