on January 11, 2005
This Oxford collection of four definitive essays by John Stuart Mill, arguably the most famous Victorian writer who could be called a philosopher, gives an excellent profile of a rigorous social reformer and political thinker. The subjects of these essays--liberty, utilitarianism, government, and women's rights--are interrelated to the extent that they reveal a man with a sharp sense of history and its impact on the methods and mores of contemporary society. Mill, after all, was of Charles Dickens's generation and therefore witnessed an era in which the British crown was inclined to manifest its power through tyranny in its efforts to maintain a costly worldwide empire.
Mill's basic concern is liberty, both social and civil. He identifies a difference between freedom and liberty--freedom is the state of being free, while liberty is the freedom that a government or governing body grants its people. Briefly a member of Parliament (the workings of which are described in great detail in "Representative Government") and heavily informed and influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," Mill recognized that the most important (and perhaps the only proper) function of a government is to protect the liberties of its citizens. However, people generally get the form of government they deserve; if laws they allow to go unchecked become the tools of despotic powers, they have only their own ignorance or indolence to blame.
An enumeration of Mill's finer points may suffice as a summary of his ideas:
1. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are essential rights of man. You don't have to accept as true what other people say, but let them say it because there's always the chance that they're right and you're wrong. Mill points out that even the Roman Catholic Church, most intolerant of religions (his words, not mine), allows a "devil's advocate" to offer repudiative evidence before it canonizes a new saint. He notes instances in which religious intolerance still rears its ugly head in the British Empire of his day.
2. Christianity does not have a monopoly on moral authority; literary history gives evidence of this.
3. Individuality should be fostered so that new ideas may flourish, but society, specifically the middle class, establishes the normative values that unfortunately tend to stifle individuality. You have an unlimited right to your opinion, but you are free to act only so far as you do not harm or molest others. Long before Orwell, Mill had the insight that institutional deprivation of liberty is effectively suppression of thought, for how can someone train himself to think independently when doing so could lead to persecution for heresy or treason?
4. State-sponsored education should restrict itself to teaching scientifically provable or reliably documented facts rather than push religious or political agenda. When or if polemical issues are raised, arguments for and against are to be presented as opinions so that students may draw their own conclusions.
5. The utilitarian principle states that actions that promote happiness (in its most obvious form, pleasure) are "right" and those that reduce happiness are "wrong"--in other words, utilitarianism is the opposite of puritanism. Consider how much better it is to be a dissatisfied human being than a satisfied pig, because the human has the potential for so much more happiness than the pig, whose breadth of experience is contained entirely between the trough and the slaughterhouse, could ever know.
6. Women deserve the same rights as men because the social and mental limitations attributed to women are for the most part a male-conceived artifice. Chivalry is a fallacy.
And so on. I'm not sure if it's correct to call Mill a libertarian in modern terms, but he was certainly concerned with the issues with which modern libertarians are concerned. Much of his discourse is relevant to today's world, even though he often draws upon the past for contrast in order to make his conclusions, the implication being that improvement comes with increased knowledge and experience. Anyone who is interested in nineteenth-century thought on democracy and individualism will find much to ponder in Mill's eloquence.
on March 15, 2003
The editor of this collection states that when read together, the four essays contained in this Oxford World's Classics edition reveal Mill to be an organized thinker on par with Marx. I'm not quite so sure of that, but I will say the collections feels thematically consistant and well thought out. Readers should not be scared off because Mill is considered a "classic" text. The tone of these essays, with the possible exception of "Utilitarianism" is pretty light, and Mill even occassionally makes an effort to crack a joke. In "On Liberty" and "Utilitarianism" we see an abstract breakdown of his belief structure where he tries to answer questions like, "When is it justified for government to interfere in individuals lives?" and "What is the overarching goal of society?" After he attempts to answer these questions he gets more specific by applying the principles to how government should operate in "Representative Government" and in "The Subjection of Women". Some concepts now outdated, but on the whole, still a relativly strong argument. It is particularly frustrating to see Mill talking about proportional representation in "Represenative Government" and knowing that the logic of that argument has still not made much headway here in the United States well over a hundred years later. Mill's systematic thinking makes this collection worth owning.
