“On Liberty” (1859), Chapter 1: Introduction, by John Stuart Mill

The bumps of freedom…

“On Liberty” (1859), Chapter 1: Introduction, by John Stuart Mill

  • Civil or Social liberty – nature of limits of power legitimately exercised over the individual’s will
    • Struggle between liberty & authority in the past was between subjects & the government. Liberty was meant as protection against tyranny from the government. Rulers derived their authority from inheritance or conquest & not from the permission of the people. The power was seen as necessary but also dangerous. They’d use it against subjects & external enemies. The idea was to employ a weapon more powerful than the enemy’s
      • But liberty would stop the power from preying on & abusing its own people
      • Limitations on power
        • 1 – Getting certain immunities (political liberties & rights)
        • 2 – Establishing constitutional checks to prevent government from working in an abusive way
          • 1 – Ruling powers in most of Europe submitted to these
          • 2 – They didn’t do so with this
      • Political enemies would fight & people didn’t care who won as long as the rights & liberties were safe. In fact, it kept the government too busy to decide to trample on people’s rights
    • But then people stopped thinking about limits on the government’s ability to abuse people & that perhaps elected officials representing majority parties would institute their self-interest
      • Politicians’ powers were seen as the nation’s powers & should be wielded unlimitedly. This was an idea the French Revolution used to usurp power to give to a few, not from popular institutions but of a violent reaction to monarchic & aristocratic despotism
      • A Democratic Republic became the most popular form of government with it being held responsible to its people via elections. But “self-government” mean not by one man over himself. “Power of the people over themselves” meant some people ruling over some other people. “The will of the people” meant the will of majority over the minority
        • Limitations are needed over these as much as they are over tyrants. The tyranny of the majority uses government authority much more insidiously, intrusively & it becomes more inescapable than that of an actual tyrant. Prevailing opinion fetters the development of the individual who is out of sync with society’s ways & will stifle & crush it according to its will & energy
      • In order to combat this. Some limits must be placed between individual independence & social control. Rules of conduct are imposed by law & opinion on many things that are inappropriate for the law to be involved in. They claim they are self-evident & self-justifying. All of this illusion comes from the influence of custom
        • Custom prevents misgivings in respecting rules of conduct. People are accustomed to believe their feelings are better than reasons, making reasons unnecessary.  The practical principle guides them to how they behave & they think everyone else ought to be required to behave the same way but without reasons beyond their own preference (morality, taste, propriety) & think that’s good enough
        • Men’s opinions on things are affected by many things: reason, prejudices, superstitions, social (& anti-social) affections, envy, jealousy, arrogance, contemptuousness, desires, fears & legitimate (& illegitimate) self-interest
          • Wherever there’s an ascendant class – most of the country’s morality comes from that class’s interests & sense of superiority. The sentiments guaranteed by such ascendance react on the moral feelings of the class. The formerly ascendant class beings to dislike the new superior class. They also resent having to be servile to their masters’ preferences & morality. It isn’t hypocrisy to do so because to do so could expose them of charges of heresy & other antipathies growing out of the clash, rather than out of the interests of society as a whole
          • The likings & dislikings of society determine the rules of society under penalty of law. The ascendant class tries to control what society ought to like & then try to change the feelings of mankind to match it rather than to make a case in defense of freedom. Only one way to claim the higher ground consistently is via religious belief. Many wars were fought over disagreement on this
      • The great defenders of religious liberty asserted freedom of conscience as a right & denied one shouldn’t be accountable to others for this belief
        • But religious freedom only takes root when there is religious indifference & people don’t like peace disturbed by theological disputes
        • To almost all religious persons, even in tolerant countries, the duty of toleration is admitted with tacit reserves. à I can tolerate everyone else _______. Wherever the majority sentiment is genuine & intense, it’s found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed.
          • In England, law is lighter but opinion is heavier. There is jealousy of direct interference by the legislative or executive power with private conduct. The majority haven’t yet been able to use the government to impose its power & opinions. There’s still a lively feeling to reject the law imposing control on the individual
          • There’s no laboratory of testing what the people will tolerate with respect to government interference. Some people decide based on personal preferences. Some see a good needing to be done or an evil to be stomped out & push to get the government to fix it
  • Object of the Essay – assert a principle: the sole end for which mankind is warranted in interfering with liberty of action is self-protection. The only way power can be rightfully exercised over another is to prevent harm to others.
    • His own physical & moral good aren’t enough. He can’t be forced to do or prevented to do something because it’d make him happier or because others think it’s wise. You can criticize him, persuade him or beg him – but you can’t force him
      • There are smaller cases with respect to the good of society. But with respect to him, his independence is absolute. The individual is sovereign over his own body & mind. This applies to all mature humans. Children need to be taken care of. Also backwards states need a government with a paternalistic benevolence to the people under the pretext of improving society, without which no improvement would occur to all. Liberty isn’t applicable to a society that can’t be improved by free & equal discussion
      • Utility is the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions – utility in the largest sense, on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being
      • If anyone does harm to others there’s a prima facie case to punish him by law or general disapprobation.
      • There may also be a compulsion to do positive acts like give evidence in court, contribute to common defense & perform acts of individual beneficence – saving people’s lives when possible or preventing abuse of the defenseless
        • A person may cause evil by inaction on top of positive acts. He is responsible for doing harm to others as a rule & for not preventing evil as an exception. He is de jure amenable to those whose interests are concerned & if need be, to society as their protector
        • The sphere of action in society (as opposed to the individual) only has an indirect interest. The individual’s life concerns him completely but with respect to society when it affects others – only with free, voluntary & undeceived consent & participation
    • The appropriate region of human liberty
      • 1 – Inwards domain of consciousness – liberty of thought & feeling, absolute freedom of opinion & sentiment on all subjects (practical & speculative, scientific, moral & theological). Absolute freedom of expression & publishing opinions may seem to be of a different principle because it revolves around other people but it’s almost inseparable from liberty of thought
      • 2 – Liberty of tastes & pursuits, framing the plan of our lives according to our character without impediment from others, so long as we don’t harm others
      • 3 – Liberty of combination with others – freedom to unite for any purpose not harming others – all people of age & not coerced or deceived
    • No society where these liberties aren’t respected is free. None is completely free where they don’t exist absolutely & unqualified. Each man is the guardian of his own health (mental & spiritual). Mankind is better off to live as the individual seems bests themselves
    • Older commonwealths felt entitled to regulate every aspect of private life because the state had a deep interest in the mental discipline of every citizen due to constant danger of being subverted by foreign attack or internal commotion. Laziness or bad self-command would be tricky for survival
      • In the modern world, with greater sized communities & separation between spiritual & worldly authority, prevents interference in the law. But moral repression & religion are the most powerful of elements – which have always been governed by ambition of hierarchy, seeking control every aspect of human life, or Puritanism.
    • Currently there’s an increase in the inclinations to stretch rules of society over the individual via opinion or legislation to strengthen society at the expense of the individual
      • This is not an evil likely to disappear its own but likely to grow more & more. It’s a disposition of people to impose their opinions & inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, hardly kept under restraint
  • One branch to confine our essay: Liberty of thought
    • Impossible to separable from cognate liberty of speaking & writing, which form part of political morality of all countries professing religious toleration & free institutions

Author: knowit68

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