Friday, November 19, 2010

On Liberty : Detailed Summary and Analysis

Chapter 1
Mill begins in his explaining that his purpose in this essay is to discovers the maximum power that society can exercise over an individual and study the struggle between Liberty and Authority. In earlier times, liberty was utilized as protection against political tyranny because rulers were endowed with the power to both suppress the rights of would be aggressors and their own citizenry. As time elapsed however, the citizens began to want an limit to be placed on the power of the government in order to achieve their liberty.
This attempt to ensure liberty involved two steps: 1) obtaining political rights that were safe against all forms of tyranny and 2) implementing the safeguard of community consent in the form of a mandate or body that would guard against an abuse of power. The first step was easily obtained, but the second step was met with more opposition by governments. After a while, people began to see an importance in having their government act as their delegates, a democratic body who would make decisions according to what the people wanted. This development was seen as the end to tyranny by many how could people oppress themselves? “Self-government” and “the power of the people over themselves” were common ways to refer to the new, empowered system of government. Mill refuses these characterizations; rather he asserts that the people who have the power are not necessarily those that are affected by the power. He goes on to conclude that the will of the people is simply the will of the majority of the active governed people. Mill asserts that this type of tyranny, tyranny of the majority, is just as evil as any other form of political despotism. In fact, he believes that it is often much worse than other forms of despotism because it is more pervasive and able to infiltrate our lives and social interactions. Mill concludes that there needs to be protection against this tyranny of prevailing opinion.
Mill acknowledges that finding the correct limit on the majority’s influence is a difficult task, especially since most people have different perceptions of the correct limit to be implemented. Each person, Mill claims, will think that their own opinion on a matter is right, but their reasoning is affected by their own self-interest and the external and internal pressures that they may or may not be aware of. As a result, several principles determine the standards of a country’s people. First of all, the moral standards and self-perceptions of the higher class in a society will likely have the most influence on the morality of their country. Secondly, men are likely to follow the mandates of their religion and this adds to the rules of conduct for society. Finally, the basic interests of society influence moral sentiments as a whole Mill points out that it isn’t the actual interests that influence, but rather the empathy and apathy that stem from these interests. From these principles, Mill states that it is society’s likes and dislikes that create most of the rules for the citizenry. Oftentimes, the question of what society dislikes or likes wrongly supersedes the question of whether society should implement these preferences as laws. An exception to this is in regards to religion, where society was refused the right to uniformly implement its preferences due to the concept of liberty and freedom, along with the minority religious factions that left few majorities to enforce their will. However, Mill claims that there is really no complete religious freedom because although there is religious tolerance, there is still little accommodation for religious dissenters where the majority of a society has a strong religious preference.
Mill speaks about his native country, England, and how people resent the government telling its citizens what to do because the opinion exists that government’s opinion is usually not the same as or in the best interest of the public. The English people didn’t know what it was like to have their vote reflected in the country’s decisions, but they did believe that government shouldn’t exercise control in areas that they hadn’t previously. They also had the tendency to decide the government’s worth by its adherence to their own personal preferences, some wanted the government to do good things while rectifying bad things and some wanted the government to not interfere no matter the cost to society.
Mill believes that the extent to which society can impose its influence on an individual is to ensure the self-protection of others. If a person is places himself in a position that is dangerous solely to him, society has no right to interfere according to Mill. Just because society believes an action is good, it can not be imposed on its citizens, because each citizen is autonomous. Mill does not apply this independence to small children or those who cannot take care of themselves – Mill extends this to undeveloped races that need to be improved by society’s rules – but once manhood or womanhood is reached, there is no reason for society to impose its values on an adult.
lf a person inflicts harm on others, he is subject to legal prosecution, the consequences of his actions. Mill asserts that a person should be held accountable for both the direct harm to another person or inaction that results in harm being done to an individual. Mill believes human liberty should encompass 1) the inward domain of consciousness, 2) liberty of thought and feeling 3) liberty of expressing and publishing opinions, 4) liberty of tastes and pursuits, and 5) the liberty of individuals to join a collective group.
He believes that his expressed ideas form the opposite of what society’s instincts dictate. Society is based largely on the art of conformity in opinion and action and Mill only sees the imposition of society on the individuals growing over time.
