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On Liberty (Broadview Editions) Paperback – March 8, 1999
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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“A wonderful edition. The introduction is splendid, and having comments, critiques and reviews as appendices is excellent. One can only hope that this edition becomes standard in colleges and universities.” ― Irving Louis Horowitz, Rutgers University
“The introduction offers fresh insights [and] the background readings provide much illumination into aspects of Mill’s thought that may not be apparent to the modern reader.” ― Thomas Christiano, University of Arizona
“With an impressively compact and engaging introduction and a well-chosen selection of ancillary materials, Edward Alexander’s edition of On Liberty is an excellent choice for undergraduate courses, and will please nineteenth-century specialists as well.” ― Eileen Gillooly, Columbia University
“Edward Alexander’s work is not just another edition of Mill’s On Liberty. In addition to a solid introduction and the text itself, the reader encounters a wealth of material essential to placing the work in its historical and philosophical context: de Tocqueville on majoritarian rule; some of Mill’s early letters discussing themes developed at greater length in On Liberty; his own comments about his work; and comments by contemporaries of Mill, both informal remarks and sustained discussions. Alexander should be commended for making this invaluable material accessible to scholars and students of Mill, of liberalism, of political philosophy, and of the history of ideas.” ― Maria H. Moralies, Florida State University
From the Back Cover
Mill predicted that “[t]he Liberty is likely to survive longer than anything else that I have written … because the conjunction of [Harriet Taylor’s] mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth, which the changes progressively taking place in modern society tend to bring out in ever greater relief.” Indeed, On Liberty is one of the most influential books ever written, and remains a foundational document for the understanding of vital political, philosophical and social issues. In addition to its many useful appendices, this new edition includes a chronology, bibliography, and a substantial introduction which outlines Mill’s life and works, and sets this central work of 1859 in the context of both his own intellectual development and of the play of ideas and political forces in Victorian society.
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The middle 1/3 of the book is a little slower than the beginning & end (both of which I consider a gold mine of political wisdom).
Milll's basic point is simple: people should be left free to think and do as they please unless what they are doing causes actual harm to others. Mill's essay is spent both giving reasons for this principle, and exlporing what the principle means in practice.
He offers a plurality of reasons for his libertarian ideas, some utilitarian in nature and some based on (what some might call) natural law. Not only does freedom of action and thought encourage innnovation, keep public discussion vigorous, and lead to a more effective social network than government incursion, but people just-plain prefer directing their own lives to being directed from outside.
Mill gets into sticky territory, however, when he talks about the libertarian principle in concrete terms, as his distinction between what is private and what is public is often less clear than he might want. Should persons be free to tell others to do harm to themselves? Yes. Should parents be free not to educate their children? No. Should "vice-merchants" like bars, gambling parlors, and pornographers be free to conduct business without heavy government regulation? No. Should people be free to marry a plurality of spouses? If mormon, yes. If British, no.
My biggest criticism - and a criticism offered in Richard Posner and Jeane Bethke Elshtain's essays - is that Mill is all over the map when his principle is "put to the real world" because the distinction between public and private is just-plain fuzzy. Another interesting criticism, brought up in Elshtain's essay, is that Mill demonstrates a very unjustified bias in favor of experiment over tradition (where the former seems always presumed inferior to the latter).
In short, I like Mill's essay but see it as an edifice built on not-quite-solid sand. Mill relies on seperate categories, public and private, that are just not clear and distinct enough to be distinct. (While Dewey may have gone too far in the "all acts are social" direction, I think Dewey hit closer to the truth.) This is why the six supplementary essays in this edition are a nice touch.