Fundamental Questions- Semester 2
On Liberty- Day 1
Modern era- 17 century to present in philosophy. Philosophy takes a decisive turn away from medieval philosophy.
Foundationalism: Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Rousseau. The purpose of early modern philosophy. Basic idea comes from
Descartes. Human knowledge as forming a coherent body of belief. A set of knowledge claims in several areas, a
unified body of belief. The foundation of knowledge, everything depends on the foundation. A set of first principles,
axioms, that are totally certain (cogito for Descartes, the foundation of all human knowledge). Rationally impossible to
doubt that I am thinking. Disagreement about what the foundation is (empiricists, rationalists, etc.), but there is one for
Political philosophy: our conception of a just society has a foundation of first principles. The foundation of the theory
of justice is the theory of the human nature. A just society relies on metaphysics. What is justice? Who are the citizens
of a just society? What is the nature of the people who rely on justice?
Hobbes: political philosophy in the Leviathan. Looks at human nature for the foundation of the political system. Mills
will stay close to Hobbes on the base of rationality.
Aristotle- human beings are rational animals (logos-reason). This idea comes into the modern age, that rationality
defines us, but it will be interpreted differently.
The Enlightenment (18 century): Direct reaction against medieval philosophy and politics. New determination to
think in a rational and secular spirit. Before, philosophy was too attached to theology. It needed to become secular in
the enlightenment once and for all. This is reflected in the work of all of the aforementioned political philosophers
(despite most of them being religious believers themselves). Justice to be separated from religion. We need a theory of
human nature independent of religion for political philosophy then.
The dominant political philosophy that emerges in the enlightenment is liberal democracy (Mill ithone of the biggest
defenders). Liberal democracy has become a kind of tradition. It is an invention of the 17 and 18 centuries (French
and American revolutions) that were taking a democratic turn.
What is the common denominator of liberal democracy? Hard to define, hundreds of years behind it.
Things they agree on (basic liberal principles):
1) Idea that the state should be neutral regarding what the “good life” for human beings is (not to tell citizens what to
value, how to live/ a kind of umpire to mediate different conceptions of the good life)
2) The privacy of individual rights (national security, but not if it involves infringing on privacy rights/ if the state wants
to make a highway through your land, you would have to give consent)
3) The separation of church and state (Mill will make this point as an atheist, religion out of politics)
4) Separation of powers and the balance of powers. Power is inherently corrupting/ despotism, tyranny, absolute power
corrupts absolutely. Remedy: Take the 3 main powers of the state, and divide it into 3 competing branches of
government- legislative (parliament), executive (prime minister, or white house), and judiciary (legal system), act in
check of each other. In medieval world, these were all tied into one.
5) People should rule. Power belongs to the citizenry itself. Individualistic conceptualization of politics. Fundamentally
it belongs to me as an individual, I have the power to go to the police or the court of law if the state is violating MY
rights, I can vote.
6) An opposition to a rigid class structure, or aristocracy. We are all rational beings by nature, therefore we should all be
equal by nature. No justification for someone to be an aristocrat, and me a common person. There can be a gap
between the rich and the poor, but no classes that you are born into.
7) The rule of law. Law rules, not individual office holders. The prime minister or the president does not rule, the law
does, as they are subject to the law themselves.
8) Equality. Same nature=equal rights.
Liberalism as a political philosophy, a theory of justice that has been applied in many different ways. Variety of liberal
democracy, socialist, Marxist, etc. theories.
Instead of a King, or God, the individual moves into the center of our way of thinking about politics.
The political philosopher must ask who is this individual in the individualistic liberal democracy? What is the self?
John Locke is the first one to ask this question as an explicitly philosophical question in English. In book of an Essay
concerning human understanding. He argued that the human being is still a rational animal, that we possess a faculty of
mind that no other species has. Human nature as starting point.
The notion of the self is a modern notion.
On Liberty- Day 2
Ancient Greek idea that a theory of justice rests on a foundation of human nature. Who and what the citizens are
to understand the nature of justice. We must know how humans are constituted. ** Hobbes went into great detail in giving us a new mechanistic conception of the human being. We must think of
humans in singularity, which is a radical new idea in the 17 + 18 century (the self).
If you want to design a just society, you have to perform a thought experiment in which an individual is
transported back into its natural environment, a pre-social condition. This is a good way to think about justice, it
is a methodological argument. What would life be like without a government, schools, and complicated forms of
human relationships? What social contract would we sign on to in a strategy of self-interest, as it is our nature to
be motivated by egoism according to Hobbes? Our rational egoist is always trying to pursue its own happiness,
utility, etc. We avoid suffering.
