Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Liberty by J.S. Mill


Mill's On Liberty (1859) is one of the cornerstone texts of liberalism in the modern world. Interestingly, On Liberty had a very personal significance to Mill. Specifically, it includes one of the most moving dedications to his wife, Harriet Taylor, who died in 1858. Mill met Taylor in 1830 who was then married to a wealthy businessman, and subsequently married her two years after her husband's death in 1851. In the dedication, Mill credits Taylor with being "part author," and expresses regret that the final work was not subject to the "inestimable advantage of her revision." Though scholars have not found any conclusive evidence as to the extent of Taylor's influence on the text, On Liberty's composition history reveals that the work was one which Mill held as particularly close to his heart.

The idea for the work probably originated as early as 1854, when it was included in a list of themes compiled by Mill and Taylor. In January 1855, Mill wrote to Harriet about his feeling that "almost all the projects of social reformers in these days are really liberticide" and hence he felt that a book discussing liberty was greatly needed. Later, Mill would describe this work as "a philosophic text-book of a single truth," a truth that he felt to be deeply lacking in Victorian society, namely the need for true individual freedom within the bounds of society.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, as Mill was speaking out vehemently against the reform measures and customs of his contemporaries, the initial public's reaction to On Liberty was rather hostile. One of the major critiques of Mill, both today and in the past, is the unworkability of his theory on disallowing an individual's action from harming others, as there is no private sphere of no influence. In the final chapters, Mill addresses this critique.

Chapter 1: Introductory
Here Mill sets the bounds of his argument, beginning with the qualification that he will not be discussing "Liberty of the Will" but specifically, "Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." He goes through a history of the concept of civil liberty, from its origins as a defense against tyrannical rulers, to the enumeration of rights, and the concept of representative government, where the state is no longer assumed to be antagonistic to the people. Mill warns that although there are no longer tyrants, social tyranny and the tyranny of the majority exists, and in particular, customs tend to create the illusion of rules as somehow self-evident or natural. In order to protect individual freedoms, Mill advocates the principle that self-protection is the only justification for interfering with the liberty of body or mind of another person. He qualifies that this rule applies only to "human beings in the maturity of their faculties," thus exempting children, and those who lived in "barbaric" times or presently as "barbarians."Mill concludes the introductory with an expanded definition of liberty as liberty of conscience/thought/feeling, tastes and pursuits, and combination amongst individuals.

Chapter 2: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion
This chapter explores the topic of liberty of thought, and relatedly, of discussion. Mill argues that truth is arrived at through the clash of contrary opinions, and so no one should be silenced. Any individual or party who silences another is assuming infallibility (which, Mill clarifies, does not mean that individuals can't be pretty certain -- "assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life"). Mill even goes so far as to argue that the "sole way" of arriving at the greatest certainty is by testing one's own opinions against contrary ones. To provide examples, Mill goes through the case of Socrates's sentencing, Christ's sentencing, and Marcus Aurelius's erroneous judgment of Christianity to illustrate how men with the best of intentions may think they are right but actually err. According to Mill, the avoidance of "dead dogma" and the acquisition of "living truth" can be achieved through contention, and that indeed, in times where people had to fight for a creed, their beliefs were much more vital and active, and therefore influential on people's "imagination, feelings, and understanding." Perhaps most controversially, Mill holds that Christian morality is incomplete as a truth, and was meant as such--it tends to emphasize only the negative side of things, in other words, it tells people what they should not do over and above what they should do. To have a complete "truth" of human existence, secular humanist values must also be incorporated.

Chapter 3: On Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being
This chapter extends the reasons as to why opinions should be free to apply also to why opinions in practice/action should also be free. Although the experience of others and generations before might be useful, each individual should be free to "interpret experience in his own way." Mill emphasizes the need to choose one's own plan for life, and holds that otherwise, humans might as well be machines, and hence, not fully human. According to Mill, current society (largely because of its Calvinist underpinnings) tends too much to de-value desire and impulse in favor of belief and restraint; indeed, "strong impulses" are just another name for "energy," and energy can be used for good or evil, depending on how it is directed. Mill goes on to define "genius" as "originality in thought and action," and argues against the collective mediocrity and uniformity which the public tends towards, as a result of better communication networks and commerce. In short, a diversity of tastes and pursuits are necessary for the healthy functioning of a society. The counterexample which Mill sets up is China, where he believes that political and educational systems have successfully compelled a people to live under uniform customs and doctrines. Mill, however, doesn't credit what he perceives to be greater plurality in Europe thus far to any sense of European superiority, but simply states that the circumstances of national diversity have been a boon for Europe.

Chapter 4: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual
Mill returns to his principle of not injuring the interests of one another and offers some more concrete instances for when and how society might regulate human conduct. Mill holds that while it is okay for an individual to "act upon [an] unfavourable opinion of someone" it is not okay to encroach on their rights, deal falsely with them, or to bear a "cruelty of disposition" towards them. Pity and dislike are both allowed, while resentment and anger are not. In the case where an individual inflicts harm against someone, however, society has a right and duty to punish that person in the interests of everyone else. In answer to the major critique that it's impossible to distinguish practically exactly when a person's concerns encroach upon those of others, Mill answers that there is a difference between "definite/direct" injury and "contingent/constructive" injury and thus cases might be individually decided on these criteria. The chapter concludes with examples of unjust interference with individual tastes and pursuits such as the intemperance movement, Sabbatarian legislation which bans certain amusements, and the persecution of Mormonism (though he clarifies his own disagreement with Mormonism's precepts).

Chapter 5: Applications
In this chapter Mill offers some "specimens of applications" in the service of elucidating the two major maxims which he has thus far argued: 1) the individual is not accountable to society for his actions insofar as they just concern himself and 2) the individual is accountable for actions which are prejudicial to the interests of others and may be punished by society (legally, or socially) for such actions. Mill considers a number of cases and argues through their complexities according to these maxims (the sale of poisons, idleness, drunkenness, pimping, the erecting of gambling houses, taxation of stimulants, marriage, whether it is admissible to sell oneself as a slave, and education). The chapter concludes with three objections to the interference of the state - 1) when things are likely better done by individuals than by the government; 2) even when things are better accomplished by government, it is in the interest of the mental education of individuals for them to accomplish these things; 3) unecessarily adding to a government's power is to create ruling, stagnant bureacracies and an unthinking public. The government should always tend towards cultivating the mental and bodily activity of its people; if it takes on too much responsibility, there will only be "small men," cogs in a machine that hold no "vital power" of their own (and hence the "machine" itself will have no vital power).

See thoughts on Mill and Arnold under the Victorian liberalism page.

No comments: