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 J.S. Mill) than of Mill himself; Taylor wrote an essay on Toleration, most likely in 1832, but it remained unpublished until after her death.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. 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 I use here, the Norton Critical Edition, has a good annotated text of `On Liberty', a copy of Harriet Taylor's essay, `On Tolerance', and a criticism section, including five essays written against Mill's ideas and constructions, and four essays in favour. There is also a useful bibliography and index.
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.
le 25 juillet 2016
John Stuart Mill was born in 1806, and would die in Avignon, France at the age of 66. He was a philosopher, with a focus on political, social and economic theory. He loved another man’s wife, Harriet Taylor, and would eventually marry her. She was a true intellectual companion who was a major influence on his work, and was an inspiration for a feminist classic, [..] The Subjection of Women]], written almost a century before many of the subsequent classics of the mid-20th century, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s ]...] The Second Sex (Vintage Feminism Short Edition)]]. Mill cited his wife’s “unrivaled wisdom” as a guide to his works. Other than a few snippets of his writings that I read as part of my formal education, lo’ those many years ago, this is the first complete work of his that I have read, now, so conveniently available and beautifully priced, on Kindle. And part of the impetus for the timing of this read is that the party that has claimed Mill as their own – rightly or wrongly – looms at a viable alternative to the current electoral madness in America.
After his introduction, he divides his work into four chapters, covering the liberty of thought and discussion, of individuality as one of the elements of well-being, of the limits of the authority of society over the individual, and the applications of his principles. His is the well-reasoned discourse that is so lacking in the political sphere today (and perhaps then!)… yet still, he seemed to have a significant influence on the discourse, and even laws of that day. It is a dense work, and should not be skimmed.
Much of his advocacy for liberty and individualism was in opposition to the societal “tyranny of the majority” as well as despotic governments. As he repeatedly stressed, it is society itself that benefits by permitting other opinions than the “received wisdom.” He specifically knocked the decadence of China, and most of “the East,” which, at one time, had dynamic societies, but had now ossified. (And if he were alive today, would he posit the opposite, in terms of the countries that have stagnated?) He was opposed to what he called the “odium theologicum,” the “sincere bigots” of religion who insisted on conformity to their fetishes, and specifically cites the Parsees in India, who fled Persia, had to agree to not eat beef as their price of admission to their new country, and then had to subsequently agree not to eat pork when the Moguls arrived.
But he is far from “anything goes.” He specifically cites numerous problems that continue to bedevil us today, in particular, in New Mexico. Long before the automobile, he recognized the problems of drunks. Sure, get drunk, if it only impacts you… but violent drunks, he believed, should be subjected to serious penalties, particularly repeat offenders, for injuring others. Prostitution and “gambling dens”? He saw neither as victimless activities, and recognized society’s right to play a role in their regulation. Or nepotism in the employment process? Mill quotes from the Koran: “A ruler who appoints any man to an office, when there is in his dominions another man better qualified for it, sins against God and the State.” Update the gender issue, as I am sure he would advocate, and it applies today.
Conscription? I’d say he would be for it: “in each person’s bearing his share… of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation.” Charter schools? He would have been their “patron saint.” He strongly advocated that the education of youth be mandatory, but strongly opposed any “baroque bureaucracy,” to use Reich’s phrase, from having a monopoly, be it the state itself, clerical or aristocratic. And he had a strong concept of economic justice, for the weaker elements of society. Long before immigration was used to “lower the cost of labour,” he said the following: “And in a country either over-peopled, or threatened with being so, to produce children, beyond a very small number, with the effect of reducing the reward of labour by their competition, is a serious offence against all who live by the remuneration of their labour. And finally, he would have recognized the Veterans Administration in action: “no reform can be effected which is contrary to the interest of the bureaucracy…The Czar himself is powerless against the bureaucratic body; he can send any one of them to Siberia, but he cannot govern… against their will.” Amen, for his numerous insights. 5-stars, plus.