Let’s imagine human beings in a state of nature are trying to do this (create a government). What we find is a state
of perpetual warfare. We tend to pursue the same things; the objects of my desire are similar to other people’s,
which leads to conflict. The most rational strategy to attain it, and we must fight others off too. State of nature is
nasty, brutish, and short. We are free and rational by nature, then nature will be a free society, but eventually one
of war. A government must be formed to make war impossible (not unlikely, or manageable). Restrain egoist
animal. We need to design a government in which war cannot happen. What kind of social contract would
everyone sign-on to in a strategy of self-interest that will in fact create peace? The kind of government that he
thought would solve this is an absolute sovereign ( a King), with unlimited power.
Locke, Rousseau argued that this is an exaggeration. We are not natural enemies and competitors. It makes more
sense to say not that the state of nature is a state of war, but a state of peace that tends to become conflicted over
time. This is a problem in the state of nature.
Locke agrees with Hobbes, that the thought experiment is valuable. To him, it is not war-like, but deteriorates to
war over time. The social contract he thought we would solve our problems was a democracy- a government with
limited power, because the former is tyranny which is no better than state of nature. Not just peace, Freedom.
Rousseau and Kant along the same lines.
Device of social contract- aim is to reconcile two fundamentally different ideas. 1) the fact of human individuality
and 2) sociability. We are also social animals, and political by nature.
Individual by nature, defined by my separateness from a group, but I also have need for a group.
Why would individuals who are already free by nature sign on to any social contract and submit to the rule of
law? (and create a government).
Hobbes’ answer, to escape the threat of violence and death.
With all of these disagreements, are all four of them liberals? (Not Hobbes really, Rousseau yes and no, the other
including Mill, yes).
In history of liberalism, there is no figure in it (Mill and Locke come close), but a lot of things are vaguely
categorized as liberal.
Skip of time
19 century, things have changed. He is no longer going to use the thought experiment, as there is no state of
nature in history as far as we know. It was never an actual hypothesis.
Mill argues that it is not an interesting thought experiment, he uses a new methodology. He will place liberal
democracy on a new moral foundation- utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism: Bentham is the founder of this new philosophy in 19 century. Will become extremely influential
in 20 century. Basic principle: when confronted with a moral problem (the state, or you as a moral actor), pursue
the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Maximize human happiness and minimize unhappiness. By
happiness he means very strictly, pleasure, and the absence of pain. Mill will defend and argue this.
J.S. Mill (1806-1973) thinks this is the best way to describe a liberal democracy. In ill-liberal regimes there is too
much human suffering (i.e. tyranny).
In 1860s he was known as a political radical by the standards of his time. He was an outspoken defender of
On Liberty Introduction
The principle question of the book “ nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society
over the individual (government).” How much power should be granted to a democratic majority? What are the
limits of majority power? Can the majority do anything it wishes with respect to the minority and of the
individual? There must be limits.
Supporter of democracy, but also a liberal. Believed in liberty and human rights. The problem is that these two
commitments can conflict. Sometimes, democratic majorities of politicians in a legislature vote to override rights
of an individual or a small group. This is the problem of majoritarianism- tendency of majority to become
aggressive. This can amount to injustices. Even the Nazi regime was a kind of democratic majority in the beginning. It took a turn after, but it originally had
the support of a majority.
How to reconcile majority rule and individual freedom is a massive problem.
Ancient Greeks invented democracy, although Aristotle and Plato were against this new experiment of democratic
politics. They claim that the people do not have enough moral virtue or knowledge to have political power.
The first thing groups coming to power do is oppress somebody, unless they have limits.
Power has a tendency to corrupt.
On Liberty- Day 3
Why worry about democracy? Political tyranny looked like absolutism. Democracy is starting to become more
deeply-rooted, it is an established political practice by now, so why worry about it?
Democracy comes from “kratia” power or rule and “demos” the people or citizens.
Mill says that we do have to continue to worry about the power of the democratic majority and how this treats
minorities. There must be limitations to their power.
Notion of popular sovereignty- the people rule. Observe empirically how democracies have worked for the past
few centuries. Society… is it an agent? Is it ever the proper subject of a sentence, or should we say it? Mill says
this is always improper, as society does not do anything, it is not capable of acting.
The power for agency is in the individual alone. Flesh and blood human beings are the only agents as society is
just an abstraction of us. It is incorrect to say that the people rule- a false abstraction.
The truth: some people rule (those who create laws that the rest of us abide) while others don’t. Law-makers
aren’t necessarily the ones who must abide them, we are therefore not self-ruling.
The people have spoken, and minorities can have their rights violated. They claim they are not actually violated
because the majority had voted.
Mill disagrees. The constant tendency in democratic majorities is to be aggressive towards minorities. How do we
prevent this? We must limit their liberty.
There is a limit to collective opinion, as people’s individual rights (liberty) should not be infringed upon.
