Slouching Towards Bethlehem
In her Slouching Towards Bethlehem essay, Joan Didion vividly constructs her view on the hippie movement in San Francisco through her anecdotal experience in 1967. Her belief captures a strong disliking of this social movement, as her experience indicates she did not condone the society which was created during the hippie movement. Others, such as John Stuart Mill, believe that social movements, such as the hippie one, are the culmination of individuality of others and are necessary for the progression of society. Both of their perspectives exhibit some truth, which can formulate into a new belief. All social movements should be respected in the terms of their times and should not be condoned, but not all social movements can be deemed as progress for society.
Didion begins the essay by painting a distraught picture of America and eventually moving on to discuss the “social hemorrhaging” in San Francisco, referring to the hippie movement. She makes some friends along the way, as she tells her story of meeting people who lived off being high, dropping out and leaving every bit of conservatism out the door. In her conversation with two runaway teenagers, she creates a sense of disappointment and sadness towards the teenagers through verbal montage. She asks what they were planning to do next in which the boy replies “I always kinda dug metal shop, welding… Anyway you can’t pre-plan” (92). The girl says that she could baby-sit. She then asks the teenagers what they saw their future as when they were kids; This abruptly changes the whole conversation to the reader, as the girl replies she wanted to be a veterinarian. From this, without even stating her exact opinion, Didion deduces the consequences of the hippie movement on being detrimental to the youth and what they could be without the hippie influence.
Evidently, the move from the conservative to liberal stature seemed as downgrade to society to Didion. However, Mill explains “There is always need of persons…to discover new truths…to commence new practices…This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection…” (53). For Mill, in order for society to progress, these social movements must happen as people need to form and change. It also keeps “the life in those which already existed” (53) as it keeps the intellect of mankind alive. Mill’s Statement is contradicted by the descriptions of Didion as she tells the story of Deadeye and Gerry who seem to live a life of clueless ambition. Their marriage seems almost like a comical decision done by children when explained by Didion. This childish appeal seems to be apparent in the adult lives of hippies, which consequently affects the children as they have to live in the environment of drugs and unregulated liberty. Five year olds are going to “high-Kindergarten” as it is the norm for the society at the time. It is very logical from a conservative point of view that societal values to the hippies is essentially thrown out.
Mill, however, does not find this as a bad thing to happen to society. He writes “…it is important to give the freest scope possible to uncustomary things, in order that it may in time appear which of these are fit to be converted into customs” (56). In order for society to advance, we must be willing to collectively let go of the notion of what we believe to be as traditional. By Didion condemning the hippie movement, she is asserting that the values she holds are the only values to be used. This is not a progressing view, as it takes away value from the people who lived in the hippie movement. Nonetheless, one can see that the movement did not place any societal progress in terms of people, education, government, or even the prospering of youth.
In short terms, it was a time of reckless being and going against the conformity by experimenting with a free lifestyle of drugs, drinking and sex. This was not the best societal values and it did not leave a lasting positive impact on the values of society. Rather, it brought a little sense of vitality in the idea of not conforming. Mill believes that a new form of vital energy could allow for “an outlet of energy” (58) in which society can create a strengthening belief and will in what they really want instead of always following “outward conformity” (58). But as seen through the anecdotes of Didion, the hippies were not trying to make a bold statement on conformity, nor were they trying to rule. They just wanted to live their lives in the peaceful matter, which ultimately did not help the progression of society. Thus, the hippie movement enabled both adult and youth to express themselves in a new liberal matter which provided for a shift to liberalism in the 1960s that should be acknowledged and not condoned. However, it did not provide any everlasting effect on the well being of society, so it can be seen that not every social movement established a great progression of society.
The Relationship between the Liberty of Thought and Discussion and Liberty in General
Mill’s “On Liberty” is an academic work examining the presence of –and desire for- liberty in human nature and behavior, as well as the limits imposed upon such. Mill writes this text from a bias of utilitarianism and fallibilism, as he simultaneously believes that: (1) the ultimate goal of human life –the purest of actions, per se- is to bring the most good for the most people, and that; (2) humans are an imperfect species and failing to acknowledge such is assuming one’s infallibility which, as Mill sees it, is wrong. As such, the following paper will examine the relationship between liberty of thought and discussion, and liberty in general as proposed by Mill.
