John Stuart Mill: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), British philosopher, economist, great liberal (or libertarian), moral and political theorist, and administrator, was the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century. His views are of continuing significance, and are generally recognized to be among the deepest and certainly the most effective defenses of empiricism and of a liberal political view of society and culture.
The overall aim of his philosophy is to develop a positive view of the universe and the place of humans in it, one which contributes to the progress of human knowledge, individual freedom and human well-being. His views are not entirely original, having their roots in the British empiricism of John Locke, George Berkeley and David Hume, and in the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. But he gave them a new depth, and his formulations were sufficiently articulate to gain for them a continuing influence among a broad public.
Mill’s most famous work in social and political philosophy, and still one of the most influential works on human rights and freedom, is his book-length essay entitled On Liberty, which we will now summarize, using Mill’s own section headings. Introduction of the essay: The main point of this essay is to argue that the only justification for society limiting the liberty of an individual, whether by the government or the force of public opinion, is to prevent harm to others. If the purpose instead is his own good, or some other goal, then only persuasion and non-coercive means can be justified.
Mill believed that an individual had two aspects to his life 1) The individual had two aspects which concerned him alone 2) The social because every individual was also an integral part of society. The actions of the individual may similarly be divided into two categories 1)self-regarding and2)other regarding with regard to actions in which he alone is concerned, his liberty of action is complete and should not be regulated by the state and society, his actions can justifiably be regulated by the state or society..
The essay also reflects Mill’s passionate belief that individuality is something that should be protected and nurtured. As such, the essay illustrates his disgust at how he believed society squelches nonconformity. On Liberty is just one example of the social and political writings of Mill other works of his include, Considerations on Representative Government Major Themes: The Struggle between Liberty and Authority Individuals have often felt as though their rights were being infringed upon by an overzealous government and have fought for the ability to have their government act they wish.
Individual liberties have been trampled on by various governments and this fear of authority has resulted in democracies, where the majority of the people get to decide what actions are best for the state. Tyranny of the Majority With democracies, it is supposed that the will of the people is the impetus for the government’s actions and that people are participating in a type of self-governing state. However, says Mill, this is not true, democracies enable a tyranny of the majority where public opinion stomps out the voices of the minority groups and pays their needs and opinions no mind.
Mill thinks that this tyranny is the gravest sort, and seeks to find the maximum amount that society can impose itself on an individual while still maintaining personal liberty. Self-Regarding Actions and Autonomy A person whose actions only affect himself is not eligible to be coerced or punished for his deeds. According to Mill, it is not society’s duty or even its right to protect a person from him or her. The only punishment that can result from a self-regarding action is the weight of individual public opinion and the consequence of the actual action itself.
The Veracity of Public Opinion There is no guarantee, and even a strong possibility that what the majority deems to be best indeed is not. The majority’s opinion is tainted with motives and biases that shouldn’t come into play when deciding what is best for society as a whole. An analysis of past events, wars, and discriminations can show us that sometimes the majority’s opinion is not rooted in good faith. Allowing the minority’s opinion to be involved in debates and decisions can only be a good thing, no matter what the opinion is. Religion and Liberty
Supporters of religion tend to view those who are less religious as less credible in their ideas for society. Mill refutes this theory and says that religious affiliation should play no role in the ability of a person to make an informed opinion about what is best for all society the truth of matters. Mill points to nonreligious men with impeccable morals as proof that religious affiliation does not indicate trustworthiness. Coercion Mill is against societal or individual coercion in all cases, except when a person’s actions are harming others.
He thinks it a clear abuse of liberty when coercion is used to persuade a person to stop an action that only affects himself. When a person is injuring other members of society, however, Mill thinks it fine that he be coerced to stop his actions and punished in a court of law if applicable. Mill also believes that the public has the duty to warn each other about a dangerous person and coerce one another to stay avoid him/her. Society’s Obligation Society has an obligation to throw its influence towards those who are unable to process information and exercise their own liberty in a rational way.
Examples of these individuals are children and undeveloped minds. Society has an obligation to children to try their best to make them rational, reasonable adults who want to follow their passions and be dynamic personalities. Part of this obligation, one that is shared by parents, is providing a strong education Mill suggests that there be universal educational standards for all children so none fall behind. Danger in the Government: Mill is very fearful of the power of the government and all his theories are molded not to give the government any more power of persuasion or procedure.
Mill thinks that governments should not be allowed to make the final decisions regarding its constituency, that rather local officials should be appointed and with the central government advice, but most importantly with the input of all citizens, make the decisions. The Liberty of Thought and Discussion: If people are oppressed for holding or expressing an unpopular opinion, there are three possibilities. In all three cases, the coercion is unjustified. One, the suppressed opinion might be true. That’s the most obvious case where suppressing it is unjustified. Two, the suppressed opinion might be false.
