Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

(Chapter 1-2, 4)
John Stuart Mill

In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill tries to give a rational method for determining what issues should be within the purview of society, and what the limits of society’s power over the individual should be. In general, he argues that a person should be able to do anything they want as long as it doesn’t directly harm anyone else. He argues that people should care about each other’s conduct and try to influence each other to live well, but that they shouldn’t force people to live a ‘good’ life. They can only punish someone if his actions infringe on the rights of someone else.

Extending this idea to the specific area of thought and discussion, he argues that people should be free to (or even encouraged to) espouse any opinion or idea, and that society should be open to debating these ideas. He argues that this is the best way for society to continue to grow and come closer to understanding truths in the world. He gives a number of examples in history where the silencing of dissenting opinion, believed to be a good and necessary action at the time, is now viewed to have been a terrible mistake.

Chapter 1: Introductory
In Chapter one, Mill explains that his book is about civil or social liberty. There has been a historic struggle between liberty and authority since the earliest societies. Originally subjects saw rulers as something that was necessary to keep the peace and protect the state, but dangerous, as the ruler’s interests were at odds with the people’s interests. Eventually, societies were created in which the ruler’s power was limited by the definition of political rights for the people. Power was also limited by constitutional checks. Eventually, the idea of self-government came about in which the interests of the ruler and those of the people did not need to be at odds.

However, self-government was shown to have its own problems. In particular, these governments are subject to the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ in which the majority can force others in society to follow its beliefs, preferences, and opinions.

In past political philosophy, people have argued over what laws are moral or right, often saying that these laws are self-evident and self-justifying. However, there is not a rational definition or rule on how to define or identify which laws which are good or which are within the jurisdiction of society. During the reformation, people recognized the importance of religious freedom – allowing people to have different opinions about religion and act on those beliefs. However, this idea was not expanded to the wider political, non-religious context. Mill believed that it should be – people should be allowed to do or think anything they want, as long as it doesn’t directly harm anyone else.

Chapter 2: On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion
If there is a difference of opinion, even if everyone believes one thing and only one person has a different belief, it’s important that that person be allowed to explain his belief. When there is a dissenting opinion or idea, there are three possibilities – either the new idea is right, the new idea is wrong, or the new idea is only partially right, so that the truth is a combination of the old and new ideas. In all three of these cases, it’s useful to allow people to make arguments for the new ideas. If the new idea is right, then mankind comes closer to the truth by listening to and accepting the new idea. Similarly, in a case where the idea is only partially right, listening to and incorporating the correct portion of the new idea improves mankind’s understanding. If the idea is wrong, then the existing idea becomes stronger because it has been shown to stand up to this particular criticism. An idea that refuses to allow criticism can’t be viewed as very dynamic or strong.

Also, you can’t make the argument that a new viewpoint shouldn’t be allowed because there is certainty that the current one is correct. Even if many people agree that the current view is certain, they are imposing their certainty on others, when the belief is clearly not universal. Mill argues there is no such thing as absolute certainty – everyone is fallible.

It is true that in order to make decisions and carry on with life, a person must assume that their opinion is true. However, Mill explains, “There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.”

Mill makes clear that his problem is not with feeling strongly about a particular doctrine (such as religious teachings), but undertaking to decide the question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the other side. He offers a number of interesting examples of situations in history in which society imposed its beliefs on people espousing contrary ideas, which were later seen as dreadful mistakes:

Socrates, now one of the most respected early Greek philosophers and ethical thinkers, was put to death by his countrymen for impiety and immorality – he denied the gods recognized by the state, and his doctrine was said to be corrupting the youth. Therefore, arguably one of the best men of the time was put to death as a criminal. Jesus is given as a second example – he was put to death for being a blasphemer. Mill argues, “People didn’t merely mistake their benefactor; they mistook him for the exact contrary of what he was.” In both of these cases, the men that pronounced judgement were no worse than men commonly are, but rather the contrary – they were more concerned with religious, moral, and patriotic feeling of their people.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius provides an example of how even very intelligent and moral people can fail to see that a new idea may be right and an old one wrong. He was the absolute monarch of the whole world. He is considered to be a just and thoughtful leader. In his writings, he shows ethical belifs that correspond closely to the beliefs of Christianity. However, this intellectual, ethical man persecuted Christians in his empire, because he felt it was his duty. He felt that he had to maintain reverence to the received divinities to hold the empire together.

