08.21.2018: One Chapter of Nonfiction


Today's soundtrack is Slayer: Divine Intervention.


This evening, I'm reading the first chapter of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, an essay called "Introductory."


Mill says that this essay is about civil or social liberty, which is "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual" (p. 11): the age-old "struggle between Liberty and Authority" (p. 11). Historically, this struggle was between subjects and rulers. The rulers had the power to protect the population; however, they were wont to use this power to control their subjects, too. So patriots fought to establish the liberties of the common man so that he would not be crushed by the might of the rulers, but they had a difficult time attaining true liberty, since the majority of the populace didn't want to rock the boat or bite the hand that feeds. Either idiom applies.

Eventually, people came around and realized that it would be in their best interests to elect officials that would act in their best interests. If they didn't, they would be removed from office - a democracy. But it didn't work out quite as well as had been hoped: sometimes the interests of those elected weren't the same as those that they ruled over; they were merely the same as the vocal minority, or the more powerful voters. And of course, there was always the risk of the majority overriding the rights of the minority - a kind of societal tyranny! The problem with this kind of tyranny when compared with the tyranny enforced by a dictator is that "though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself" (p. 15). So the question becomes this: what should be the limit between of social control on individual independence?


The problem is, when we evaluate this question, it is too easy to let personal feelings and so-called "common sense" supersede reason. We stick with tradition; customs seem to us to be "self-evident and self-justifying" (p. 16). And in our customs we find "prejudices or superstitions, [...] envy or jealousy, [...] arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, [...] desires or fears for [ourselves - our] legitimate or illegitimate self-interest" (p. 17). We aren't even certain which things should be controlled by the government: some believe the government should be in control of all aspects of life, economic, moral, and otherwise; others think that the government should be completely removed from personal matters. So what can we say? Mill asserts that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so" (p. 20). We can reason with a man who is doing something that harms himself; we cannot force him to stop what he is doing unless it is harming someone else. For "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (p. 21). Of course, this principle does not apply to children. Only adults are responsible for themselves; adults are responsible for the well-being of children. Mill says that he regards "utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being" (p. 22).

Mill says that we must not only look at what men do, but also what they do not do. If a man harms another by lack of action, that man should be punished. So it is man's duty to protect his fellow man from evil; thus, it is man's duty to stop a man who is trying to commit an evil act that harms another man. Every act that we perform touches the world around us. We must consider our conscience to decide whether what we are doing is for the betterment of mankind. To do so, we must have true human liberty. To have human liberty, we must have "liberty of conscience" (p. 23): we must have freedom to feel and express "opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological" (p. 23). Knowing that some might argue that expressing opinions goes into the realm of affecting and potentially harming others, Mill clarifies: "The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions [is] almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it[; also,] the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish [or] wrong" (p. 23). Without these freedoms, we are not free, for "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" (p. 24).




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