It is surprising to me how many people assume that 'On Liberty' was written before or during the American Revolution - Mill was certainly influenced by the spirit of American liberty, which was variously romanticised and adapted in Britain and Europe during the nineteenth century. Published in 1859, 'On Liberty' is one of the primary political texts of the nineteenth century; perhaps only the writings of Marx had a similar impact, and of the two, in today's world, Mill's philosophy seems (please note that I only said 'seems') the one that is triumphant.
One of the interesting ideas behind 'On Liberty' is that this may in fact be more the inspiration of Harriet Taylor (later Mrs. J.S. Mill) than of Mill himself; Taylor wrote an essay on Toleration, most likely in 1832, but it remained unpublished until after her death. F.A. Hayek (free-market economist and philosopher) noticed this connection. Whether this was the direct inspiration or not, the principles are similar, and the Mills were rather united in their views about liberty.
'On Liberty' is more of an extended essay than a book - it isn't very long. It relates as a political piece to his general Utilitarianism and political reform ideology. A laissez faire capitalist in political economy, his writing has been described as 'improved Adam Smith' and 'popularised Ricardo'. Perhaps it is in part the brevity of 'On Liberty' that gives it an enduring quality.
There are five primary sections to the text. The introduction sets the stage philosophically and historically. He equates the histories of classical civilisations (Greece and Rome) with his contemporary England, stating that the struggle between liberty and authority is ever present and a primary feature of society. He does not hold with unbridled or unfettered democracy, either (contrary to some popular readings of his text) - he warns that the tyranny of the majority can be just as dangerous and damaging toward a society as any individual or oligarchic despotism. Mill looks for a liberty that permits individualism; thus, while democracy is an important feature for Mill, there must be a system of checks and balances that ensures individual liberties over and against this kind of system. All of these elements receive further development in subsequent sections.
The second section of the text is 'Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion'. Freedom of speech and expression is an important aspect here. Mill presents a somewhat radical proposition that even should the government and the people be in complete agreement with regard to coercive action, it would still be an illegitimate power. This is an important consideration in today's world, as governments and people contemplate the curtailment of civil liberties in favour of increased security needs. The possibility of fallibility, according to Mill, makes the power illegitimate, and (again according to Mill) it doesn't matter if it affects many or only a few, people today or posterity. It is still wrong. Mill develops this argument largely by using the history of religious ideas and religious institutions, in addition to the political (since the two were so often inter-related).
The third section is perhaps the best known and most quoted, 'Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being'. It is perhaps a natural consequence of Enlightenment thinking that individuality over communal and corporate identity would dominate. Our world today goes back and forth between individual and communal identities (nationality, regionality, employment, church affiliation, school affiliation, sports teams, etc.). Mill's ideas of individual are very modern, quite at home with the ideas of modern political and civil individuality, with all of the responsibilities.
Mill states, 'No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions.' He recognises the increased limitations on individual liberty given that we do live in communal settings, but this does not hinder the idea of individuality and individual liberty, particularly as it pertains to thoughts and speech. Mill explores various ideas of personal identity and action (medieval, Calvinist, etc.) to come up with an idea of individuality that is rather modern; of course, this is political personhood that pre-dates the advent of psychology/psychoanalytic theory that will give rise to a lot more confusion for the role of identity and personhood in society.
The fourth primary section looks theoretically at the individual in community, 'Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual'; the final section looks at specific applications. Mill discounts the idea of social contract while maintain that there is a mutual responsibility between individuals and community. Mill looks at the Temperance movements and laws as an example of bad laws (not only from the aspect of curtailment of liberty, but also for impractical aspects of enforcement); in similar examples, Mill looks at the role of society in regulating the life of the individual, calling on good government to always err on the side of the individual.
