John Stuart Mill


John Stuart Mill’s Theory Of Liberty Essay, Research Paper

Individualism Vs. Conformism(John Stuart Mill s Theory Of Liberty)byBoB Mill discusses two categories of liberty. The first is the liberty of thought, which deals with the freedom to articulate one’s opinions, the freedom to participate in intellectual, political, religious and general debates and arguments, including the freedom of the press. The second is liberty of action, whereby an individual is free to act upon his will, opinions and thoughts. In both categories there is a consistent attempt by Mill to impress upon his readers the benefits of liberty. Mill states that one can never be certain about the veracity of a certain opinion or viewpoint. The concept of complete certainty of the truth or falsity of an opinion is egocentric. Furthermore, those who assume that man is infallible will consequently stifle an opinion, exclude all others from hearing that opinion, thereby imposing their own version of certainty. Thus, Mill writes ” 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.” An obvious benefit from allowing an opinion to be expressed would be when that opinion turns out to be true. Then, the intrinsic value of that truth is the reward of the person who allowed his own opinion to be challenged. But, more importantly, the gain is not confined to the individuals involved in the debate; society as a whole benefits from the exposure of a fallacy, and the elucidation of a truth. There is also benefits if the opinion is false. Mill believed even an erroneous opinions contain a portion of truth in them. Since the dominant opinion rarely contains the whole truth, Mill believed that such a collision of hostile opinions would bring forth the rest of the story, or at least closer to the absolute truth. However, in rare cases, the prevailing opinion might be the truth. But, even in such cases, Mill believed, any challenges are not rendered totally useless. As such, even in the locus of completely true viewpoints (with the exception of mathematical truths where all argument is on one side), any attempt to differ should not be crushed and should be entertained. Although such an argument would naturally follow Mill’s insistence on Man’s ultimate fallibility, he bases his conviction on other benefits he believed could be derived from a contest between a whole truth and a differing opinion. Firstly, he believed that all truths, even the most certain ones, would degenerate from being “living truths” to “dead dogmas” after a period in which the opinion is not challenged. He believed it the fatal tendency of mankind to stop any intelligent thought about a thing as soon as it is no longer doubtful. This is especially evident in the average human, as opposed to the intellectual, who relies on authorities to provide them with truths. The owners of these received opinions tend to sink into ” the deep slumber of a decided opinion “. It is only when such dead dogmas are challenged, are these people awakened to defend their ‘truths’; if these are not based on true conviction, even the most blatantly obvious truth will give way. A challenge to a whole truth, however foolish it might seem, would thus serve to strengthen the foundation upon which it is built upon ; being cognizant of false opinions pertaining to one’s truths also aids in fortifying one’s justification on relying on one’s judgment and tried opinions. An atmosphere of intellectual freedom, according to Mill, would also benefit the general mental well-being of Mankind. It would serve to nurture probing intellectuals to venture unimpeded into bold. It enable normal humans to develop to full potential their mental capabilities including judgment. By reducing the deadening effects of received opinions, a society where intellectual debate prevails would also serve to strengthen its members’ reasoning faculties. Even to the disinterested bystander, a collision of opinion would reveal to him truths and falsehoods he had never considered. The benefits that Mill attributes to a society that allows freedom of action within a certain sphere are similar. These are derived from Mill’s assumption of the intrinsic good of individuality, as opposed to the evils of conformity men. Mill believed that an individual will have his human capabilities withered away if he blindly follows custom, and conforms his nature to a mechanistic model, which it is not. This is because no two persons are identical, and what is suited to one might be anathema to another. Most importantly, if individuality is stifled by an atmosphere of conformity, the exercise of choice by an individual is also stifled. It is this exercise of choice, the liberty to choose, that Mill is primarily concerned about. According to Mill, it is only through a regular exercise of choice that a man can benefit from developing his faculties of perception, reason, feeling, and even moral preference. Without this, man is no more than an automaton, devoid of his own desires, wishes, opinions and even feelings. Mill also extends the benefits of individuality to the entire society. He believed that individuality brought about by liberty of action, and the freedom to differ, would contribute to a more diverse, rich and livelier world. This, he believed, makes the human race infinitely better worth belonging to. By developing his own individual prowess, an individual thus not only becomes more valuable to himself, but also to others. Mill also thought that it is only in an atmosphere of individual freedom can genius flourish; geniuses, that