Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, March 09, 2013

MILL: On Liberty (Introduction)

John Stuart Mill is crystal clear when introducing what he wants to talk about in this essay On Liberty. He will discuss the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. This is a problem that goes all the way back to the earliest reading in the Great Books series. In The Iliad Achilles questions the authority of Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks to take away what he has gained in their war on Troy. What right does society have to tell me what to do? What right does it have to take away anything that I’ve earned with my own labor? This is the core of the argument. And Mill gets right to the core of his answer: The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle… That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. In other words, the ONLY reason society can legitimately interfere with what I do is when I threaten another member, or members, of the community. Otherwise, I should be left alone to live as I please. Society should not interfere with my personal life, even if it’s for my own benefit. A man should be free to plan and live his own life according to his own standards. Mill says the government should have virtually no say in how I choose to live: He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. Mill’s principles are clear. The government shouldn’t force me to do some things and forbid me to do other things, even if it made me a better, happier, wiser person. The only question now is: what would happen if we put Mill’s theory into actual practice?

First of all, we have to be clear about who would be included in Mill’s theory, and who would not: we are not speaking of children… because children don’t have the capacity to think critically and understand the consequences of their actions. Their parents or some other responsible adult should make decisions for them until they’re old enough to make their own well-informed decisions. This makes sense. But then Mill goes on to say: for the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. This would be more controversial. Put in blunt terms: do civilized nations have a moral responsibility to take care of uncivilized nations? Mill thinks so: …Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. If we’re sure that citizens of another country aren’t capable of governing themselves then we should take steps to preserve and improve their social conditions until they’re capable of governing in a wise manner.

But other than those two exceptions Mill believes we should leave all other (adult) people alone: each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. In practical terms what would this mean regarding national health care? Would Mill disapprove of public schools? What about state-mandated test scores for students? Mill would stand his ground and say the government should stay out of it. Why? Because in the long run mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest. Americans believe strongly in the principle of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Mill seems to be calling our bluff. He asks: how much liberty can we be trusted with? He answers his own question: it’s not up to ME to decide how much freedom YOU should have.


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