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on April 8, 1997
John Stuart Mill, while not the greatest philosopher ever to walk the earth, is the one philosopher that I have studied thus far that really motivated me to become politically active and responsible to my own actions. In his essay, "On Liberty" Mill outlines the boundaries of government and private lives. In short: as long as you do not hurt anyone, you are free to do as you please. Of course, Mill manages to mention a few damaging exceptions to his rule, but the part of his essay that really spoke to me and awoke the activist within was his examination of free expression. What Mill maintains, and I think this is very sound thinking, is that all ideas may be expressed and should never, under any circumstances (except, of course, for one), be silenced by a government. All expressions, whether they be unpopular or dangerous to the government, must have the protection of the state. The reasons for this, he says are many, most notably, that popular conceptions that people have presently tend to die and become less powerful without the challenge of unpopular thought. I witnessed this very circumstance within myself very recently, and I have rebelled against my earlier lethargy and I am ready to take on the world and work to make it a freer and more constructive (rather than destructive) place. This then ties into the essay "Utilitariansim" where Mill tries to prove that the best thing for society is the greatest pleasure and the least amount of pain. While not quite so cut and dry as it may seem, Mill definitely does have an enticing idea on the general welfare of the people. This book, while some may find it dangerous and distasteful, should be read by anyone wanting equality and the freest possible society
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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.
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on July 7, 2004
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
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on July 20, 2003
JSM's On Liberty certainly stands among the classic works of the Age of Reason. Mill's encyclical is a perfect example of the tendency of the Enlightenment to believe something to be reasonable if it is couched in the proper language.
Mill walks a tenuous path between Locke & Bentham, taking up a defense of liberty, but unwilling to risk his utilitarian street cred. Thus, we have beautiful assertions such as "the unchallenged idea is that which is in most danger", along side a perverse and logically twisted injection of "duty" into what is otherwise a syllogistic approach.
Mill insists on a Lockian sphere of rights approach, then qualifies it in the cases of children (up to whatever age the law defines them), as well as in those societies that aren't developed enough for liberty (by Mill's definition?). Liberty is also to be restricted in such cases as a man might "sin by omission" and "fail to help his Brother." These wonderful sentiments are followed by more cognitive dissonance, various ad hominem attacks on Christianity (particularly those sinister Catholics), and a lot of hand-waving about polygamy.
As an aside, I imagine that G.K. Chesteron had Mill in mind when he wrote "The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard"
Throughout the work, Mill's passions and prejudices skew his arguments. It is a fascinating display of intellectual agility, to watch him extolling freedom while restraining it; to see him preach tolerance, and even go so far as to tolerate intolerance. Note that this last feat reminds me of the Kobyashi Maru Strategy - win the unwinnable game by changing the rules. The typical cultural relativist will divide by zero when approached with the self-contradiction of the tolerant society. Mill side-steps the issue and goes along his merry way, proclaiming not a full page later that "there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides." It's refreshing to hear a champion of responsible liberty who's ready to practice coercion.
Ultimately, Mill produces a monumental work that speaks volumes about more than its subject. His observations are supremely valuable, even when they are irrational, but most of the time he manages to define a system in which the interests of the state and the interests of the individual are balanced to his particular tastes.
As a final note, unlike the introduction for Clausewitz' On War (another Penguin Classic), the Introduction here has value. Gertrude Himmelfarb thoroughly ties together Mill, his physical and intellectual parents, Mill's wife, his society, and peers, and manages to wrap the whole thing up in 42 pages.
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on January 27, 2003
It was not Socialism itself that is an evil, but the way it was implemented in some countries, in response to white-anglo-whatever's totally value-less review. Mill's book about liberty was of vast importance in freeing the individual from the tyranny of communal opinion. Someone may dislike homosexuals, but has no right to harass them or pass ethical judgements on them for what is their choice, of no harm to anyone else. Those are opinions of an indeterminate validity. Socal intervention may only be used to protect someone from restriction of their liberties. What Mill lacks in rigour, he makes up for in persuasiveness. He has some great lines in defense of liberty, a pre-dominant value of human life. Although, it is to be noted that the book can be somewhat tedious in areas which it is repetitive. This book also illustrates what can be seen as a fault in utilitarianism. Utilitarianism takes no notice of other values, or of a conflict of values, such as liberty of existence over the majorities happiness, in which ethics slides into absurdity.