special breed of humans, are integral to the development of society, as well as the leadership of it. Ordinary humans, allowed to be original, also become independent centres for creativity, innovation, and originality. Thus, society has as many potential centers for improvement as there are individuals. If everyone was forced to be the same, made to learn the same things and think the same way, mankind will degenerate into what Mill termed as “collective mediocrity”. This mediocrity not only affects individuals, but also stunts societal growth and leads to mediocre government. ” It is only the cultivation of individuality” , he wrote, ” which produces, or can produce, well developed human beings.” Imitation, Mill wrote, is but an “ape-like faculty”. Thus, Man benefits from a liberal society by the fortification and development of his human nature. Mill believes that it is only in an atmosphere where people are free to carry out ” experiments of living”, where men can be different and act differently without fear, and where they can be free to choose unhindered, can individuality flourish. And, for Mill, Individuality and Progress were synonymous. He was of the opinion that it is only when people are different can values, behaviors, and superior modes can be seen. His belief that diversity aids progress reminds me of Darwin’s theory of evolution, where the strongest traits are carried on, while weaker, vulnerable characteristics die off. In short, Mill was convinced that the singularly most important benefit of liberty is the progress of humankind. Nevertheless, it remains doubtful whether some of the benefits Mill attributes to liberty would materialize, and whether a liberal society is a necessary pre-condition for these benefits. Firstly, Mill assumes that in the absence of barriers, people would naturally aspire to individuality. He forgets that some people would rather remain in the safety of conformism, try to be as ordinary as possible, rather than risk being made to look foolish. However, Mill does believe that people can be educated up to individuality by way of example and exhortation by practicing individualists. Secondly, evidence of history has shown that love of truth and fiery individualism grow at least as often in severely disciplined societies, like in puritan Calvinist ones, or under military discipline. If this is so, then Mill’s assertion that liberty is a necessary condition for the growth of genius does not hold water. What then does Mill consider a legitimate constraint upon liberty? That is, under what circumstances can there be a warranted interference in a man’s freedom? According to Mill, the answer can be easily found in his “one very simple principle”. That the only legitimate reason for constraint upon a man’s liberty is for “self – protection” and to “prevent harm to others”. To clarify things further, Mill distinguishes between two types of actions: Firstly, there are actions which concern only the self-regarding actions. Secondly, there are actions that concern others. As soon as any part of an individual’s conduct affects adversely the interests of others, society has a legitimate right to intervene. Whether to intervene or not will depend on whether general welfare will be promoted. In each person’s own concern, he is free to do as he pleases, as he alone will bear the consequences. On the surface, this attempt to clearly demarcate a sphere in which an individual can safely operate without fear of societal interference is very clear-cut and satisfactory. Outside this sphere, society can only warn, advice and attempt try to convince the individual when it sees its lifestyle or actions as deviant and harmful to himself. But, it has no legitimate right to actively constrain or impede his freedom to do as he likes in that sphere. Neither does it have the right to punish him, either by law or by moral disapprobation. This would then be what Mill termed as “tyranny of the law ” and “tyranny of opinion”. Where there are problems arising from ambiguity, Mill resolved them himself. He acknowledged the fact that some self-regarding actions would inevitably affect others, no man being an island. To resolve this complexity, Mill brought in the concept of duty and obligation. As long as his conduct does 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 is so punished, it is for his breach of duty and not for the original self-regarding action. An example given by Mill is the difference between a soldier on duty getting drunk and ordinary man in the same inebriated state. The latter will be left alone as his action is self-regarding but the former, would be punished not for the self-regarding original action of drinking, but for neglecting his public duty. This qualification, on the first reading, is again a satisfactory one. Mill also quoted the extraordinary case of selling oneself to slavery. Based on his principle, the man has the right to do so, as long as he does not violate any defined duty, because this is a self-regarding action. However, Mill sees ground for legitimate interference because he sees it illogical to use one’s liberty to sell away that liberty. “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free”. On the side of the buyer, Mill sees it that no man has the right to act for another. In short, Mill’s attempt to explain the pitfalls on liberty rests upon a clearly defined sphere where a man can freely do as he pleases – when what he does affects only himself and not others, and when he does not violate any social or private obligation.