Firstly, and fundamentally, it must be understood what is referred to when we discuss Mill’s definition of liberty. However, a one dimensional definition cannot be offered to such a multi-dimensional concept and, necessarily, an analysis must be conducted of Mill’s thought processes in order to comprehend his perception of liberty, in its truest form. Near immediately Mill asserts that On Liberty will concern “civil, or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill 1859, pg 1). Thus we can see that Mill –working in a manner pertaining to classical philosophical practices- has himself chosen to demonstrate what liberty is by first understanding exactly what it is not. Such a statement is further verified by Mill’s reference to the “struggle between liberty and authority” (pg 1) hence alluding to the claim that: liberty is the phenomena of action –or thought- undertaken by choice of the individual without any involvement of authority.
Mill develops this idea by briefly exploring the shifts in the general perception of liberty throughout history. At this point it is interesting to note Mill’s apparent consideration of only Western cultures –drawing upon evidence from “Greece, Rome and England” (pg 1) – rather than an analysis holistically considering diverse and global cultures. Regardless, Mill develops his initial hypothesis –as to what liberty is- by identifying key points in history which he believes have shaped and developed this concept into its current form. These points being the: (1) transition of a body of authority being seen as “in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled” (pg 1) to an imposition of limits unto said authority; (2) emergence of a “new demand for elective and temporary rulers” (pg 2); (3) revelation that “rulers should be identified with the people, that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation” (pg 3), and; (4) eventual prevalence of a democratic republic –“popular government” (pg 3)- and the “notion that people have no need to limit their power over themselves” (pg 3).
Though, superficially, this timeline may cause one to believe that Mill perceives the balance between liberty and authority to have been achieved, it is clear that Mill recognizes the faults within said political structure; “such phrases as ‘self-government’ and ‘the power of the people over themselves,’ do not represent the true state of the case” (pg 3-4). As such, Mill identifies the danger of the liberty of the majority suppressing the liberty of the minority; “the will of the people moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people – the majority” (pg 4). These essentially lay the grounds for Mill’s recognition of “social tyranny” and “political oppression” (pg 4) as two forces equally able to quell liberty. Hence Mill introduces the dilemma that: liberty –which was originally thought of as a freedom from the interference of authority, government, into the lives of the people- cannot be actualized when the liberty of one supersedes and prevents the liberty of another. This logic precedes Mill’s statement that: “All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people” (pg 5) which completes Mill’s prior assertion of the “notion that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves” (pg 3). As convoluted as it may seem, these premises are the foundations upon which Mill articulates the intricacy of the nature of simultaneously existing individual and societal liberty; the paradoxical nature of humanity being such that: we each claim to want liberty for all in our lives, yet refuse to acknowledge the fact that such a desire leaves us, individually, vulnerable to an intrusion into our lives by another exercising their own liberty.
Understanding this, let us for a moment consider the above through Mill’s biases as a utilitarian and a fallibilist: if an action is deemed beneficial only when instigated for the greatest benefit of the greatest number and humans are fallible and thus unable to know –with absolute certainty- whether or not any action will indeed bring benefit. Then, does it not seem that humans would be unable to use their liberty –individual or societal- in means known to be beneficial? What then, is the worth of liberty itself should it not be of benefit to the masses? In answer to this apparent contradiction to his own argument, Mill asserts that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (pg 9) and that as “man is a progressive being” (pg 10) the restriction of his liberties will not only: (1) prevent the immediate instigation of beneficial developments for humanity, but also: (2) limit the potential for future developments. This assertion could be opposed by one simply rearranging the above premises, replacing ‘restriction’ with condoning, ‘prevent’ with enable, ‘beneficial’ with detrimental and ‘limit’ with increase. However, it is likely that Mill would be the first to remind any individual that: an argument akin to such is easier likened to an authoritative ruler from Ancient Greece (as previously alluded to) rather than any leader in the modern world, thus refuting the argument as no longer relevant.
Yet, Mill does concede that the decisions made through one’s liberty may occasionally impede unto –or restrict- the decisions another is able to make through their liberty. Thus, he introduces the Harm onto Others Principle (pg 9-10) essentially stating that any individual deserves the freest of liberties until the point at which their actions, or inactions, directly affect another. Then, he claims, it is justified for the “penalties of law or opinion” (pg 7) to be implicated. Considering all of the above, Mill’s final definition regarding “the appropriate region of human liberty” (pg 11) can be understood. That definition being that: human liberty exists in three parts. First; freedom over the inward domain of consciousness – thought, feeling, opinion and other such moral sentiments- which, intrinsically encompasses the liberty to write and publish such opinions. Second; freedom to act upon said consciousness, to frame one’s life to suit one’s own character not by any societal guidelines. Thirdly; the freedom of equality, for all to have –and use- the aforementioned liberties equally (individually and en masse) without fear of oppression (pg 11-12).
Put simply, the three dimensions Mill uses to define liberty are: (1) morality, the freedom to decide for oneself what is right and wrong; (2) action, the ability to live one’s life by one’s own morals, and; (3) unity, the freedom for all to utilize their own liberties in community without persecution. Mill reiterates the importance of these stating: “no society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected is free” (pg 12), this freedom, he believes, is largely dependent on maintaining an appropriate balance between “individual independence and social control” (pg 5) –hence avoiding “social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” (pg 4)-. Now, before advancing, it is fundamental to acknowledge that Mill assumes that all humans are essentially good, morally righteous people. Drawing upon Socratic-like ideals, Mill believes that the soul of a human –their essence, their purest form- is in no way foul, vindictive, manipulative or unfairly judgmental. Rather, he believes that any of these attitudes are learnt –as reality corrupts the soul- and can be unlearnt, or more appropriately: that kindness and purity can be remembered.
When acknowledging this assumption made by Mill, it is easy to see why he argues that the freedom of thought and discussion is the most essential of all liberties; that the total freedom of opinion and expression is the foundation upon which any free society must be constructed. Mill states that: “if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person that he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (pg 16). As such, he develops his argument to consider three potential scenarios of a silenced opinion: (1) the opinion being stifled is potentially true; (2) the opinion being stifled is potentially false, and; (3) the opinion being stifled is neither wholly true nor false but rather a component of the truth, a missing aspect of the currently held opinion. Assuming that one of these three scenarios is the reality of any situation, Mill disregards the significance of all of them. In fact, Mill asserts that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility” as one assumes that “their certainty is the same as absolute certainty” (pg 17). Statements which concur with Mill’s bias as a fallibilist and emphasis Mill’s perspective that: it is irrelevant whether or not an opinion be true or false, it still deserves to exist.
The logic of this statement derives from the fact that “there is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation”; any opinion which prevails over all contesting perspectives may be assumed as truth until the point at which it is proved false by a counter-argument, so long as it is subjected to such counter-arguments; “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (pg 50). Participating in this process –by arguing assumptions, challenging that which is taken as fact and actively seeking to broaden one’s horizons- is, Mill claims, the only means by which humans gain wisdom (pg 19). Further understanding –in the context of Mill’s utilitarian bias- that the “truth of an opinion is a part of its utility” (pg 21) justifies the motivation for these actions and the desire of one to seek the truth, and the wisdom associated with this.
Essentially, Mill claims that without the liberty of thought and discussion, without the freedom for each to consider their own opinions to be truth up until the point in which they are clearly proved to be fallacious, holistic liberty will never be achieved. Though Mill recognizes that this most fundamental of liberties is routinely impeded by various authoritative figures –including governments and religious organizations- he states that “the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind” (pg 31); without the freedom for adverse opinions to exist, and eventually clash, humans will never get closer to realizing absolute truth legitimately “the whole strength and value, then, of human judgment depends on one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong” (pg 19). Mill argues that without the liberty of thought and discussion, humanity will never achieve other forms of freedom, that intellectual development will cease and, that the revelations of our forefathers will have been in vain. However, in no way does he ever claim that a suppression of this liberty will cause a society to be weak. In fact, he believes that such a society would be very powerful. As he states it: “though culture without freedom never made a large and liberal mind, it can make a clever nisi prius advocate of a cause” (pg 37).
Conclusively, it can be seen through the logical progression of Mill’s arguments that the liberty of thought and discussion is the most primal and fundamental of liberties. It is a “necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion” (pg 50). Through his own biases (utilitarianism and fallibilism) Mill recognizes that obtaining wisdom –or even true knowledge- is one of the most primal goals for humans, as this action yields a vast utility, and that any attempts to quell one’s liberty of thought and discussion is a direct contradiction to this goal. Hence, the development of Mill’s arguments reveal him to believe that total freedom of thought and discussion is not only a deserved right of humans but also one of their own primary goals, one necessary for the obtaining of liberty in general. In the most basic of terms, Mill believes liberty to exist in three distinct dimensions, of those, the liberty of thought and discussion is the most fundamental, that hypothesized dimension preceding even color and shape; the nature of the liberty of thought and discussion is so fundamental to humans as a species that Mill perceives it to be a pre-requisite for any other form of liberty, regardless of whether it is the second, third or even some unknown other dimension of this concept itself.
Private Freedoms, Public Legislation: A Case for Same-Sex and Polygamous Marriages Using John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty
The freedoms of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the guiding moral principles of the U.S., as is the view that every man or woman is created equal. We may buttress these claims with John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” from On Liberty as a moral underpinning by recognizing that marriage is an essentially private institution (made public only through legality) that does not interfere with anyone’s life external to the marriagein other words, the government has no right to legislate morality of a private and innocuous nature. With this in mind, to maintain the morality our country is founded on, and, consequently, the justice of its nuptial laws, we must legalize the marriage of both same-sex couples and polygamous unions.In Smith and Stevens v. Greenville, the essential injustice is the basic denial of rights to humans on the basis of sexual orientation. As Barney Frank points out, homosexuals are tax-paying citizens entitled to standard civic benefits. We cannot overlook the economic injustice perpetrated by this bias. Heterosexual married couples receive tax breaks; homosexual couples do not. Homosexual couples end up literally paying for their sexual orientation (and, in a sense, compensating for the discounts of heterosexuals), while not receiving any recognition or benefits. This is akin to the formerly hypocritical draft policy, in which ephebic Americans could die, but not vote, for their government. Not only does same-sex marriage not directly harm anyone else, but the standing institution of marriage does violate Mill by shortchanging homosexual couples.Furthermore, any question of whether homosexuals lead morally suspect lifestyles is rendered increasingly moot by scientific studies which show evidence of homosexuality as a biological, not societal or psychological, trait, one found even in octopi. If these studies are true (and common sense backs them; given rampant, nearly omnipresent homophobia, who would willingly choose to subject himself to universal disdain as a homosexual?), then the only objection to treating homosexuals with general equality is bigotry, and bigotry is an unacceptable mode of judgment.But even more enlightened critics argue that homosexual marriage compromises the sanctity of the institution, perhaps leading to a snowball effect of disintegrating integrity. Similar sentiments were doubtless raised when interracial marriage was legalized in 1968. As Sullivan argues, “marriage has changed many, many times over the centuries. Each change should be judged on its own terms, not as part of some seamless process of alleged disintegration” (Sullivan 280). It has changed because of acknowledged biases required change. Critics argue that interracial marriage does not fundamentally alter the foundation of marriage as same-sex coupling does, and that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. By this logic, does a loveless marriage of convenience or arrangement uphold the tenets of marriage by virtue of its participants being of opposite sex? This is far more damaging to the institution. Marriage is first and foremost about the official proclamation of love and commitment, qualities homosexuals are fully able to meet. The only difference between same- and opposite-sex couples, then, is that heterosexuals are capable of reproduction, another supposed “meaning” of marriage. Does a willfully childless heterosexual marriage jeopardize the institution? What about if one or both members are sterile? or fear for a potential child’s health? or if they choose to adopt? Can we fault them for these choices, or lack of choices? Are critics of same-sex marriage satisfied when a pedophilic mass-murderer impregnates his unemployed, glue-sniffing wife because their heterosexual union has produced a child? On a pragmatic level, overpopulation is a problem we should work to control, so homosexual marriages even serve a morally noble purpose.But what if homosexual couples want to adopt? Won’t their children grow up in an improper environment? Elshtain argues that the ideal of family “is a launching pad into more universal commitments” (Elshtain 128), but she “privileges a restrictive ideal of sexual and intimate relations,” namely heterosexuality (Sullivan 59). Yet half of all marriages end in