In perhaps his most passionate work, Englishman John Stuart Mill’s writes about the rights of individuals to do what they wish with their own life as long as the ramifications from their actions don’t harm other people. This type of advocacy for an autonomous life for all citizens is typical of Mill’s Utilitarian beliefs. Utilitarianism supports each person having the ability to maximize their own utility (happiness) as long as they don’t negatively affect others on their path to happiness. A paradoxical issue that often arises with Mill’s On Liberty regards the concept of an absolute principle. Mill asserts that it is absolutely necessary that a society adopt an autonomic view in order for utility to be achieved, but this mandate goes against Mill’s other assertion that coercion has no place in a free society.
Mill is definitely skeptical of the power of democracies to liberate; he takes the position that this so-called control of the people is more dangerous than a tyrannical government. Democracies, he contends, are more subtle in their influence but more complete in their infiltration into society. When it appears that the people are making their own rules, it is easier for citizens to follow along, subscribing to a false sense of empowerment. Mill contends that in truth, democracy is tyranny in numbers, where the active political members of a society can dictate what is best for all and the majority’s decision is rendered as law.
Mill was a liberel thinker and his thoughts shocked a world where democratic governments were seen as the utmost in political freedom. It could be of important note that Mill himself, was a powerful member of the British government as the chief civil servant of the East India Company which controlled India, then a British colony. Truly, Mill was speaking from a position of authority while he was supporting a extremely laissez-faire government. In 1850’s Britain, the time and place in which Mill composed On Liberty, the middle class had just received the right to vote twenty years earlier. The working class and women were still not allowed to have their votes count in their government. Mill was observing while his country’s government evolved into a democratic structure and undoubtedly was using his observations as his stimulation for this work.
In this first chapter, one can see Mill’s strong aversion to conformity, which will play an important role in this essay. He is particularly averse to the middle-class, which he views as the ultimate conformers. He believes that conformity is society’s default, the easiest, and hence most popular action for citizens to take.
Chapter 2
On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion
Mill asserts that the government shouldn’t act at the beckon of the people, the public shouldn’t have the power of coercion over their elected governing body. The government is much more dangerous when dependent on unreliable public opinion. Indeed, public opinion is the popular sentiment of mankind, but forming this opinion requires the silencing of a lot of voices. This omission of minority opinions is very hurtful to the public whether the opinions are wrong or right. If a silenced opinion is right, obviously the public misses out on the truth. However, if the suppressed opinion is wrong, the danger in its loss is often more grave. If a minority opinion can be wrong, it leads to “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth.”
The majority opinion is not guaranteed to be correct; it can be wrong for the majority has no true authority and no absolute certainty. The fallibility of majority opinions is exemplified by looking at past history, according to Mill.. Past popular opinion has often been rejected by present-day society, and there is no guarantee that present popular opinion won’t also be rejected by the future. Individuals can only form the most intelligent, educated opinions that they are capable of, but they shouldn’t force those opinions on the whole of society unless they are certain of their truth. Mill believes that in order to make good decisions, men must use discussion and experience. Men who are fair keep their mind open to all ideas and search for opposing arguments, realizing the necessity of a devil’s advocate. To Mill, a so-called fact must be held up to debate or “it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” Mill points out that even in the doctrine of Christianity, which is assumed by Christians to be correct, the importance to listening to all sides is expressed. Mill also points out that a man doesn’t have to be evil to argue against basic beliefs upheld by society, invoking Socrates as proof that people can misjudge even the most competent and well-intentioned minds. On the other hand, men can misjudge potential good ideas for society. Mill refers to Marcus Aurelius, who, although a good man, wrongly judged and refuted Christianity. Contrary to popular opinion, Mill states that the truth does not always emerge in the end; men don’t necessarily support the truth with more passion than they support falsehoods.
Also, Mill points to the fact that a belief in God shouldn’t be the litmus test for someone’s trustworthiness. If an Atheist tells the truth and admits that he doesn’t believe in God, he is not trusted but if he lies and says he has faith, he will be trusted obviously the wrong result. Mill also refutes the importance of doctrine, particularly religious ones. He believes that very few people actually follow the doctrine to its letter, rather they just follow the laws dictated by society, only living up to the standards that society imposes and not the higher ones include in doctrines.
