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On Liberty [Format Kindle]

John Stuart Mill
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Chapter One

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. A question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is likely soon to make itself recognized as the vital question of the future. It is so far from being new, that, in a certain sense, it has divided mankind, almost from the remotest ages; but in the stage of progress into which the more civilized portions of the species have now entered, it presents itself under new conditions, and requires a different and more fundamental treatment.

The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the Government. By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of the political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in some of the popular governments of Greece) as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled. They consisted of a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest, who, at all events, did not hold it at the pleasure of the governed, and whose supremacy men did not venture, perhaps did not desire, to contest, whatever precautions might be taken against its oppressive exercise. Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power. To the first of these modes of limitation, the ruling power, in most European countries, was compelled, more or less, to submit. It was not so with the second; and, to attain this, or when already in some degree possessed, to attain it more completely, became everywhere the principal object of the lovers of liberty. And so long as mankind were content to combat one enemy by another, and to be ruled by a master, on condition of being guaranteed more or less efficaciously against his tyranny, they did not carry their aspirations beyond this point.

A time, however, came, in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage. By degrees this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made. Their power was but the nation's own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise. This mode of thought, or rather perhaps of feeling, was common among the last generation of European liberalism, in the Continental section of which it still apparently predominates. Those who admit any limit to what a government may do, except in the case of such governments as they think ought not to exist, stand out as brilliant exceptions among the political thinkers of the Continent. A similar tone of sentiment might by this time have been prevalent in our own country, if the circumstances which for a time encouraged it, had continued unaltered.

But, in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past. Neither was that notion necessarily disturbed by such temporary aberrations as those of the French Revolution, the worst of which were the work of a usurping few, and which, in any case, belonged, not to the permanent working of popular institutions, but to a sudden and convulsive outbreak against monarchical and aristocratic despotism. In time, however, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth's surface, and made itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations; and elective and responsible government became subject to the observations and criticisms which wait upon a great existing fact. It was now perceived that such phrases as 'self-government', and 'the power of the people over themselves', do not express the true state of the case. The 'people' who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the 'self-government' spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations 'the tyranny of the majority' is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant-society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it-its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

But though this proposition is not likely to be contested in general terms, the practical question, where to place the limit-how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control-is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done. All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says, a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first. The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary. The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person's mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgement is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person's preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people's liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that. Men's opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blameable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason-at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their antisocial ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves-their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority. The morality between Spartans and Helots, between planters and negroes, between princes and subjects, between nobles and roturiers, between men and women, has been for the most part the creation of these class interests and feelings: and the sentiments thus generated, react in turn upon the moral feelings of the members of the ascendant class, in their relations among themselves. Where, on the other hand, a class, formerly ascendant, has lost its ascendancy, or where its ascendancy is unpopular, the prevailing moral sentiments frequently bear the impress of an impatient dislike of superiority. Another grand determining principle of the rules of conduct, both in act and forbearance, which have been enforced by law or opinion, has been the servility of mankind towards the supposed preferences or aversions of their temporal masters, or of their gods. This servility, though essentially selfish, is not hypocrisy; it gives rise to perfectly genuine sentiments of abhorrence; it made men burn magicians and heretics. Among so many baser influences, the general and obvious interests of society have of course had a share, and a large one, in the direction of the moral sentiments: less, however, as a matter of reason, and on their own account, than as a consequence of the sympathies and antipathies which grew out of them: and sympathies and antipathies which had little or nothing to do with the interests of society, have made themselves felt in the establishment of moralities with quite as great force.
The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. And in general, those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling, have left this condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavouring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defence of freedom, with heretics generally. The only case in which the higher ground has been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an individual here and there, is that of religious belief: a case instructive in many ways, and not least so as forming a most striking instance of the fallibility of what is called the moral sense: for the odium theologicum, in a sincere bigot, is one of the most unequivocal cases of moral feeling. Those who first broke the yoke of what called itself the Universal Church, were in general as little willing to permit difference of religious opinion as that church itself. But when the heat of the conflict was over, without giving a complete victory to any party, and each church or sect was reduced to limit its hopes to retaining possession of the ground it already occupied; minorities, seeing that they had no chance of becoming majorities, were under the necessity of pleading to those whom they could not convert, for permission to differ. It is accordingly on this battle-field, almost solely, that the rights of the individual against society have been asserted on broad grounds of principle, and the claim of society to exercise authority over dissentients, openly controverted. The great writers to whom the world owes what religious liberty it possesses, have mostly asserted freedom of conscience as an indefeasible right, and denied absolutely that a human being is accountable to others for his religious belief. Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale. In the minds of almost all religious persons, even in the most tolerant countries, the duty of toleration is admitted with tacit reserves. One person will bear with dissent in matters of church government, but not of dogma; another can tolerate everybody, short of a Papist or a Unitarian; another, every one who believes in revealed religion; a few extend their charity a little further, but stop at the belief in a God and in a future state. Wherever the sentiment of the majority is still genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed.

Présentation de l'éditeur

On Liberty is an impassioned application of author John Stuart Mill’s philosophical theory of utilitarianism, which argues that the highest state of being is that which is most useful in maximizing happiness and diminishing suffering. In On Liberty, Mill famously stresses the importance of individuality and the need to limit the power of governments over their people.

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3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Liberty for all 21 février 2006
Par FrKurt Messick TOP 1000 COMMENTATEURS
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 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 (104 pages of the text in the Norton Critical Edition, edited by David Spitz). 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.
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1.0 étoiles sur 5 Déconseille fortement cet achat - do not buy ! 26 juillet 2013
Par pierre
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Très déçu de cet achat.

Le livre n'est pas fait par un éditeur mais c'est amazon qui le fait imprimer (et ils ne le précisent pas sur internet) ! Et le résultat est très mauvais : police trop petite, pas de justification du texte.

Par exemple, les notes de bas de page ont été imprimées sans leur numéro à la fin des chapitres !

L'ensemble ressemble à un magasine de très faible qualité et est quasi illisible.

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Amazon.com: 4.4 étoiles sur 5  97 commentaires
84 internautes sur 86 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 More relevant today than in 1859 :( 7 juillet 2004
Par B. Alcat - Publié sur Amazon.com
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was interested in the nature of Civil Liberty, and the limits to the power that a Government can legitimately exercise upon its citizens. He believed that some worrying tendencies could be observed in the England society of his time, and tried to warn others about them.
The author basically explains his ideas regarding the preservation of individual liberties, not only due to the fact that they are rights owed to everyone, but also because they benefit society as a whole.
For example, when he says that liberty of thought and of discussion must be preserved, he tells us that "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but fact and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it". How can mistaken beliefs or actions be proven wrong, if dissent is forbidden?. The loss for society is clear: "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error".
In order to preserve the liberties included in the concept of Civil Liberty, the author points out that there must be limits to the action of the Government. He says that "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others". Any other reason is simply not good enough. Thus, Stuart Mill highlights the rights of the individual, but also the limit to those rights: the well-being of others.
"On Liberty" is not too long, and I think you are highly likely to enjoy it, if you can get past the first few pages. The problem is that even though the ideas in this book are quite modern, the language is somehow dated. But then, we must remember that "On Liberty" was written a long time ago...
Notwithstanding that, do your best to read the first pages, and you will realize that after a while it will be much easier. This book is well-worth the effort you need to make at the beginning, because it is even more relevant today than when it was first published, in 1859.
Are individual rights important?. Why?. Do they have a limit?. You will found the answer for these questions, and much more, in "On Liberty". What else can I say?. I believe this is a book that will help you to reflect on many important issues... I certainly can't think of a better reason to read it. All in all, recommended :)
Belen Alcat
18 internautes sur 19 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 On Liberty: More Relevant Than Ever 18 février 2006
Par Len Hart - Publié sur Amazon.com
In his classic essay "On Liberty", John Stuart Mill deals with the issue of "civil liberties" -not the metaphysical issue of "free will". While most attacks on civil liberties have historically occurred from the right within the context of a tyrannical or an aristocratic rule, Mill deals with threats against liberty from within the institutions of democracy itself. The issue is especially relevant at a time when widespread domestic wiretapping and surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The aim of early libertarians was to limit the power of the ruler over those governed; Mill, however, identifies a need to limit the power of elected governments and officials as well. Mill is not merely addressing the issue of "who should rule?", he seeks to establish limits on the power that government may exercise over minorities and individuals. His work is more relevant now than ever.