Problems arise when one realizes that despite all his qualifications, Mill’s attempt to clearly distinguish between two different kinds of actions is at most tenuous. Most of his critics agree that it is quite impossible for any action to have no repercussions on the concern of others, despite his qualification with the ‘violation of duty’ concept, which incidentally only deals with indirect repercussions. This is especially so because the concept does nothing to clarify his frequent mention of “harm to others” and “injurious to others”. It is also vague and open to interpretation, as whether there is a duty or obligation involved is quite subjective. To take a modern day example, would a man have any duty or obligation towards a test-tube baby borne not of his genes? Because of the frequency in which the phrases “harm to others” and “injurious to others” are used, I would see them as central to his Principle of Liberty, and would be an extension of what he meant by affecting the concerns of others. Thus I would see this as superseding Mill’s weak attempt to bring violation of duty into play. Mill never defined what he considered harmful and what he deemed injurious. This seriously undermines the coherence of his attempt to qualify what he meant by a legitimate constraint on liberty. How are we to know how far a man is to be left free when we do not know what constitutes harm? Are hurt feelings injurious and can we consider an action to be injurious only when physical pain is involved, or do we consider more abstract, and less extreme harm like inconveniences are involved? The point is that because Mill never defines the scope in which an action can be said to harm or affect others. A situation arises where there are too few cases, if any at all, when an action is purely self-regarding, and too many where one can argue that some person in some way is affected. Thus, if we are unable to clearly define areas in which some actions are purely self-regarding and some are not, Mill’s doctrine becomes entirely untenable. Although, it has been argued that this traditional interpretation of Mill’s simplistic principal glosses over the fact that he uses two different types of phrases to describe actions. On the one hand we have the use of phrases like “conduct which affect only himself” and “conduct affecting others”. On the otherhand, we see phrases like “affects the interests of no one but himself” and “affect the interests of others “. This may mean two entirely different things. The word “interests” has the specific meaning of something that is founded on social recognition and supported by reasons and thus, more tangible than the generality of the unqualified word, “affects”. For example, a personal affront, which undoubtedly can be called an effect of an action, and thus rendering that action non-self-regarding in that sense, can hardly count as an interest, because societal standards of evaluation will not count it as such. Indeed, non-human entities such as plants and animals, whom Mill definitely does not include under his Principle of Liberty, can also be thus affected. Any attempt to talk of their interests would be ludicrous. Mills blurs this distinction between “rights” and “interests” when he speaks of “certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered rights”. By narrowing the definition down to rights, Mill can be seen to be clarifying that what he meant was not a general effect on others, but a violation of interests and rights. I find this distinction hard to accept. Firstly, Mill uses these phrases so interchangeably and freely that it is logical to think that he meant them to be the same. Secondly, the ambiguity of the word “concerns” cuts both ways. It might conceal a coherent theory based on interests rather than effects but it might also allude to two completely incompatible principles, one based on interests, and the other on effects. This contradiction renders Mill’s attempt to explain legitimate interference incoherent and impossible to apply. Furthermore, if the theory of interests is accepted, it has its own built-in complexities of interpretation. How widely are we to interpret interests? Do we include actions that affect public interests and not any individual’s interest in particular? And even if we do only concern ourselves with individual interests, under what standards of evaluation do we consider something an interest? Must all interests be tangible and material then? Are psychological interests any less important than monetary or legal ones? Even if we confine our discussion to rights, Mill’s one very simple principle is still obfuscated. Where constituted, legal rights are concerned, we only