Essay On John Stuart Mill

1343 words - 6 pages

J.S. Mill's liberalism was an important and essential advance beyond the liberalism of Hobbes through his emphasis on the liberty of thought and discussion which dealt with the freedom to articulate one's opinions, the freedom to participate in intellectual, political, religious and general debates and arguments, and the freedom of the press, yet he remained essentially similar to Hobbes when he engaged the notion of the liberty of action by having attempted to distinguish the area in which an individual is free to act upon his will, opinions and thoughts.To Mill, one could never be certain about the reality or fabrication of a certain opinion or viewpoint. Any assumption of complete certainty of the truth or falsity of an opinion was an allusion to the infallibility of man. In addition, those who assumed this, and consequently stifled an opinion, excluded all others from hearing that opinion, thereby having imposed their own version of certainty (as opposed to absolute certainty) on them. Thus, Mill wrote ' We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still' (Mill, 1978:16).One obvious benefit from allowing an opinion to be expressed would be if that opinion turned out to be true. Thus, the intrinsic value of that truth would be the reward of the person who allowed his own opinion to be challenged. But, more importantly, the gain would not be confined to the individuals involved in the debate; society as a whole would benefit from the exposure of a fallacy, and the elucidation of a truth.Less obvious would be the benefits that could be obtained should the opinion be false. Firstly, Mill believed even erroneous opinions contained a portion of truth in them. Since the dominant opinion rarely contained the whole truth, Mill believed that such a collision of hostile opinions would bring forth the rest, or at least more of the truth.An atmosphere of intellectual freedom, according to Mill, also benefited the general mental well-being of mankind. It served to nurture probing intellectuals to venture unimpeded into bold, ingenious lines of thought, and enabled normal humans to develop to full potential their mental capabilities, including judgments. By having reduced the deadening effects of received opinions, a society where intellectual debate prevailed would also have served to strengthen its members' reasoning faculties. Even on the disinterested bystander, a collision of opinion would reveal to him truths and falsehoods he would never have considered.The benefits that Mill attributed to a society that allowed freedom of action within a certain sphere are similar. These are derived from Mill's assumption of the intrinsic good of individuality.Mill believed that an individual (and indeed all mankind) had his human capabilities withered away if he blindly followed customs, and conformed his nature to a mechanistic model, which it was not. This was because no two persons were identical, and what was suited to one might have been unsuitable to another. Most importantly, if individuality was stifled by an atmosphere of conformity, the exercise of choice by an individual was also stifled. It was this exercise of choice, the liberty to choose, that Mill was primarily concerned with.According to Mill, it was only through a regular exercise of choice that a man benefited from developing his faculties of perception, reason, discriminate feeling, and even moral preference. Without this, man was no more than a machine, devoid of his own desires, wishes, opinions and even feelings.Thus, to Mill, it was only in an atmosphere where people were free to carry out ' experiments of living' (Mill, 1978: 54) where men differed and acted differently without fear, and where they were free to choose unhindered, could individuality flourish. And, for Mill, individuality and progress were synonymous. He was of the opinion that it was only when people were obviously different could superior modes of living, values and behaviour could have been seen. His belief that diversity aided progress reminds me of Darwin's theory of evolution, where the strongest traits are carried on, while weaker, vulnerable characteristics die off. In a nutshell, Mill was convinced that the singularly most important benefit of liberty was the progress of humankind.Similar to Hobbes, Mill saw the necessity of imposing certain restraints on liberty, albeit in only specific circumstances where interference could be legitimately warranted. This single premise however, remains one of the few similarities between the two regarding liberalism. Hobbes' need derived from his perception of the state of nature where men couldn't be free because of their constant fear of death and fear of power from each other and provided a solution through his sovereign state where the sovereign ruled with the sole concern of protecting its citizens from reverting back to the state of nature. Mill, saw the same need and stated so in his 'one very simple principle' (Mill, 1978: 9) that the only legitimate reason for constraint upon a man's liberty was for self-protection and to prevent harm to others. Hence, both saw the need for some kind of intervention should an individual's liberty become in jeopardy. Mill however, vastly furthered his investigation.To clarify things further, Mill distinguished between two types of actions: One, actions which concerned only the agent (self-regarding actions) and two, actions that concerned others besides the agent. As soon as any part of an individual's conduct affected adversely the interests of others, society had a legitimate right to intervene. Whether to intervene or not depended on whether general welfare was promoted. In each person's own concern, he was free to do as he pleased, as he alone would bear the consequences.Taken on the surface, this attempt to have clearly demarcated a sphere in which an individual safely operated without fear of societal interference was very clear-cut and satisfactory. Outside this sphere, society only warned, advised and basically tried to convince the individual when it saw its lifestyle or actions as deviant and harmful to himself. But, it had no legitimate right to actively constrain him, hinder him or impede his freedom to do as he liked in that sphere. Neither did it have the right to punish him, either by law or by moral disapproval. This would then be what Mill termed as 'tyranny of the law ' and 'tyranny of opinion' (Mill, 1978: 64).Where there were problems that arose from ambiguity, Mill resolved themhimself. He acknowledged the fact that some self-regarding actions wouldinevitably affect others. To resolve this complexity, Mill brought in the concept of duty and obligation. As long as his conduct did not violate a distinct obligation to another, such as a man to his wife and children, he would not be morally castigated, or legally punished by society. If he was so punished, it was for his breach of duty and not for the original self-regarding action. An example given by Mill was the difference between a soldier on duty getting drunk and an ordinary man in the same inebriated state; the latter would be left alone as his action was self-regarding but the former, would be punished not for the self-regarding original action of drinking, but for having neglected his public duty.Thus, in short, Mill's attempt to explain legitimate constraints on libertyrested upon a clearly defined sphere where a man could freely do as hepleased when what he did affected only himself and not others, andwhen he didn't violate any social or private obligation.


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