On Liberty

I don’t remember how this book ended up on my shelf, it was probably during my American history phase right after watching Hamilton for the third time. Although John Stuart Mill’s name has always been a familiar, this was the first time I actually read the text of this influential essay, and I was surprised at how the concepts are still quite applicable (or, especially applicable) to the conversations we are having today.

The background of the essay is a Victorian England where social (specifically Christian) values, such as the temperance movement, are being pushed through legislative agendas. J.S. Mill talks about the historical context, a time when communities are at war and individual liberties are rightly constrained, and a leader’s power is more centralized, in order to effectively protect the safety of the community. As societies become more civilized and democratized, the governed will begin to exert more power over the governor, and demand more power. The interesting thing he brings up here is that beyond the power of legislation, the power of public opinion may create greater perils for individual liberties. He worries that people, in their complacency, will allow the majority to enforce their opinion as objective truth, and squelch any original ideas, which is the fundamental driver of continued excellence for any culture.

Mills ultimately defines individual liberty as “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” This he categorizes into three dimensions: liberty of thought and opinion, liberty of pursuit and taste, and liberty of uniting with other individuals. He argues that society should only actively try to govern (whether through public opinion or legality) actions that directly harm it, and otherwise leave people to make their own decisions. Here he specifically addresses the current persecution of non-Christian ideas, using Marcus Aurelius’ persecution of Christianity as an example to argue that however good the intention, silencing non-mainstream ideas may actually be silencing the truth.

I really like his strategy here of using Christian examples to make the broader point. His language is quite respectful of the mainstream religion, while making the argument that they should leave the other religions alone. What a concept! 😛 Although he later made the pointed argument that “Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than action; innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) ‘thou shalt not’ predominates unduly over ‘thou shalt.” Not surprising as he grew up raised in a non-religious family. He also thought people generally don’t really necessarily understand the “truths” they are touting, and calls for everyone to know not only their own beliefs, but also hear the other side.

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

Throughout the essay he tries to make the argument that individuality is not only good for the non-conformist, but good for society as a whole. People thrive in different environments and society should encourage all people to flourish. Conformity leads to complacency, and societal development stagnates (he uses China as the main example here, which makes some sense). Here he is critical of those who pursue legal recourse to force others to conform to their own sense of morality, and advocates trying to change their minds rather than limiting their actions. Here he uses the principle of “no harm”, and argues that if people want to get drunk or want to become the Nth wife of a Mormon husband, that’s their choice. I think this is where things get really complicated, and the idea of “no harm” is quite different depending on who you are talking to.

Many of the concepts Mill talks about in this essay have become mainstream, but some have morphed into more twisted forms. What I saw in the essay was a philosopher passionate about the advance of society in a way where everyone benefits, and argues for individual liberty only when it helps to create a better society for all. His idea of liberty calls for acceptance of other people’s liberties. When people talk about individual liberty today, the focus is on the individual, and the backdrop is us against them. We now live in an age where people mask their selfishness by calling it fighting for their liberty, which is truly a desecration of the word.

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