Mill points to a final type of dissenting opinion that isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but nonetheless helpful. It is the type of opinion that provides part of the truth that is missing in public opinion. This augmentation effect is the most probable state of affairs, states Mill. He says that both popular and opposing opinions are rarely completely right and a balance between the two should be reached in order for the real truth to be found. Too often, says Mill, either opinion is preferred in its entirety and the other opinion that holds part of the truth is neglected. Mill extends this theory to religion, saying that those who adhere to the Bible as the complete truth are misinterpreting its intent to supplement the strong personal ethics and character already assumed to be present. To make his point that morality and religion do not necessarily go hand in hand, Mill asserts that some of the most moral individuals were indeed not Christians.
In this chapter, Mill’s ideas on society are tempered with his views on religion and its importance in the search for truth. Although Mill believes in the sovereignty of the individual, he refutes the idea that government should adhere to popular opinion. He doesn’t believe that the government should ever stop victimless free expression even if public opinion deems it necessary. Mill’s extreme liberalism is reflected in his statement that mankind does not even have the authority to silence one opinion, much less the whole of the minority. Mill’s argument of human fallibility is strong – Mill asserts that all opinions need to be heard in order for anyone to decide what is the truth. However, this argument based on infallibility seems to be an infinite one, a student of Mill would wonder where the indecision would end, after how much deliberation would a truth be validated? How would one ever be certain of the truth and what kind of chaos would the resulting uncertainty yield?
The basis of Mill’s idea is the argument that has been present in many liberation movements throughout history before and after Mill’s time the argument that issues should not be forever closed for debate once a consensus has been reached. The Women’s Suffrage Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War are all examples of where the minority opinion, which needed to be heard, was suppressed in error.
Indeed, probably the most interesting aspect of Mill’s work in this chapter is his views on religion. While he doesn’t discount the importance of Christian faith, he seems to place it in perspective. He doesn’t believe that one should solely adhere to the doctrine of religion and ignore the importance of personal integrity standing on its own merit. Mill’s inference that Christianity was more of a dead dogma than a living truth created great controversy at the time of On Liberty’s publication. Also, he addresses the bias that many non-Christians face when their opinions are discounted because of their religious beliefs by stating the fact that many of the most brilliant moral men were indeed, refuters of the Christian faith. He doesn’t accept the correlation between religious belief and honesty because he believes that honesty is an intrinsic factor of personal quality, not religion.
Chapter 3
Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being
Mill begins this chapter with placing limitations on the personal freedom that he has so far proposed. He professes his belief in autonomy except when a person proves to be placing others in danger with their actions; he asserts that “no one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions.” He thinks that personal liberty is threatened by the lack of respect society gives individual autonomy the majority often sees no reason why everyone shouldn’t be happy with their decisions. Mill asserts that humanity wasn’t made to simply conform to each other, for if that were the case the only skill humans would need would be the art of imitation. Mill also speaks about the importance of a person to have his own desires and impulses. Strong impulses produce energy, the fuel for change and activity, both good and bad.
Mill disagrees with the Calvinistic theory that humans can only be good through compromise and that “whatever is not a duty, is a sin.” In Calvinism, is best to eliminate individuality and the evil of human nature because the only necessary act of humanity is to devote one’s self to God. Mill thinks this restrictive view of humanity doesn’t do justice to the inner good of man and the likelihood that God created man with potential assuming that he would use it. In more extreme terms, Mill states that any will, religious or riot, that suppresses individuality is tyrannical.
Mill talks about the importance of original thought and spontaneity in human society. Original thinkers can seek, discover and spread word about truths that otherwise wouldn’t be found. Genius minds are usually unique members of society whose intelligence and thoughts don’t fit into the usual mold that society has formed. Mill believes that eccentricity is linked closely to character, genius, and morality, and fears that there it is increasingly lacking in society, citing that “spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers.”
