Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

Chapter 5: “Applications”

Mill spends four chapters explaining his theory of liberty then rolls up his sleeves and gets down to business. How do these theories apply in real life? Mill summarizes his beliefs in two maxims. “The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself…Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one (social punishment) or the other (legal punishment) is requisite for its protection.” To summarize Mill’s summary the first maxim is this: if what I do is my own personal business, then it’s none of your business. The second maxim is this: what I do with my liberty must not interfere with your liberty.

So how does Mill’s theory of liberty play out in real life? It sounds simple when you read his maxims but becomes more complicated when you try to apply them to real-life situations. Let’s look at one example: the law requiring people to wear protective helmets when riding motorcycles. Mill acknowledges that “it is a proper office of public authority to guard against accidents…” so you might assume that Mill would agree there needs to be a law that motorcyclists should wear protective helmets. This will help protect them from grave injury or death in case of an accident. But Mill also says “Nevertheless, when there is not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief, no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk…” In this case the danger of mischief is the risk of having an accident while riding a motorcycle. The reader is led to assume that Mill believes the risk should be left entirely up to the individual riding the motorcycle. The government has no right to prevent him from riding the motorcycle simply because he may have an accident. If believes he won’t have an accident then it’s his personal decision. The government has no right to force him to wear a protective helmet.

Sometimes liberty remains a fuzzy concept under Mill’s theory. Loitering is a fuzzy example. Mill says that “Idleness…cannot without tyranny be made a subject of legal punishment.” Many places have loitering rules or laws. Would Mill approve of loitering if women felt threatened by gangs of men hanging out on street corners with no apparent purpose? It comes down to this: which is more important, my liberty to hang out on street corners or a woman’s liberty to walk about downtown without feeling threatened? How does Mill’s theory of liberty decide this issue?

In some areas of modern life Mill’s theory will be perfectly clear. Mill says that “offences against decency” may be prohibited because they fall within the category of offenses against others. Here he’s in agreement with modern America law. I can legally watch X-rated movies in the privacy of my own home but I can’t legally project them onto the side of a building in downtown Nashville. Society won’t let me. But if we want to retain our civil liberties then there are certain things society is powerless to stop. “Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling…” says Mill because “…society has no business, as society, to decide anything to be wrong which concerns only the individual.” Besides, as a practical matter we may as well tell the wind to stop blowing. Men have been fornicating and gambling for several thousand years now. They won’t stop just because some folks think it’s wrong to fornicate or gamble. Mill accepts these limits on liberty and thinks we should too.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

Chapter 4 “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual”

One of the basic questions of government that keeps popping up throughout succeeding generations is expressed by Mill this way: “How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?” This was a problem for the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was still a problem for the feudal society of medieval Europe, and it remains a problem for modern liberal democracies such as the United States. Mill offers one answer: “To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.” This is true but it isn’t helpful. It just states the obvious. The problem we’re really trying to solve is the boundary where individual rights end and society’s rights begin. Or, as Mill asks “Where does the authority of society begin”?

He starts with the assumption that “Though society is not founded on a contract… every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.” First of all there are many philosophers who would disagree with Mill’s premise that society is not founded on a contract. Rousseau and Hobbes are poles apart in many ways but they both agree, and strongly maintain, that society is formed on a contract – either explicitly or implicitly stated. But apart from the contract controversy it’s clear they would both agree with Mill that the important point is the second one: how much loyalty does a citizen owe to the state? If society protects me and my property from bodily harm and theft then what is my responsibility in return? Mill is a strong advocate for individual rights but is careful to balance these with corresponding civic duties. Insofar as it is possible the individual citizen should be free to conduct personal affairs without government intervention. But he says there comes a point when my individual rights must be tempered by the individual rights of other members of my community. For a harmonious community to thrive two things are required from its members: “first, in not injuring the interests of one another…secondly, each person’s bearing his share…of the labors and sacrifices…”

It’s still not clear to me where Mill would stand on specific issues. For example, Mill claims that “we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us.” Fair enough. But how would Mill respond to an organization that chose not to allow minority members? Does my personal freedom of association trump society’s goal of achieving an integrated community? Mill implies that it does. However, in another part of the essay Mill says “How (it may be asked) can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members? No person is an entirely isolated being…” This statement makes me think that integration would be more important than my personal liberty to choose my own associates.

And the problems get thornier. Mill ponders the question “If protection against themselves is confessedly due to children and persons under age, is not society equally bound to afford it to persons of mature years who are equally incapable of self-government?” The government has a compelling reason to protect children because they are weak and immature. In the U.S. the smoking age is 18, the drinking age is 21. But what reason does the government have to compel mature adults to behave? Drinking laws are an example. If someone is an alcoholic should the government intervene? No, says Mill. As long as it doesn’t affect the whole of society individuals should be left free to make personal decisions. However, there are limits. Mill also believes that “No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty.” Mill never owned a car himself, but ‘don’t drink and drive’ is a slogan I think he would wholeheartedly agree with.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Reading Schedule for Winter 2008

January 7 BIBLE: The Gospel of Mark

LEO TOLSTOY: War and Peace

Book One

January 14 - Part 1: July 1805 (old style)

January 21 - No Meeting

January 28 - Part 2: October 1805

February 4 - Part 3: November 1805

Book Two

February 11 - Part 1: 1806

February 18 - No Meeting

February 25 - Part 2: 1807

March 3 - Part 3: 1808-10

March 10 - Part 4: 1810-1811

March 17 - Part 5: 1811-1812

Book Three

March 24 - Part 1: May, June, July 1812

March 31 - Part 2: August 1812

April 7 - Part 3: September 1812

Book Four

April 14 - Part 1: August 1812

April 21 - Part 2: October 1812

April 28 - Part 3: October-November 1812

May 5 - Part 4: November-December 1812


May 12 - Parts 1 & 2

May 19 - SHAKESPEARE: Anthony and Cleopatra

May 26 - No Meeting