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.
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