A Necessary Balance: Authority and the Extent of Individual Liberty in Mill’s Analysis
The idea of pleasing the majority of a population has long been engrained into our decision-making processes. In the United States of America (US), the government itself is built on a platform that gives the power to the majority. The essay “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, notes how important the role of the majority is in society and politics, as majorities often abuse their power to oppress the minorities. Democracy has made it possible for the mass in control to exercise their power which can tyrannize the minority, limiting individual liberty. A political idea that has been considered the greatest form of government that allows the populace to rule as a collective group, is actually enabling the power holders to completely ignore the opinions and needs of minority groups. In “On Liberty” Mill discusses the struggle faced when deciding the limit of society’s power over an individual and how to protect the weaker members in society (Mill, p. 1010-1017).
Public opinion works hard to diminish the power of individuals that speak out against the majority. This creates a challenge for these individuals that disagree with the majority because their options include facing backlash from the opponents or to conform in order to have any power in society at all. In chapter 1 of “On Liberty”, Mill notes, “The disposition of mankind … to impose their own opinions and inclinations … on others, is … hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power” (Mill, p. 1017). Here, Mill explains the social problem that arises when people have the power to influence others’ thoughts, opinions, and values. This a characteristic attributed to human nature, and Mill argues that we have to do our best to defend our opinions and protect others that have different thoughts. When one’s values have no negative effect on another person, they should be allowed to maintain their position and not be oppressed for their thoughts.
Utilitarianism is the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority (Oxford Dictionary). Mill uses this doctrine to support his claim that individuals should have the right to do what they please as long as it does not present harm to anyone else, but acknowledges some paradoxical elements of it. When people live their life in a certain matter, it is wrong for others to think negatively towards their choices despite any differences there might be. The majority’s opinion is not always morally correct, therefore, individuals should have the liberty to act however they want to as long as it brings no harm to the rest of society. Mill argues, “…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” (Mill, 1014). People cannot be punished for acting to benefit themselves unless their actions harm other individuals. According to the idea of utilitarianism, an action would have to be useful to society in order to be considered right, but Mill notes that people can act in manners that benefit themselves because they have the liberty to do so without being wrong. This is seen when he writes, “In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (Mill, 1015). As humans, we have independent minds and individual thoughts that should only be protected by our leaders, not suppressed.
Democratic governments promote themselves as being ran by the people, for the people, but these governments enable leaders and majorities to commit tyranny discreetly. Unfortunately, for the people that are not protected by the majority, they do not have enough power and influence to positively change the system. The system is utilitarian and benefits the majority, so the people will not exercise their power to change what already works for them. There is no standard rule telling the people or government when forceful interference is necessary, so requests for government intervention are either abused when there is unrest between minorities and majorities due to opposing opinions, or the government is not called to intervene when true action needs to be taken. Mill explains that the government is called upon to interfere when it is often not necessary when he states, “the interference of government is… improperly invoked and improperly condemned” (Mill, p. 1014). A balance between liberty and authority must be found because the rules, or lack thereof, are creating issues for minorities and hindering the liberty an individual has.
John Stuart Mill effectively illustrates the struggle between individual liberties versus authority in his essay “On Liberty”. Finding the perfect balance of when to use force to condemn peoples’ actions and when to let people act freely, is not easy because what some may see as moral, others view as immoral. Pressures from society can make this even more challenging and leaves minorities with little options to benefit themselves. In contemporary systems of democracy, it is nearly impossible to achieve true individual freedom because the government and majorities have too much control. We are allowed to have our own thoughts, but if they are not in agreement with the majority, our opinions will never be considered, and it does not matter if they are right or wrong. Mill’s work leaves the reader with the question, “Do we need to limit the power of the majority, and how can this limit be achieved?”
Mill, J. S. (2011). On Liberty, Ch. 1. In M. L. Morgan (Ed.), Classics of Moral and Political Theory (5th ed., pp. 1010-1017). Hackett Publishing Company.
Utilitarianism [Def. 1]. (2019). In Oxford Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/utilitarianism.
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