divorce, demonstrating their inadequate reach to Elshtain’s ideal. Homosexual couples desiring children must adopt, indicating a willingness to parent, the likes of which many accidental pregnancies cannot boast. More importantly, however, same-sex couples who raise children and bear the official seal of a marriage license will gain a mainstream acceptance and act as a “launching pad” that overturns many moral, “universal” wrongs. Firstly, any strike for tolerance in one field creates a ripple effect of tolerance for othersnote how the feminist movement grew out of the civil rights movement. A moral victory for one minority is a moral victory for every minority, and legalizing same-sex marriage is a step for greater universal tolerance. Secondly, the illegality of same-sex marriage fosters a feeling of alienation among homosexuals. In the same way that black children under segregation felt a distinct sense of inferiority, the taboo nature of homosexuality can be a psychologically tormenting fact of life for many homosexuals. To allow this continue by promoting a legal divide is a willful act of harming the self-esteem of millions of homosexuals, who feel that if not even the law is on their side, then perhaps no one is. This is another direct infringement of Mill, and the only way to overturn it is by legalizing same-sex marriage, an act that allows homosexuals their constitutional freedoms, treats them with equality, and accords with Mill.Many of these claims apply to polygamous marriages, such as economic injustice. The makeup of polygamous families seems to frighten critics. Is a single parent any better or less equipped than two parents to raise a family with “good” ethics? No; the number of parents matters less than does the attention to and skill of parenting. If anything, polygamous marriages may provide a greater wealth of parental care. Many families already function in this way, with relatives acting as surrogate parentswhy not make this a legal right? Sullivan argues that sexuality is a “state” whereas polygamy is an “activity,” so there is no need for legislative change (Sullivan 279). This debases the philosophy of polygamy, which reasons that if Platonic and familial love can be diffused, then the same should apply to romantic love. This is as much a “state” of being as is believing that eros should apply to one’s own sex or the opposite sex. If polygamy is not a state because of its ambiguity of love, then bisexuality is not a state, a claim Sullivan would find hard to support. Romantic love is hard to come by with one person; if a taxpaying citizen is able to find it in plurality, then prevention of traditional proclamation of this love is another transgression of Mill. And, so long as polygamy is incorporated without sexism (i.e., only a man may have multiple spouses), it remains a private practice that doesn’t directly harm anyone else. In critics’ eyes polygamy, and same-sex marriage, may harm the institution of marriage, but marriage is above all else a private institution that emerges publicly only as a pronouncement of love and to reap legal benefits. You may not approve, but to deny these basic rights is to deny the basic right to equality of U.S. citizenship and to advocate government preclusion of private and benign freedoms.
Contradictions in “On Liberty”: The Weaknesses of Mill’s Pillars of Freedom
In John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” the idea of liberty is examined through a lens that is applicable regardless of form of government. John Mill, son of James Mill, the father of utilitarianism, had a rough childhood that heavily influenced his political ideologies. His harshly studious upbringing revolutionized the way his ideologies were formed, and he was very politically developed from a young age. His work bears the hallmarks of liberal political theory, showcasing individualism, the strong defense of the freedom and rights of the individual, and a strong faith in laws to limit the worst of human behavior. However, his work appears to be riddled with contradictions. His ideas of liberty and the freedom of expression are exclusive. While boasting the right to freedom for all people, Mill’s “On Liberty” limits the extent of freedom to certain classifications of people, political situations, and the intent of man.
Mill defined liberty by separating it into three areas that are seemingly overlapping; for him, liberty was exemplified through a protection of the individual’s rights against tyrannical rulers. The first piece of liberty is that of the “inward domain of consciousness” (Mill 598). This covers the liberty of both thought and feeling, including opinion, morals, and sentiments. The second principle covers the “liberty of tastes and pursuits” (Mill 598). Mill described this liberty as being able to set the plans for one’s own life freely, without the impediment of other individuals. The condition which applies to this liberty is that it can be terminated upon violating the liberties of another individual. The third and final distinguished liberty was the ability to combine the liberties of several individuals into a united front, so long as the intent of the united liberties is without harm. It is also implied that the uniting of liberties be voluntary. It is through these three forms that Mill defines liberty. To further illustrate the necessity for liberty in society, Mill states that no society, “in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government” (Mill 598). Through these words, Mill demonstrates his belief that society can only function under these circumstances. While Mill’s argument appears to be built upon the idea that all human beings, regardless of classification, are deserving of liberty, his argument is limited.