While "government of the people" is an ideal to be aspired to, Mill argues that such an ideal is often not the case in fact. He argues that those exerting the power of the government -elected officials, bureaucrats, the judiciary -often develop their own interests. They are sometimes influenced by those constituencies in ways that are at odds with the interests and liberties of individuals or other groups.

Mill makes no distinction between a tyranny of one and a tyranny of many. A tyrannical majority running roughshod over the rights of individuals and minorities is no less a tyrant because it is a majority, because it is elected, or because it is elected by a majority.

While society may not tolerate criminal behavior, for example, society may not legitimately interfere with or suppress all non-conforming behaviors indiscriminately or because a majority may not approve. What then are the powers that society may legitimately exercise over the individual? Mill answers:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

-J.S. Mill, On Liberty

James Madison -called the "Father of the Constitution" -may have anticipated Mill's ideas in his draft of the Bill of Rights -the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Implicit in the Bill of Rights is the recognition that the power of the state is a blunt instrument. Abused, it can oppress and repress individuals and minority groups alike. The Bill of Rights addresses this issue by guaranteeing "due process of law", limiting state power over individuals and groups, guaranteeing that groups and individuals may speak freely, worship freely.

The Fourth Amendment specifically is a promise that our government made to us in its very founding:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

-Fourth Amendment, Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution

Let's make something abundantly clear: there are no "inherent powers", "Implicit" authorizations" that would, in any way, overturn, limit, or repeal the Fourth Amendment. Many politicians are not only wrong about that, they may have deliberately lied about it. Moreover, Congress may not overrule the Fourth Amendment with statutory law. Constitutional Law is supreme and provisions in the Bill of Right are valid until amended as set out in the Constitution itself. Widespread domestic surveillance is illegal whatever is done by Congress ex post facto -and until the Constitution is amended, it will remain illegal. At last, ex post facto laws, themselves, are expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

Mill is all the more remarkable for his insight into issues that remain contemporary. In every literate criticism of "special interest groups", PAC's, the gun lobby, the tobacco lobby, the Military/Industrial Complex, one sees the lasting influence of John Mill.

On Liberty is essential reading for anyone interested in law, the principles of government, political science, political philosophy, indeed, freedom itself. It is also essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the intellectual underpinnings of Anglo-American civil liberties.
21 internautes sur 25 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Libertarian and useful writings. 28 février 2005
Par Peter Reeve - Publié sur Amazon.com
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The terms 'liberal' and 'socialist' have undergone many changes in meaning over the past one and a half centuries. By the definitions of his own day, Mill was certainly the former and arguably the latter. By today's definitions, he would be neither. For his time, he was a remarkably progressive, even radical, thinker. He was, for example, an ardent advocate of women's rights. On the other hand, his paternalistic attitude toward developing societies is typical of his age.

The basic principles of both liberty and ethics that Mill propounds have been much criticized. It is easy to list exceptions, provisos and limitations to them, but they relate to extremely complex and intractable problems, and with such issues it is necessary to start with greatly simplified models, on which you can build. As first approximations, Mill's principles are actually quite good. That they are not the last words on the subjects should not distress us. Nothing ever will be. Only bigots arrive at final, absolute answers.

Mill's writing style oscillates between great (sometimes sublime) eloquence, and long, tortuous meanderings. He is often reluctant to finish a sentence and mortally afraid of relinquishing a paragraph. Some parts have to be carefully reread to make sense of all the subordinate clauses. But when he is good, he is very good. The section on free speech is classic.

For a contrasting contemporary view of social justice, the Communist Manifesto is useful. Like these two essays, it is relatively short and readable.

In Utilitarianism, Mill is building on the work of Jeremy Bentham, who in turn was part of a tradition that can be traced back to ancient Greece and the philosopher Epicurus. So if you are looking to achieve a more complete picture, you may want to read a little about those two thinkers first.