have to refer to the law; but in the area of unconstituted rights, where Mill advocated punishment by opinion if an infringement should occur, there is again a wide scope for argument as to what counts as unconstituted rights. The bottom line is that a theory based on interests or rights might be even harder to apply than one based on general effects ; at least effects can be empirically observed. Perhaps if Mill, had confined his sphere of legitimate constraints to “essential rights resting on the rules of justice which are common to different societies “, he might have managed a more satisfactory attempt at defining legal constraints. The question of public interests that I mentioned above leads to another major problem I encountered when trying to understand Mill’s Principle of Liberty. In some areas, Mill’s attitude towards public interest and the general concern of society is clear. For example, he supports police restraint in public places because “offenses against society are especially apt to originate there”. Also he believed that even when there are grounds for legitimate interference, whether society should actually interfere or not will depend on whether it will be beneficial to general welfare. Perhaps Mill’s Principal of Liberty would appear more satisfactory if we accept a normative rule of liberty. A rule that prescribes an area of non-interference, a domain of liberty of action, rather than expounding the areas in which one can intervene. What is important is not how satisfactory Mill demarcates the area for interference, but the area of non-interference. Mill does this quite well: Interfering in acts in which only the agent is involved and which would only affect himself ,would not count as legitimate constraint on liberty. However, this still does not resolve the complexities discussed above on what counts as a legitimate restraint. Another way in which I would judge whether Mill’s explanation is satisfactory is whether it is consistent with his utilitarian theories. This is because I feel that even if his explanation of legitimate constraints is cogent, I would feel it unsatisfactory if it did not also tie in with his utilitarian theories. It is hard for me to see how Mill’s theory of Liberty, and what he sees as legitimate constraints to liberty, can be consistent with utilitarian principles. It is clear that Mill totally discounts morality-dependent distress as a legitimate constraint on liberty. However, Mill does use a balancing of utilities, in cases where conduct harms others, by taking into consideration whether general welfare will be promoted by interference. However, because he deals so inconsistently with general welfare, as I have shown, Mill also does not apply these utility principles uniformly. Although Mill does not explicitly employ an aggregative standard of value, we can infer it to answer some questions in his theory of liberty. When an action conflicts with similar or overlapping rights of others, it might be overridden in order to minimize the disutility from the violation of these rights, and to maximize the sum of intrinsic utility from having a want satisfied. Thus, each interest, right and concern is weighted in order to resolve which right is overridden. If explained as such, utilitarian principles, though not underpinning Mill’s theory of liberty, is also not incompatible, but instead supplements it by resolving some difficulties arising from the collision of two individual’s spheres of liberty. Another way in which I think helps in resolving the seeming incompatibility in Mill’s theories of Utilitarianism and Liberty is to understand that underlying both is his theory of human nature. It is because of man’s hedonistic nature that causes him to strive to develop his own individuality and satisfy his wants at the costs of others. By trying to conform everybody according to his own idea of life, he secures his utility and protects him from the disutility of conflict with a different lifestyle. Mill’s theory of liberty thus attempts to draw the boundaries in which a man is free to pursue his own happiness, and the areas in which his hedonistic impulses must be sacrificed in order that the sum of societal utility is maximized. All in all, Mill’s attempt to explain what counts as a legitimate constraint upon utility has many questionable concepts and a plethora of ambiguities. However, it would be wrong to dismiss his theory as untenable just because we are unable to clearly define some terms. On the whole, it does make a courageous attempt to answer the complex question of how much authority should society have over an individual.

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