People are inherently different and should be allowed to explore these differences, according to Mill People thrive and fail under the same circumstances – making all people uniform is a detriment to their unique qualities, according to Mill. He thinks that society in general doesn’t give enough importance to spontaneous action. However, he doesn’t think that individuality should come at all costs, individuals should temper their self-interest so that the more capable people in society don’t trample on the less capable.
Mill thinks that even if people don’t adhere to this theory of freedom and spontaneity, they will learn something from the exposure they have to the environment that advocates such behavior. Also, a more effective government of developed citizens will result from a society that is free to circulate new ideas and challenge the majority’s opinions. Mill contends that this type of development will produce a happier society where people are allowed to follow their desires rather than being forced to settle for the majority’s weak passions. Mill believes that suppressed impulses result in the redirection of strong passions towards less constructive things. Finally, Mill believes that all of society would benefit from an emphasis on individuality because it would prevent society from falling into a dangerous status quo.
Mill’s argument in this chapter strikes a balance between his utilitarian and liberal philosophies.. Mill believes that in a society that encourages individual liberty, both driven individuals and those satisfied with the status quo could reach their maximum level of happiness. However, also in this chapter, Mill lays the groundwork under which society can impose itself on a person who wrongly invokes his/her liberty. Although he gives each person the complete freedom to follow the goals that maximize their happiness, he believes that society should restrain that spontaneity and individuality so it doesn’t adversely affect others.
Mill encourages eccentricity among individuals as he sees it as the key ingredient to genius. He doesn’t believe that society should reign in a person with different interests and passions to conform to the mainstream principles. Once again, Mill’s words are applied in a religious context. He cites the uselessness and harm of society mandating religious preferences when the end result is a society loosely tied to religion with more attention focused on other, less moral aspects of the community.
Chapter 4
Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual
Mill contends that there needs to be a clear distinction between where individual liberty takes precedence and where society has the right to intervene. He refutes the Lockean argument that society is based upon a mutual contract but he concurs that once entered into society, an individual has an obligation to not violate others’ rights, to contribute to the community, and not to hurt others in exchange for the protection and benefits that society offers.
For people who injure others in ways that cannot be punished by law, Mill believes that society’s opinion and judgment will serve as punishment. In fact, Mill encourages public scrutiny and criticism of a harmful individual. He explains that society has the duty to use their impression of an individual and warn others of a person’s potential danger. This is one of the rare instances where Mill permits coercion.
However, when a person is only hurting himself or herself, Mill says that people can advise him/her to adopt self-regarding virtues but ultimately, each person has the complete freedom to make their own decision. If a person does not adopt self-regarding qualities, society cannot publicly denounce him/her, although they can hold their own personal negative opinions. These private opinions are what ultimately may hurt a person who is not pursuing what society perceives as his/her own best interests. This is referred to as a natural penalty that is incurred by bad self-regarding interests. In addition to that natural penalty, Mill states that in a harmful self-regarding action, the only harmed person is the perpetrator who in effect, is giving and receiving his own punishment.
Mill agrees in part to the counterargument against his philosophy stating that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to believe that any action can solely affect the agent and will not be relevant to the community. However, he asserts that only when the action brings on the risk or actuality of public damage does society have the right to punish the perpetrator. Mill gives the example of a drunk man who shouldn’t be punished for his intoxication unless he is a policeman or similar protector of society on duty and unable to fulfill his duties. In Mill’s opinion, if a person’s actions have little significance to society, then it is in the best interest: of society to allow basic human liberties to prevail.
Mill places the burden of responsibility on society for the development of its members. Since society is responsible for children during their developing years, Mill believes that a significant number of immoral, irrational citizens reflect poorly and largely on society itself. In addition, Mill utilizes some real life examples in the illustration of his principles. He draws the line between selling and consuming; he points to consuming as a self-regarding act while selling affects the society it is catering to and can be regulated by that society under rational reasoning. He also asserts that workers should not be forced to take Sundays off, all workers should be able to choose one day to take off rather than adhere to the religious ideal of Sunday as a day of rest. To the Mormon tradition of polygamy, Mill, while denouncing the practice as a contract that acts against a person’s liberty, concedes that all members of the contract are parties under their own will, so they should not be interfered with.
