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On Liberty and Other Essays Paperback – May 17 2008
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About the Author
John Gray, Research Fellow at Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green, Ohio; and Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford.
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ON the received and conventional view, John Stuart Mill is an eclectic and transitional thinker, who is never able either to endorse or to abandon the classical utilitarian philosophy he inherited from his father, James Mill, and whose writings implement no research programme, exhibit no settled doctrine, but merely reflect his vacillations of mind. Read the first page Browse Sample Pages
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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.
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.
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.
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