The Bantam edition conveniently comprises Mill's two most famous works and is compact and cheap, but the introduction by Alan Dershowitz is appallingly bad. It in no way illuminates the text and serves only as a vehicle for Dershowitz's own prejudices. So if you just want to read the texts, get the Bantam edition, but if you would like useful editorial contributions, look elsewhere.
10 internautes sur 11 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 An excellent treatise. 19 mars 2000
Par David C. Rodgers - Publié sur Amazon.com
This book deserves to be studied closely; I cannot praise too highly the man or his work. As Mill writes in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, his education under his philosopher father James was perhaps the most tortuous experience imaginable for a young child, leaving the adolescent John with the impression that he was something of a facsimile of his father. Nevertheless, after much difficulty in assimilating what he was taught and defining who he was, the adult Mill respectfully stepped out from under his father's shadow and went on to make staggering intellectual contributions of his own. In this book, ON LIBERTY, Mill tackles the problem of "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." With some reflection, it can be seen how important this question is, for its implications touch every part of our social and private lives. Unfortunately, few recognize its importance, and the question is more often decided by unthinking custom or self-interest than reason. With scrupulous rigor, and impeccable intellectual honesty, Mill asserts the absolute necessity of dissenting opinions, of diversity in all things, and the dangers of concentrated power, be it in the form of a dictator or a democratic majority. The problems treated in this short book are just as relevant today as they were in Mill's time. Perennial political issues such as education reform, gun control, abortion, freedom of speech, taxation, the role of government, etc., are addressed either directly or indirectly; the book abounds with other, more personal, lessons on life as well, not the least of which was later encapsulated by Wittgenstein as: "If you want to improve the world, improve yourself."
27 internautes sur 35 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 This Penguin Version is Excellent 21 juillet 2006
Par Sejanus - Publié sur Amazon.com
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America's defense department should take some of the billions spent on the stealth bomber or the B1 and spend it to make Arabic and Farsi translations of this book in the hundreds of thousands. We could pack the bomb bays of a squadron of stealth bombers with the translations and carpet the cities of Muslim countries with this treatise on freedom. This is The Book, folks. You cannot read this little book without it changing your life. It is an extended argument about freedom, about true morality, about freeing your mind, about untrammeling the possibility of peace and prosperity in the world. This is the book that lays out the path for treating other human beings with respect and opening the way toward progress in any and all societies. For the discussion of the "harm to others" principle alone, this book merits the world's attention and praise.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Mill's extended argument about liberty is his discussion of the "tyranny of the majority." His argument grows from the long history of religious persecution suffered throughout Europe that led to book bans, bigotry, and even torture and burning at the stake for people who did not conform to the majority superstition, namely the dominant form of Christianity wherever one lived. Mill lived in a time when even the staid and relatively moderate views of the English Church forced people to conform their lives or face public humiliation and financial ruin, and sometimes lynching. The resulting dynamic was that free thought was thus discouraged and progress thwarted. Mill's point is that in such a psychological milieu, people are not mentally free to seek a better way. They are rather trammeled to superstition and the concomitant tyranny of the majority, the majority being emotionally dependent and mentally ham-strung by religion and religious fears and prejudices.

America today is witnessing the truth of this dynamic through the virulent and underhanded tactics of the fundamentalist X-tian political right who seek to thwart medical research and impose a legislated theocracy in parts of the country. The effort to put dark-age arguments about "intelligent design" on a scientific par with evolutionary theory is a perfect and alarming example. Mill's argument in On Liberty was prescient in demonstrating what can happen when people allow religion to influence political life. The brand of literalist religion we see in America has been the bane of societies throughout history and respresents a true pragmatic evil on a scale far worse than any imagined "Satanic" sinfulness that Christians associate with popular and secular humanism. Fundamentalist religion, especially in the forms of Christian and Muslim extremism, is a societal cancer when viewed through the lense of reason and of Mill's enlightened utilitarianism. No society that allows religion to make in-roads to politics can flourish. Proof is in the failed Middle East, where no country can manage to pull its people out of poverty and squalor in spite of sitting on the world's richest oil reserves. Mill's argument in this small book speaks volumes about why Muslim countries are doomed to failure and why the Christian right in America (the blood cousins of Islamic radicals) represent the biggest and most un-American evil in our country's history. If America represents freedom, there can be no room for the "ten commandments" in the county court house.

Highly recommended as a must read for everyone.
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