In this chapter, Mill anticipates and addresses some arguments against his theories. After his initial hard-line stance, Mill softens a bit as he attempts to clear up inconsistencies regarding his ideal of liberty and individuality. He finally makes a dependent connection between society and man, after denouncing the relationship in the early parts of the book. He makes people partially beholden to society and society responsible for the early development of their citizens a strange thing for a man who sings the praises of autonomy.
Mill preempts the obvious question: “aren’t all individuals’ actions assured to have some effect on society? “by affirming that indeed they are. He doesn’t deny the fact that some overlap is unavoidable but refutes the fact that this overlap has to be impactful. This, while perhaps a weak argument, is based on his idea that the danger of society’s imposition upon individual liberty is much greater than the danger of individuals’ deeds. Mill is much more eager to accept small ramifications of individual actions than to have society impose its will on individuals just to please society’s moral standards and ideal of rationality.
It is a slight paradox that Mill places the responsibility of raising responsible children in society’s hands while cowers at the idea that that same society could set the standards for all its citizens. In addition, Mill places more pressure of conduct on the individual as he opens the door for society to pass judgment on a person who doesn’t have sufficient regard for him/herself and regards this judgment as the natural penalty for irrational self-regarding acts.
Chapter 5
In this chapter, Mill enumerates how all of his theories and ideas for humankind can and should be applied in real-life scenarios and explains when liberty has to be sacrificed. He recaps his two main maxims: one, that the individual should not be punished for their actions if they are only affecting themselves and two, that for actions that do adversely affect others, society should hold the agent responsible for his/her actions and take the necessary step to punish them, be it in a courtroom or a social setting.
Mill is careful to explain an exception to punishing someone for inflicting harm. “In many cases, an individual, in pursuing a legitimate object, necessarily and therefore legitimately causes pain or loss to others, or intercepts a good which they had a reasonable hope of obtaining.” A person exercising their liberty to do the best they can should not be ostracized because others could not do as well the only scenario in which punishment is justifiable, according to Mill, is when the means used to win are underhanded and deprive others of a fair opportunity.
In the realm of the marketplace, Mill reiterates that trade is indeed, a societal art that involves everyone and should be under the guises of society to a certain extent. However, Mill has ideas about what constitutes the limits of the government’s power in this area. He does not believe that the government should have the power of prevention, just the right to warn and punish its citizens. He thinks that giving the government the right to forbid the sale of potentially dangerous items is giving the government too much power over individuals’ lives. On items such as poison, Mill asserts that a person could have ill or good motivations in its purchase and that it is not the government’s place to assume that there’ are evil motives. However, for this innocuous person, Mill proposes that precautions should be taken. Dangerous products should be labeled as such, giving the buyer the knowledge they need to make a rational decision, and buyers should be required their personal information such as name, address and why they are purchasing a particular item. This is not an infringement on liberty, according to Mill, but a precautionary measure for the whole of society.
In criminal activities, Mill believes the solicitation of another to commit a crime against humanity is not exempt from society’s judgment because the person solicited and the victims of the crime are being harmed by the instigator. He also believes that fornication and gambling cannot be stopped if all parties involved are consensual and reaping the same benefit. However, running a public gambling house or brothel is not within the understanding of society because these things promote bad moral behavior publicly and adversely affect others. Mill doesn’t frown upon a so-called “sin tax”, although he states that it is a slight infringement on liberty, he sees it as an inevitable one; tariffs are bound to be raised, so why not raise the price on items that people don’t need to survive?
Mill decries any sense of a person’s right to sell him/herself into slavery. He states “by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act...the principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free.” Self-ownership only goes as far as morality and the maintenance of liberty, both of which are severely compromised under slavery. Mill also deals with Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt’s assertion that all contracts between individuals should be broken upon either party’s dissatisfaction, contracts such as marriage licenses would dissolve upon an exercise of liberty. Mill does not adhere to this ideal, he views von Humboldt’s statement as narrow, not looking at the intricacies of contracts in society. Mill takes into consideration that with a contract like marriage, “a new series of moral obligation arises on his part toward that person, which may possibly be overruled, but cannot be ignoreds” While Mill thinks that legally, parties should have the right to break contracts if it a self-regarding act, Mill believes that it is morally lacking and a misuse of liberty to frivolously void such a contract.