Aside from the text, Mill’s involvement in the British East India Company impedes his argument of the right to liberty for all people. The British East India Company, notorious for harsh colonization and involvement in the slave trade, is arguably a multinational corporation built upon restricting the freedom of other people. According to Mill’s own text, it is acceptable to “leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage” (Mill 597). Close examination of the text provides that it was applied primarily to white Europeans. This implicit racism does nothing to aid Mill’s ideology in its totality. To imply that a race may not deserve liberty simply because it is perceived as backward to the race in power is clearly violating the most basic piece of Mill’s argument. Another group excluded from Mill’s liberties include the young and those who still require the care of the state (Mill 597). Mill backs up the logic in this statement by assigning the role of freedom to the caretaking of the individual. If the individual needs to be protected from itself, that is the inherent role of freedom. However, the three principles of freedom do not apply to this subgroup of people. Mill states that “those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury” (Mill 597). Those who are incapable of reason, including the legal definition of minors of the respective states, have the normalized freedom which Mill applies to everyone else taken away. In accordance with Mill’s theory, that freedom is taken only to be replaced by a different liberty of protection, but it does not follow the path that Mill laid out for the rest of acceptable society. Another limitation of Mill’s principles of liberty arises in the political state. While the previous limitation addressed to whom the liberties apply, this limitation addresses the way in which liberty should be given. In a political climate in which there is a powerful majority and a dissenting minority, the dynamic of power can be difficult to navigate.
To further complicate this, Mill meddles with the application of liberty to this specific situation. Mill states that self-government is more of a misnomer than an accurate representation of people ruling over themselves. Instead, those “who exercise the power are not always the same people over whom it is exercised” (Mill 594). The will of the people is often misconstrued to be “the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people… those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority” (Mill 594). Mill continues on to state that the tyranny of the majority is to be prohibited by the applications of the freedoms of the individuals. He introduces the idea of a majority rule, minority rights system, one that is strictly adhered to in modern democracies scattered across the globe. In this sentiment, Mill addresses the ideas of positive and negative liberties, which can be described as the liberty to do something, and the liberty to be safe from others. He takes the negative liberty of keeping society from encroaching on the rights of the minority, while allowing for the positive liberty of the majority to assert the power they rightfully claim, in accordance with a specific power dynamic. The protection of the individual from society is highlighted once more in Mill’s language. Any “society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” (Mill 596). He continues on to write that certain protections from the government are necessary, but also calls for protections from the majority will or opinion. This is firmly interlocked with Mill’s first pillar of liberty, the right to the inward domain of consciousness.
Though Mill balances the positive and negative liberties of counteracting society for the better of the individual, he is still taking away the liberties of one group to allow for the liberties of another, something intrinsically against his argument. The final contradiction found in Mill’s “On Liberty” is the limitation placed on the intent of man. While this belief falls in accordance with that of theorists before him, his ideology reaches a step further than those before. Mill seeks to limit the freedoms of man based on the degree of intent to harm another being. This brings the question of limits into the picture. As with morals and standards, who is to determine the limit of harm acceptable? Mill declares that the only case in which it would be acceptable to force the compliance of one human to another is where the “conduct from which it is desired to deter him [is] calculated to produce evil to someone else” (Mill 598). In this case, and only in this case, would it be acceptable to coerce another being. Mill continues to state 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” (Mill 598). Mill’s language is contradictory in nature, given that his principles of liberty, both positive and negative, appear to be black and white. In this instance, the line of harm is blurry, in a field of gray area. Mill does not clarify on whom that judgment might fall. It can be implied that the affected individual or the government may make the call, on a situational basis. Regardless of the decision, this limit to the limitless liberties of Mill is contradictory once more.
Throughout Mill’s “On Liberty,” the three fundamental principles of liberty are outlined thoroughly. However, the same language the defines them seeks to undermine them. The limits Mill places on the liberties that hover between the government and the individual are unstable and unclear. The application of Mill’s liberties is limited in his own argument by limiting those affected, the political situations, and the extent of the intent of the human being. Mill’s pillars of freedom were built in a delicate balance of a scenario, and that is proven correct through Mill’s own contradictions.
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://www.lexico.com/definition/utilitarianism.