Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

MILL: On Liberty 2011

Socrates had definite opinions about some things. He believed that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father… For Socrates the survival of the state is more important than the survival of any one individual or family. People come and go but the state goes on for generations. John Stuart Mill thinks almost the exact opposite. The state exists solely for the benefit of the people living in it right now. As long as they’re not hurting anyone else they should be allowed to live however they please. Mill begins by defining Liberty: The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will…but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. Mill confines his essay on liberty to be about people living with other people in a political society. When people live together there have to be rules; no matter if it’s a nation of millions or just two people living in the same house. The principle is the same. Two big questions need to be answered. What are the rules? Who gets to make them up? Mill admits that the answers aren’t easy. The main problem is and always has been the struggle between Liberty and Authority… Living in a house, for example, I may have the freedom to take a shower. But I don’t have the freedom to leave my wet towel lying on the floor. Who decides where wet towels go? Multiply the towels and you get the problem of governing a whole society. There will be lots of wet towels. What should we do with them? Some people want to wash them, fold them up and tuck them away in carefully marked baskets; others want to leave them wherever they darn well please; and still others think we need all new towels. Who decides? Mill says that in old times this contest was between subjects…and the government. Traditionally it was the government which took on the responsibility of deciding what to do about the towels. But “the government” could mean many things. One guy may just emerge one day and start announcing towel policy without any input from the rest of the citizens. Sometimes this works. However, as time went on more people wanted to have a say about towel policy. So democracies were born. Now “the people” themselves decide what to do about the towels. Good. But then a funny thing happens. Mill describes it this way: such phrases as "self-government," and "the power of the people over themselves," do not express the true state of the case. The "people" who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the "self-government" spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; …and in political speculations "the tyranny of the majority" is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard. What is Mill driving at? Let’s say you want to use a beach towel after you take a shower. Most people think this is a dumb idea. So they pass a law: no beach towels may be used as bath towels. Majority wins. Is this fair? No, says Mill. This isn’t a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of allowing people to experiment and run their own lives. You may not want to use a beach towel after a shower. But does that mean nobody else should either? Mill summarizes his position this way: This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first…in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; Second…liberty of tastes and pursuits… Third…the liberty of combination among individuals; freedom to unite… These are the ideal goals. Mill believes we should think for ourselves and be free to live our own lives. Obviously self government is hard work. It’s not easy but we can’t just throw in the towel and quit.


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