Mill puts it very directly -- Individuals are accountable only to themselves, unless their actions concern the interests of society at large. Few in the Western world would argue with this today; however, we still live in a world where 'thought police' are feared, and 'political correctness' is debated as appropriate or not with regard to individual liberties.
Mill wrote extensively beyond this text, in areas of philosophy (logic, religion, ethics). The particular text here includes other essays of interest: 'Utilitarianism', 'Considerations on Representative Government', and 'The Subjection of Women', and also has a useful bibliography and index. The essay on Utilitarianism is one of the more contentious works of Mill; the later two contain ideas well ahead of their time, and many parts can be seen at work in modern democracies.
This should probably be required reading in civics classes, if not in the pre-university years for students, then certainly in the early university years.
on April 23, 2001
John Stuart Mill's chief concern is how individual liberty, which he held to be paramount, can be reconciled with public utility or, in other words, in delineating the tensions that arise between the public and private sphere in modern society. He expounds, with much clarity and insight, the feasability, as well as the desirability, of state intervention in the affairs of individuals. He defines freedom, above all, to be the freedom to think and act as one sees right (provided that this does not encroach on the rights of others). His essay "Utilitarianism", is an incisive explication of the philosophy of utilitarianism developed by Mill's father, James Mill and the jurist and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, which holds "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" as the chief aim of social organisation. "On Representative Government", which should not be mistaken for direct democracy (rule of the people by the people) he covers the mechanisms of state action. "On the Subjection of Women" reveals Mill to have been one of the pioneering feminists, as his arguments for the emancipation of women continue to be adduced by leading feminist philosophers today. Admittedly, one cannot agree with Mill on everything. This is because the "liberalism" of the nineteenth century, with its stress on work, discipline and duty, is almost totally opposed to the "open-minded" liberalism of today. Furthermore, Mill's theories are filled with flaws. Nevertheless, these essays are documents of profound importance and relevance and repay close study.
on November 24, 2009
The first and last paragraphs below describe the Oxford World's Classics edition; the rest refer generally to Mill's On Liberty, Utilitarianism, Considerations on Representative Government, and The Subjection of Women.
This collects four of John Stuart Mill's best-known and most influential essays. The main topics are different, but the essays are tightly connected - not only written close together but fitting to a greater or lesser extent the ambitious philosophical system outlined in Mill's A System of Logic. His life project was essentially to adapt the utilitarian moral/political philosophy inherited from Jeremy Bentham via his father James Mill to mid-Victorian social problems. This involved significant changes and substantial liberalizing, making Mill a classical liberalism exponent and strong forerunner of all subsequent liberal ideals and practices. Together and individually, the essays have had an immense impact on political, moral, philosophical, and economic thought. Reading them together is instructive and interesting. Most editions with the first three essays do not have The Subjection, giving this added value. The writings are also held together by Mill's consistently lucid, smooth, and articulate style. This is a pleasant surprise given his fearsomely learned reputation. He relies almost exclusively on words the average reader understands, and his prose is remarkably readable a century and a half later, lacking the overblown floweriness and excessive stiltedness that now make much Victorian writing, especially non-fiction, insufferably dull.
On Liberty is a profound and engaging philosophical and practical defense of personal liberty, epitomized by the famous Harm Principle that all are free to do as they wish provided it does not harm others. It is the state's job to ensure the former right is upheld and the latter transgression punished. Mill's argument is very strong - convincing not only as an inherent right but also as a practical advantage to individuals and society. This is probably now his most famous work, and it is very easy to see why; his argument is not only compelling philosophically but widely applicable and, at about 140 pages, easily read by nearly all. Everyone from pure philosophers to political theorists to practical politicians to general readers can find something to like and learn.
Utilitarianism is Mill's most direct attempt to refine his inherited doctrine. Even more concise than On Liberty, this also essentially picks up where it left off, delving into the practical problem of how to deal with conflicting liberties. Mill retains the core utilitarian tenet that what brings the most happiness for the most people should be acted on - a very appealing doctrine in itself and put forth more palatably and persuasively than by the prior generation. However, utilitarianism's many critics will find little to convince them; however ideally attractive, many practical problems arise when issues such as relative happiness and harm turn up, as well as the thorny problem of how to enforce utilitarianism and punish transgressions. Mill makes some headway, covering nearly all conceivable ground in general principles but leaving much practical application unaddressed. It may be the most spirited utilitarianism defense ever but unfortunately is not complete, however admirable in many ways.
Considerations takes up about half the collection and is more dated than the essentially timeless prior two works but still very interesting and even useful. It in many ways follows directly from Utilitarianism, as it is in essence a practical application of utilitarian principles to modern government, thus potentially at least partly satisfying some who were put off by the prior essay's gaps. A systematic and near-comprehensive look at representative government, especially the British Victorian variety, it is a nice overview of an extremely relevant subject and interesting both historically and practically. Anyone wanting to know how representative government then stood need look no further, as Mill is extraordinarily candid, especially for someone who was actually a Member of Parliament, on both its pros and cons. His enumeration of the former may sometimes strikes present-day readers as at least slightly wrong-headed - though surprisingly rarely, given the many changes since made. He is even more eloquent speaking of the latter and offers numerous cogent reforms. Many of the problems - e.g., lack of female suffrage - have of course since been corrected; reading about these is a reassuring sign that governmental progress has been made despite all. That said, it can come as a great disappointment that several of the problems, such as minority disenfranchisement, are still very much with us; perhaps incredibly, others, such as representatives' inadequate morality/intelligence level, have even worsened. Some of Mill's proposals - for instance, having a non-partisan expert committee draft bills rather than the legislature - are at least as appealing now. That a century and a half has passed without their enactment is frustrating and even appalling.
However historically valuable, the years have inevitably dated this essay somewhat, diluting its value. Aside from the obvious fact that some - though surprisingly little - of it is now moot, a few of Mill's Victorian assumptions, including Eurocentrism, as well as his general hostility to welfare, will certainly make current liberals shudder. That even one of the era's most outspoken and outstanding liberals could hold such views may disappoint but can also be seen as a sign of how far liberalism has come - or even as evidence of the historical march toward progress in which Mill so fervently believed. His European, and specifically British, focus may also lessen the value, but most of what he says is universally valuable.
The Subjection deals exclusively with a subject at least implied in the three prior essays and dealt with explicitly but briefly dealt in Considerations - female oppression. This classic essay is the culmination of an issue Mill had been passionately involved in since youth, when he was arrested for distributing literature about contraception. It is the most important, famous, and influential feminist text between Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, coming about halfway between them. That it was written by a man, one born to a substantial amount of privilege and who was around very few women until adulthood at that, is of course all the more incredible. Going well beyond Considerations' suffrage call, it pushes for nothing less than full equality, not even stopping at legal equality but valiantly trying to change thought and custom. Mill's suffrage arguments are numerous and near-irrefutable. He has the noble distinction of being the first MP to propose female suffrage - in the 1860s! He would surely be glad to know the substantial progress since made, however disappointed - if not surprised - he may have been to know it would take sixty years to be realized.
However, the vast majority of the essay deals with the rest of female oppression, a far more formidable barrier - one that, indeed, has sadly still not been fully crossed. The arguments are again very strong. Following a short historical overview of female oppression and a blunt survey of its then current forms, Mill proceeds to demolish its basis. In perhaps the most brilliant and admirable application of utilitarianism ever, he convincingly shows that female oppression is not only a great evil to women but also to men and all of society. He uses many examples and arguments to show that ending it is both a moral necessity and a prescription for many social ills. The many later advances have proven much of what he said, even if he was perhaps too optimistic in some respects. It is a sad comment on human progress that several of the ideals he passionately and articulately argued for, such as equality of intellect in marriage, are still uncommon and even scorned.