Mill believes that liberty, along with the state’s power, is often misconstrued. Mill thinks that the great disparity in the power held between husband and wife should be fixed by the state by implementing laws that ensure equal protection for women. He also believes that a parent is committing a crime if he/she does not obtain a good education for their child. Furthermore, he thinks that the state should enforce mandatory universal education for all, forcing children to meet comprehension standards after the end of each grade. He argues that this would lessen the influence of factions who argue over what should be taught to whom; religious groups and other minorities would be able to teach their children what they wished in addition to the standard curriculum. Continuing with the idea of parental obligations, Mill points to the decision to have a child as one of an extremely serious one, requiring a lot of rationality and ability. Mill thinks that potential parents should have to prove that they are financially ready to have a child. This requirement, in Mill’s eyes, is not an infringement upon liberty because it is a precaution against a child coming into the world with no means to eat or live a happy life – that child would be adversely affected by its parents’ decision so that decision is susceptible to public scrutiny.
Even when there is no chance of liberty being infringed upon, Mill thinks that the government interference should be limited overall. If an individual is better suited to perform a task than the government, he/she should certainly be allowed. If the individuals cannot perform a task as well as the government, they should be allowed to do the task anyway, according to Mill, because it will broaden the individuals’ knowledge and bring some new perspective to issues. The most important reason to Mill that the government should not be given the freedom to interfere is that it would be harmful to all to bolster the government’s power with no laymen to challenge their actions. Mill thinks that it is necessary for society to be competent and able to organize a original, innovative political structure. Under an increasingly empowered government, however, Mill sees no possibility for such a society to develop.
Overall, Mill thinks that government should be centralized and serve in an advisory capacity to localities, whose political leaders would be beholden to the citizenry. Mill thinks that such a system would provide, intelligent decisions and ensure liberty for all citizens while maintaining a strong sense of order and consequences. Mill thinks that the worst thing for a government to do is to make its constituency diminutive and reliant, for this passive and ineffectual behavior will breed no great accomplishments or goals for the state.
Mills, overview of his strategy is quite insightful, although at times highly contradictory with the principles he has set forth in earlier points in his work. Through the application of his ideas to everyday events, a clearer view is obtained of what Mill’s thoughts are about the direction society should go in.
In this chapter, Mill has a very pronounced sense, of paranoia about the government and tile dangers of empowering the government,. However, he himself makes some broad assumptions about people and their desires that borders on dangerously presumptive. In dealing with marketplace issues, Mill finds himself in a difficult situation, having to deal with the sale of potentially dangerous materials and draw the line between precautionary and preventive. Although Mill calls it an effectual prohibition for some people, he surprisingly endorses “sin taxes”, a measure that appears to be at odds with his idea of autonomy and personal freedom. He also endorses warning labels, assuming that everyone who buys poison wants to be warned of its possible effects.
Mill’s analysis of selling oneself into slavery is interesting. He believes it to be wrong because it takes away the very liberty that all self-regarding acts invoke. However, it seems to be disingenuous to suggest that a person can harm oneself but cannot sell oneself. Another intriguing analysis deals with education and its necessity. Mill calls it a father’s duty to provide education for his child and that there should be universally enforced educational standards. His explanation for this is that a parent has no right to take away the liberty of his child by stripping him of an education that would give him the opportunity to succeed. This is probably because of personal bias, Mill’s father was determined to give Mill a great education among the finest minds in the world and Mill felt deeply that every parent should be as committed to education as his own father was.
In this chapter, Mill suggests several protective measures that are used in modern-day society; the foreshadowing of present-day America and the world is definitely notable. He argues that for the sale of items that could possibly be used for criminal endeavors, a registration should take place for the purchaser. Also, he speaks of the advantage of a standardized proficiency test to ensure that all students are learning at similar levels. Mill is definitely ahead of his time in many respects, he also appears to be an advocate for women’s rights and legislation, undoubtedly inspired by his recently deceased wife’s perspective. Mill’s ideas on crime, education, gender issues and government are all based on his ongoing struggle between an individuals’ right to liberty and the right of society to restrain those who cannot restrain themselves. 

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