On Liberty.doc

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Political Science
POL 1201
Elizabeth Beaumont

On Liberty Social Tyranny • The problem Mill seeks to solve • Identifies and on-going struggle between liberty and authority that now takes new forms • Says historical responses to tyranny have created ◦ Limits on government ◦ elected and representative government • But: now people must also limit their own political and social power over each other: we must all "self-limit" so we won't be tyrants • Mill's key: offering a theory of expansive individual civil liberties, especially freedom of thought/opinion, expression/speech, press, and association Mill shares Tocqueville's fears • Tyranny of the Majority, especially Social Tyranny • Suggests social tyranny, operating through public opinion and dominant culture, is more dangerous than political tyranny or legal repression because it prevents individuality: • "It leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to deter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways." Prioritizing Individuality and Individual Liberty • Mill believes liberty, individuality, and social progress are interconnected and should be recognized as the highest human goals ◦ We can't be genuinely free or happy as individuals, and we can't have social progress unless core elements of individual liberty and individuality are protected, including: 1. Freedom to think and feel as one wishes; freedom of opinion, speech and publication (freedom of conscience) 2. Freedom to pursue all individual tastes, even if "immoral", as long as they don't cause harm (freedom to pursue one's own life path or autonomy) 3. "Freedom to unite" or meet with others (freedom of association) • These "higher level" human capacities and pleasures should be maximized for all who are "fit" for them. The Harm Principle • Mill's Solution to Social Tyranny • Individual liberties limited only by the harm principle • A principle for protecting broad individual liberties of expression (thought, speech, writing), association, and action so long as other are not harmed • "The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. 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. 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 . . . the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else." (13-14) Major Exception to Harm Principle • " . . . this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties . . . " ◦ not children on "backwards states of society" ◦ "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." (sounds Machiavellian) ◦ Until people are capable of improvement through free and equal discussion and persuasion, they are better off simply obeying an Akbar or Charlemagne • Thus, "benign" imperialism is justified and promoted by Mill's theory of liberty An Expanded Duty of Tolerance within "Mature" Societies • Thus, Mill argues that neither leader/laws nor people within society (or social groups in civil society) can legitimately interfere with a person's liberty to pursue her own beliefs and life path if she does not pose a direct harm to others ◦ Though people may and should try to reason with, persuade, entreat this person if they believe she is in error (They may also avoid her company, but not shame her or treat her as an outcast) • goes beyond Locke's liberty of conscience and duty of tolerance -- exceeds Locke's limit of atheism Basic Justifications of broad scope of individual liberty • Individuals and societies learn, improve, and progress or "perfect" themselves, but not without a wide scope for the free inquiry, experimentation, and dissent that are needed for truth-seeking and social criticism 1. Human Fallibility ◦ We can never be sure whether the opinion we are trying to stifle is correct; all silencing of discussion is a problematic "assumption of infallibility" ◦ not even "ages" are infallible -- the future will judge each age and find wrong opinions 2. The Value of Diversity of Opinion and Critical Inquiry ◦ Even if we're sure a view is wrong (or even just deeply offensive), it still shouldn't be stifled bec
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