Though Subjection is admitted even by Mill's many detractors to be his argumentative tour de force, it has a few limitations. First, as John Gray's Introduction points out, one of his main arguments is that Victorian - nay, all historical - assumptions about inherent differences between men and women, as well as the latter's inferiority, are premature because women had never existed in a state of social equality with men. This is certainly true as far as it goes - indeed, irrefutable at the time. Though he argues forcefully for equality in any situation, he does not even address the substantial question of what, if anything, should or must be done if inherent differences are found. This defect was then nothing more than abstract and, in fact, very subservient to the cause of advancing female rights. However, the near-equality women now have in developed countries means we must look at the issue somewhat differently. The question of inherent differences, much less relative superiority, is still far from answered - may indeed be even less clear. Even so, many of the issues Mill left unaddressed because moot are now very real, even pressing. They may leave his central arguments untouched - one would in fact be very hard-pressed to find a better argument for female equality anywhere -, but the essay is certainly more incomplete now, though still substantially valuable. Finally, though Mill's liberalism on the question is almost unbelievable for a man of his time and place, some of his statements and suggestions, not least his claim that the arrangement of man as breadwinner/woman as domestic engineer - to use the (I believe) currently politically correct term - probably is best after all, will rankle current feminists. To be fair, he does not say it prescriptively - indeed refrains from ruling anything out for women in any respect -, but Victorianism's ugly specter sneaking in even here is bound to disturb some. This of course hardly negates the rest, and The Subjection is still - and surely always will be - essential for anyone even remotely interested in women's struggle.
Anyone curious about Mill or any of these issues needs to read these essays. As for this edition, it may not be the best. The inclusiveness is valuable, but it is very poorly edited. I have read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books, and this has by far the worst Introduction I have seen. Whether from political considerations, sheer perversity, or whatever else, it is really nothing more than a fairly thorough and very negative refutation of Mill's ideas. He is certainly not infallible, and critiques are welcomed, but the lopsidedness is bizarre. I suggest skipping it, but those who just cannot resist should read it as an Afterword; seeing it first makes it hard to read Mill with an open mind. Even those who agree with him and/or disagree with Gray will inevitably have a hard time reading without assumptions after the Introduction's outrageous bias, while those who agree with Gray have no reason to even read Mill. Thankfully, most will probably not get through Gray, as he makes his Introduction unnecessarily hard to read by using a plethora of technical terms only those intimate with philosophy will understand - the very thing Mill avoids. Gray also does not have nearly enough notes. Mill makes many historical and contemporary references, including numerous ones very briefly, that current readers cannot be expected to know. For example, he refers to "the most eminent woman" of the time making a call for female suffrage. His readers surely knew her, but those today hardly automatically will. Sadly, Gray rarely gives any help; at one point he does not even translate Greek! Conversely and equally frustratingly, he for some reason feels the need to annotate obvious references to the likes of Gulliver's Travels and Uncle Tom's Cabin. Finally, The Subjection has a shocking number of obvious typos - more than I have ever seen in a classic text from a major publisher. The Oxford World's Classics series is usually very good about such things and even usually has, if anything, too many endnotes, making Gray's dearth all the more perplexing. Those wanting a large representative dose of Mill would thus do very well to get this book, but Gray is so irksome that Oxford should not be surprised if readers opt for another edition - or wish they had.
on May 12, 2015
Not sure why it asked me all those stupid questions about plot, etc. Anyway, Mill shouldn't need an introduction, but if he does then suffice to say "On Liberty" and some of his other works should be required reading for everybody.
on April 13, 2010
This is a great collection of essays by Mill. The introduction is elucidating, albeit controversial (the editor acknowledges that the opinions stated in the introduction are paradoxical). Footnotes would have been preferable to endnotes.
on March 11, 2011
This is much more than a printing of "On Liberty", which comprises only one sixth of the volume. "Utilitarianism", "On Liberty" and "Representative Government" are often published together and it is very useful to read them in turn because the key principles introduced in "Utilitarianism" underpin the other two books. The addition of "The Subjection of Women" is a bonus.