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on November 13, 2000
John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty, defines the nature of civil liberty, and most importantly, the harm principl. He aims to give readers a better understanding of the nature and limits of power that can be exercised by society over individuals. The purpose of this book is to inform interested individuals about the rights of individuals and the limitations of the government. This book of philosophy was written almost 150 years ago. By reading the book, the reader is able to apply Mill's message and examples to our lives in America today. The ahead-of-the-times ideas that are in On Liberty can be related to our world because it discusses controversies that are still seen in our courtrooms today. Mill is able to accomplish his purpose because he uses many examples, thoughts, and theories about individual and social rights. He works through each of his ideas, looking at both sides of the issue to enable the reader to make their own informed decision about each matter. This book has a practical meaning because it allows the reader to develop and reason ideas about government power and when that power should be exercised over the people. Unfortunately, this book does have one draw back. Mill was a very educated man and wrote very well for his time. Yet today, our style and writing techniques are not the same as they were in the nineteenth century. This makes On Liberty a difficult book to read. His book is very decriptive, yet his wording is not easily understadable and some paragraphs have to be read two or three times to fully understand what he is writing about. Aside from his writing style, John Stuart Mill has put together an essay full of educated ideas about society and individuals. John Stuart Mill wrote an informative book geared towards an educated audience. He has achieved his purpose for the essay through the use of situations and examples that can be applied to real life cases still today. He managed to keep the readers interested and I look forward to reading other books he has written.
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on November 6, 2000
In On Liberty, Mill attempts to define when the authority of society can rightly limit individuality and the "sovereignty of the individual over himself." He writes that people are not accountable to society for actions that only concern themselves. The only means society has to express disapproval of such actions is through "advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good." He also writes that the individual is accountable for actions that hurt others, and society can punish a person socially or legally as is deemed necessary for such actions. Mill observes, though, that sometimes when an action causes harm to others, such as when a person succeeds in a competitive job market, the general social good is positive, and there is no right to punish people for the harm caused. Throughout On Liberty, Mill's argument proceeds with a discussion of the appropriate level of authority that society should have over the individual, along with particular examples and applications of the theory, to clarify the meaning of his claims. The examples are just as relevant today as they were in Mill's time. Continuing political issues such as education reform, gun control, alcohol, freedom of speech, taxation, the role of government, etc., are addressed either directly or indirectly. Mill was ahead of his time. His book was insightful, thought-provoking and ahead of its time. The questions and viewpoints Mill argued are the same issues in political debates today. When reading On Liberty, I found myself reading the same paragraphs over again to understand his main issues and points. Also, in parts of the reading Mill never really comes across and answers his own questions he argued, but his ideas and arguments leave the reader thinking.
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on October 24, 1998
John Stuart Mill deals with the issue of "civil liberties" --not the metaphysical issue of "free will". While most attacks on cilvil liberties have historically occurred from the right, Mill deals with threats against liberty from within the institutions of democracy itself. While the aim of the early libertarians was to limit the power of the ruler over those governed, Mill identifies a need to limit the power of elected governments as well. He argues that those who exercise powers in democratically elected governments are not the same as those over whom that power is excercised. Those exerting the power of the government (elected officials, bureaucrats, the judiciary, etc) develop their own interests and are influenced by special interests often at odds with the interests and liberties of individuals. Writing as he did in the 19th Century, Mill is all the more remarkable for his insight in light of what is happening today. In every literate criticism of "special interest groups", PAC's, "over-zealous prosecutors", etc., one sees the lasting influence of John Mill. Mill may be considered the heir apparent to John Locke and his work is most valuable when it is considered in an historical context which includes Locke's influence on our own founding fathers and James Madison's authorship of the "Bill of Rights", arguably the most effective limit on those forces tending to undermine civil liberties.
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on July 30, 2000
J.S. Mill has written the best promulgation of classical liberalism in his book "On Liberty" (OL). Although a socialist himself, many of the ideas in OL are actually tenets of modern libertarianism (also called classical liberalism). Mill states that the only reason that force can be used on any man is to prevent harm to others. I consider "focre" to be either social or economic. Mill saw it as only social, which explains his socialism.
Not to detract from Mill or OL, the book is a resounding defense of civil-liberties. OL completes modern democratic theory as promulgated by John Locke in his "Two Treatises of Government." While Locke argues for some kind of democracy reminiscent of Athens, Mill qualifies Locke's point by protecting the minority from the majority. This book should be read by Americans who want to know more about freedom, and by our elected officials.
Sadly, it's our elected oficials who probably won't get it.
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on August 5, 2000
John Stuart Mill was a liberal's liberal or a socialist's socialist- ahead of his times (or just hanging on Karl Marx's coattail.) His utilitarian socialist philosophy was a real u-turn away from the classic liberalism preceeding his times. What is particularly disturbing is that this book is passed off by academia to represent classical liberalism. This book is good for its historical value and studying political theory, but don't be fooled into thinking 'On Liberty' is at all faithful or indicative of the classical liberal or libertarian philosophy on liberty.
Get Liberalism in the Classic Tradition by Ludwig von Mises to understand true classical liberalism.
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