5.0 out of 5 stars Liberty for all!
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...
Published on July 8 2004 by FrKurt Messick
3.0 out of 5 stars Where liberalism went wrong...
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...
Published on Aug 6 2000 by R. Setliff
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5.0 out of 5 stars Liberty for all!,
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 J.S. Mill) than of Mill himself; Taylor wrote an essay on Toleration, most likely in 1832, but it remained unpublished until after her death.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.
4.0 out of 5 stars More relevant today than in 1859 :(,
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 :)
4.0 out of 5 stars A Bright Star of Secular Humanist Dogma,
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.
4.0 out of 5 stars Profound, if not perfect,
5.0 out of 5 stars A way of life against the oppression of socialism...,
This book argues that it is not the role of anyone else to decide what is best for any one person, but that person's decision. Liberty - this book is ON LIBERTY.
Anyone who thinks this book is in favour of socialism is completely misguided and confused.
4.0 out of 5 stars Limits of Liberty and Society,
4.0 out of 5 stars J.S. Mill, On Liberty,
3.0 out of 5 stars Where liberalism went wrong...,
Get Liberalism in the Classic Tradition by Ludwig von Mises to understand true classical liberalism.
5.0 out of 5 stars Why isn't this book society's instruction manual?,
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars The Relevance of Mills Concept of Civil Liberties Today,
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On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (Paperback - 1978)
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