Even here, though, there are advantages to letting it be aired as long and as fully as anyone wishes to air it. Even when the prevailing opinion it counters is true, it should never fear the challenge of a devil’s advocate. Such a challenge can only be healthy for it. Three, most likely of all, the suppressed opinion is neither wholly true nor wholly false. Only by airing all sides–both the prevailing opinion and any views challenging it Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being To hold an opinion never constitutes a harm to others, and so should never be suppressed.
To express an opinion almost never constitutes a harm to others, and so should only be suppressed in rare, extreme circumstances. Behavior is clearly different and can often constitute harm to others, thus it is not entitled to the same near-absolute liberty. However, even with behavior there should be a strong presumption in favor of liberty. Any alleged harm to others has to be clear and provable. When there’s doubt, the behavior should not be suppressed. Many of the reasons for this parallel the reasons for freedom of expression.
Just as expression might be true, false, or partly true and partly false, so might one’s actions be right, wrong, or partly right and partly wrong. When they’re right they should be allowed, and when they’re wrong or partly right and partly wrong, it’s often best to allow them to stand as a challenge to the prevailing approved behavior, so people can best judge all the possible behaviors. There will be no positive change for society as a whole if people are not allowed to experiment with behavior that is contrary to custom and the opinion of the majority.
Every progressive, positive change in history that has added to human happiness was at one time contrary to custom. To develop one’s individuality, one’s capacity for autonomously choosing one’s own path in life, fosters happiness in and of itself, aside from the consequences of the specific behavior chosen thereby. Even if superficially it is the case that other choices coercively imposed would have been better, this benefit of being an autonomous person is lost. Unfortunately, in the modern era people seem all too blind to the value of liberty and individuality.
Little is shunned or looked down upon more than eccentricity or acting contrary to custom. Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual Every member of a society is obligated to refrain from harming others, and to provide his share of the labor and sacrifices necessary to safeguard and maintain that society. Society has the right to compel people to fulfill such obligations. If the harm rises to the level of violating the rights of others, then the law may be used against such harmful behavior.
If the harm is of a lower level, then only the force of public opinion may be used against such harmful behavior. If the behavior is not harmful to others, then no coercion–governmental or otherwise–may be used against it, and people may only seek to influence it by persuasion. It can be argued that harm to self can then harm others and so should be included in what can be suppressed, but this harm to others is too indirect and speculative. Plus, the individual is generally in the best position to know what constitutes harm to self, and so is the one who should make the decisions.
Applications Not even all instances where behavior in some sense harms others should be suppressed. Sometimes people will be disadvantaged or have their liberty limited by the way other people exercise their liberty (e. g. , one person is prevented from getting a certain job because the employer hired someone else), but this is unavoidable and is normally not proper to categorize as a coercive infringement on liberty. Should people be free to obtain and possess weapons and such that are used to harm others?
Mostly yes, because the potential to harm is not to be treated as the equivalent of harm. In some cases, an acceptable middle ground should be sought, for instance allowing people to own such things, but keeping strict records of their name and address, what they purchased, their stated reason for purchasing it, etc. There can be rare cases of justified paternalism where a person is coerced to prevent harm to self. An example would be physically blocking a person from crossing a bridge until it can be explained to him that it is unsafe.
Because here you’re not really thwarting the person’s will, which is to get to the other side of the bridge, not to plunge to his death trying to cross it. There can be rare cases where a person’s track record justifies intervention before the actual harm to others. If a person has an established history of violence when drunk, it may be justified to forcibly prevent him from getting drunk. There can be instances of offense that are so severe as to rise to the level of harm, and thus justify disallowing certain behaviors in public, where it would not be justified to prohibit those behaviors behind closed doors.
Generally if it is wrong to use full coercion against a behavior, then it would be wrong to use partial coercion. For instance, if it would be wrong to make a certain thing illegal because it’s not directly harming others, it would also be wrong to tax it so heavily as to discourage it without banning it outright. Should a person be free to limit his own future self by entering into binding contracts? This will depend on the specifics. To not allow and enforce contracts would itself be a limitation on liberty, as would enforcing all contracts (e. . , slavery contracts).
The law should seek a middle ground that maximizes freedom by enforcing contracts, but only with numerous safeguards, limitations, and exclusions. One area where some people are allowed far too much freedom in ways that harm others is in the family. Men are wrongly regarded as having sole authority in their home to deal with their wives and children as they see fit. The law should step in, even coercively where necessary, to ensure that women have the same rights, the same liberties as men.
A question that is only indirectly related to the primary concerns of this essay is the proper size and role of government, beyond the matter of its placing direct limitations on the liberty of the individual. As a rule of thumb, smaller government is better, because individuals are in a better position to make decisions about their own lives and resources than is local government, and local government is in a better position than the national government.
Courtney from Study Moose
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