Even if the new idea being introduced is wrong, it is still important for people to be able to defend their beliefs in debate against these arguments. People should be able to explain why they believe particular things. If they aren’t able to do this, then they do not really understand their own position – they are only repeating what someone else thought. This is especially true for issues that are really important (which are sometimes considered too important or sacred to debate over), such as religion. Mill argues that for the original Christian disciples, the religion was something they strove to understand and better explain and apply to life. However, for many modern Christians, their daily lives are based on cultural norms and general religious teachings. Few people refer to a careful study and evaluation of the New Testament to help them make decisions and apply all of these teachings to their own life on a daily basis. He argues that it would be better for people to understand and be able to defend why they do or believe particular things, as this keeps people’s beliefs a living, important part of their lives, rather than just a dogma.

“Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend to only one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of that truth by being exaggerated into falsehood.”

In general, Mill believes that all ideas and opinions should be welcomed into debate and should be subject to rational discussion and defense. Humanity is fallible, and to continue to learn and grow, we must always be willing (and even encourage) people to question common beliefs, and to continute to examine what we believe.

Chapter 4: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual
This chapter deals with the rightful authority of society, and the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself. Every person that receives protection of society means that each person should have to not injure each other’s interests or rights, and should bear their portion of the costs of society. If a person’s conduct affects the interest of others, society has jurisdiction over it, but if a person’s conduct affects no one besides himself, or doesn’t affect people unless they like, then there should be legal and social freedom to do the action.

Mill stresses that this doctrine does not mean that people should be selfish and indifferent to thers. He things people should try to educate and persuade others to do the ‘right thing,’ but that they should not coerce (or make) people do the ‘right thing.’ However, the individual has the most interest in his own well-being, so that society should not be allowed to overrule his choices about his own life.

People don’t have to approve of or like other people’s choices, even if they only affect themselves. If a person has hurtful indulgences or cannot live within moderate means, it is likely that people will judge that person as contemptful or inferior. Similarly, people are not bound to seek the society or friendship of a person whose actions they disagree with. Even vices such as lying, greed, cruelty, and others, are only subject to reprobation if they involve a breach of duty to others.

Some argue that when a person has vices or follies, he hurts others by being a bad example. Or, it is argued that by havng these vices, they show they are like a child, unable to control themselves, and should be dealt with by society. However, Mill argues that a person’s vices can lead to direct negative effects on others. For example, if a drunkard is unable to pay debts or support his family, then he could justly be punished. However, the punishment is for not paying his debts, not for drunkenness. Even if he had been a very temperate man, he would still have been punished if he didn’t pay his debts. No person should be punished simply for being drunk if he has not caused damage or caused a definite risk of damage (such as a policeman who is drunk on duty), to an individual or the pubic, then it is not an issue or law. The injury caused to society that doesn’t violate a specific duty or harm an individual other than himself (such as that set by his bad example example), is an inconvenience that society can afford to bear for the greater good of human freedom.

If the public is allowed to interfere in purely personal conduct, it does so based on the public opinion of the majority of what is good or bad. In this case there is no logical limit to the degree and cases in which the state can interfere. Mill gives a few examples of where a large majority of people believe something very strongly, but where outside their society, the corresponding law would not be seen as just.

The first example is of Muslim countries that outlaw eating pork within the country. The public is truly acting on an issue (eating port) that they believe is morally reprehensible and abhorred by God. They aren’t forcing people to be Muslim, but only to refrain from pork. He also gives examples of groups that aim to outlaw alcohol, and “blue laws” that cause businesses to close on Sundays. All of these ideas are felt by some to impinge on their liberty, but by others are viewed as important laws for the good of society.

Mill points out that even in America, which is arguably the most liberal country at the time, there is intolerance. In particular, he talks about Mormonism and polygamy. Which, though people have permitted religious tolerance to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others, many do not wish to extend it to Mormonism. Though members of Mormonism choose it and it doesn’t affect others, the leader (John Smith) was killed by a mob because of his teachings, and the Mormons were forcibly expelled from a number of cities before settling in the desert. Even when the group is almost completely isolated in his remote area, there are still groups that argue that the government should forcibly remove the group. Mill notes that it is hard to see what principles could be the basis of preventing them from staying, given that they commit no aggression against other nations and allow freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied. Mill argues that no group has the right to force another group to ‘be civilized.’ He notes that people can send missionaries, oppose the progress of the religion among their own peopke, but that it is not their right to force others to stop practicing Mormonism.

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