Bentham had argued that "good" and "evil" were not useful concepts and what mattered was "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" determined by a "felicific calculus", wherein no one pleasure was to be thought superior to another except by duration, intensity, number of people affected etc. In "Utilitarianism" Mill disagrees with Bentham, arguing that quality is more important than quantity. "It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others." Who was to determine this? Those with "higher faculties" - which is the intellectual elitism Mill carries forward to the other books. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if some pleasures are superior to others, thought Mill, then it was proper to encourage all people to strive to achieve the ability to enjoy them. We thus have Mill's revised utilitarianism that is rooted in the progress of mankind.
Mill was a libertarian who chose not to base his defence of liberty on natural rights but on his revised utilitarianism that stresses human development:
"I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions...grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."
Mill argues that freedom is required to allow men to explore all the avenues of human development. Total freedom is impossible so what determines the legitimate boundaries of freedom? Mill distinguishes between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. The former should never be interfered with and the latter subject to limitation only if they harm the legitimate rights of others. For Mill free thought is self-regarding and should not be curtailed, and free thought is worthless without free speech. Mill then adds a utilitarian argument in favour of free speech: if an opinion, whether true or false, is silenced then mankind is necessarily the loser. He advances a number of arguments to support this, concluding with the claim that a climate of freedom is essential for "great thinkers" (intellectual elitism) and "it is as much, and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature they are capable of" (revised utilitarianism). Today there is much talk about whether people have the right not to be offended (e.g. the Danish cartoons). Mill thought otherwise and hence his opposition to the blasphemy law.
Mill concedes that actions cannot be as free as speech and proposes that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted...in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection." Because he rejects paternalism he rejects interference with self-regarding actions. Mill would not have prevented people from taking drugs and he would have led the opposition to seat belt legislation. A prostitute should be free to ply her trade and a man should be free to get drunk - unless he is a policeman or soldier on duty. Mill states that an individual's actions must not harm the legitimate "rights" of others, but he defines such "rights" very narrowly and makes it clear they are not synonymous with "interests". Hence unrestricted laissez-faire is permissible. Mill is very reluctant to concede limitations to freedom of action because he believes that any such limitation may be the thin end of the wedge to be used as an argument for some further restriction.
Though Mill is a very determined anti-paternalist he makes three exceptions: children, primitive societies and the disabled. Children must be guided until they reach maturity and they must be given compulsory education - something not given legislative force in England until 1871. As for primitive societies Mill was not a typical Victorian believing in the "inherent differences between races. He simply observed the reality of the world at the time but made it very clear any intervention in backward societies must be temporary with the aim to bring about self-government as soon as possible.
Though Mill was a libertarian there is just one example where, at first sight, Mill may seem reactionary to modern readers. He wished to restrict the right to have children to those who could prove that they could support them. However, those who today wish others to be allowed to procreate at will do so on the grounds of human rights. Mill based his theories on utilitarianism, and not on rights. There was no welfare state when Mill wrote "On Liberty" and he was concerned with the well-being of children born to people without the means to support them.
CONSIDERATIONS ON REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT
There are three related principal themes in "Representative Government":
1. The application of his revised utilitarianism to government.
2. How to reconcile the competing claims of efficient government and the popular voice.
3. How to combat the danger of the "tyranny of the majority".
Mill's version of utilitarianism led him to say that the first question to ask is whether a form of government develops the desirable moral and intellectual qualities of the citizens. Mill believed that "active" rather than "passive" people create human progress, and political institutions should foster active citizens, and this is best done by giving (almost) everyone, including women, the vote. He also favoured local government and citizen participation on juries.
Though Mill wanted citizens to have the vote he did not want them to play too important a role. He was opposed to direct democracy, and favoured representative government because it enabled him to reconcile bureaucratic expertise with the popular voice. As in "On Liberty" Mill insists on the importance of the intellectual elite. Elected representatives should act as a sort of check on government without trying to control it, and should not select members of the Cabinet. Civil servants must be recruited via competitive exams.
In discussing the electoral system Mill reveals his concern with the dangers of a "tyranny of the majority" and advocates the Hare system of STV, which most closely mirrors votes. Mill justified this on the grounds of representing minorities, but it is clear that the minority he was primarily concerned with was the educated elite, which Mill wished to further bolster via plural voting. Extra votes were to be allocated to people based on educational achievement, but Mill was writing before universal education in England so in the meantime bosses should have more votes than employees (because they had to think more in their duties) and foremen should have more votes than those under them. Today he would no doubt wish to give extra votes for passing exams at 16, 18, and at degree level. Were Mill to return now I suspect he would be relieved that his worst fears over a "tyranny of the majority" have not come to pass but would be concerned that politicians are too often more concerned with popular policies than good policies.
THE SUBJECTION OF WOMEN
This book too is imbued with Mill's version of utilitarianism. Mill denied that women were in any way inferior to men and declared that withholding the vote held back their development. Not only did women themselves lose out as individuals but so too did society.
This is one of Stuart Mills' best known works. It is difficult to follow, difficult to understand his style, but it is great when you begin to understand his logic, his main points. This book should be read slowly, some paragraphs should be read a few times. I tried reading just a few pages at a time, so as to not feel overwhelmed by this great philosopher.
on July 13, 2014
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill is an in-depth exploration of the relationship between the individual and authority. Authority in this book refers not only to that imposed by government but also all kinds of societal checks on individual freedom of behavior, speech, and thought, with particular attention to the kind of pressure inherent in most organized religion. Mills begins by stating:
“The Subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”
Published in 1859, On Liberty was extremely well received and has been in print ever since. Interestingly, Mills began writing the work in 1854 in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor. Originally intended as an essay, it kept expanding in scope until it became a full-fledged book published shortly after Harriet’s death. I enjoyed the clarity of thought Mills brings to topic which can be a muddy one with vast areas of gray. When is an individual’s action of concern only to him- or herself and when does it affect others enough for society to step in and regulate it? How much tolerance should society have for aberrant behavior, unpopular lifestyle choices, and the spouting of opinions deemed pernicious?
According to Mill, a healthy society tolerates a wide berth of eccentricity and welcomes diversity of opinion, primarily because it is only by being challenged that we can truly be strong in our beliefs about what is true. Society is justified in interfering with individual liberty only when the individual’s actions cause harm to others. The problems emerge mostly in how we define “harm.”
Mills seems quite reasonable to me and certainly not an extremist. I think he would have been a libertarian when it comes to restrictions on what substances people choose to imbibe and in favor of zero restrictions on expressions of faith in the public square and in the workplace as long as these expressions of faith are not physically harmful to anyone else. He is most definitive in his support freedom of speech and the press.
He is a bit less libertarian when it comes to public education. In fact, as you get toward the end of the book, it becomes apparent that the keys to his vision of a society that allows for maximum individual liberty are universal education and responsible procreation. If people just did not bring children into existence that they were not prepared to feed, shelter, and educate to take a responsible role in society everything would just fine. But to the extent that this happy state of affairs is not exactly fully realized, the state is justified, for the well-being of society, in educating those children whose parents do not or cannot fulfill their most sacred duty. According to Mills, all education sponsored by the state should stick to the basics such a language usage and scientific facts and there must be no requirement that students subscribe to any particular creed or political opinion in order to obtain a certificate of completion.
So there are some “if only's” and a bit of Utopian thought here, but all in all this is a great read for anyone who wants to explore the complex many-sided issue of the individual liberty versus interests of society. If this was a complicated issue in 1859 it is more so now as our civilization has become exponentially more interconnected. Since we live in a world where individual liberty is diminishing as the interests of society become increasingly dominant, this great book of social philosophy is a great way to understand how we got where we are and to help us decide if we think it is worth resisting the general trend.