P.9 quotes. “All that makes existence valuable to anyone, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the
actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by
opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be is the
principle question in human affairs…”
The condition in which the state can limit the individual from acting freely, is when that individual’s action is
going to harm another individual. (p.14 “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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”)
With sufficient warrant- it is never just for the state to protect an individual from harming oneself.
If someone is acting in self-destructive ways… the state can try to persuade the individual to change their way.
Appeal to them to make them stop acting that way. Maybe their friends can intervene, but it is not the function of
the government to protect the individual from oneself.
Distinction… separation of the public and the private spheres. Distinguishes between self-regarding and other-
regarding actions. Basic idea is this: some of my actions are my private business from a moral point of view and
concern myself alone. Self-regarding, it is not for the government to legislate here (beliefs, whether you take of
yourself or not, the music I listen to). Other-regarding actions bear vitally on other people. They affect people in
some way, and they have a vital interest in it. Large majority of my actions are other-regarding.
The critics say that nothing is self-regarding, because it can bear on other people and their interests indirectly. For
example, paying for music at a store can help an artist’s career.
Mill’s reply: Self-regarding is not actions that concern others in any shape or form, but it concerns only myself in
a direct and significant way.
P.14 “The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.
In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own
body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Why is liberty special, or a first principle? Aristotle and Plato were more concerned about the virtue of the citizenry. Are people acting in virtuous or vicious
ways? Doing their own thing is not a recipe for virtuous behaviour or a just society, especially if it is done by
someone who doesn’t know very much.
We are rational, and we are free are two different ways of saying the same thing. They are inseparable. The most
vital interests human beings have is in their own freedom.
P.15 It is proper to state that I forgo any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of
abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard 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. Those
interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those
actions of each, which concern the interest of other people.”
First he tells us that he won’t make any appeal or defend “abstract right.” (where right is a synonym of justice).
He will not appeal to what Plato called a form of the good, a form of justice, or Hobbes’ social contract. He will
base his conception of justice on utility alone- human happiness (the common good).
Making a case for liberty, an old idea that generates no opposition in the time of his writing. It is a cliché. Why do
we even need a political philosopher to write this?
We all tend to profess a commitment to liberty, but hardly carry it into practice. It becomes something that we
take for granted.
P.17 “Though this doctrine is anything but new, and, to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no
doctrine which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice. Society has
expended fully as much effort in the attempt to compel people to conform to its notions of personal, as of social
The common tendency of law-makers and public opinion is to constantly try to compel people to act in the same
ways, conformist ways. Mill believes that his age is highly conformist (how people act+ think).
Vital that we remember what makes liberty so important: liberty should play a paramount role. End of chapter
Liberty of thought and discussion
Foundation of freedom of action: our actions should be free because our mind has to be free.
We all value these things more or less unanimously. The principles meet with little opposition.
We expect government to refrain from coercing us into believing something, but if the majority and the
government have the same view, we refuse far less. We sort of go along with it.
We should always object the government compelling us to believe something, even if the majority agrees.
Violation of the freedom of thought it always unjust.
All state measures that censor opinion, or any attempt to sway beliefs, the law should be silent on what the citizen
Individual liberty in the realm of the mind.
What about something like hate-speech? Should this be fully legal, and that anyone can spew their hatred towards
anyone, as they will? He did not address this question in detail. He would say however, that if you were to
provide a case for banning hate-speech, it would have to be a utilitarian argument, you would have to prove that it
is not in public interest.
His utilitarian arguments for free speech:
1) We can never be certain that an idea that we are trying to stifle (censor or outlaw) is false. Mill says this, despite
being an empiricist. Passing laws to stamp out a particular idea, in that case, we can never be sure that the idea is
false. P.22 “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” All silencing of discussion assumes that the
silencer is infallible (is never wrong/ the state of their knowledge is so certain that there is no profit to be had in
questioning it). Even politicians are not infallible.
Reply: What if majority is on the side of the government censoring, and silencing someone with a law? Still assumes
that public opinion is infallible.
2) Consider the history of any true idea. Now consider the origin of that idea, who came up with it? And what kind of
opposition did that idea have to overcome? Every idea, no matter how important or true, always originates as a
minority opinion. In the beginning, it takes awhile for new ideas to draw attention to itself, and takes longer for it to
start persuading people into consensus that it is a good idea. It must also compete against opposition, must enter
debate. Nature of ideas that they must be subjective to discussion, they belong to a marketplace of ideas. The best win,
and the weaker ones (false ideas) get rejected sooner or later (not always).
3) Now consider an idea that is known to be true. It has generated a consensus among a body of scientists let us say.
What good comes about forbidding that idea to be challenged or debated? It is now settled knowledge. No, it is by being criticized and surviving it that an idea becomes known to be true. Constant criticism will refine the idea,
sharpen it, and will modify it, eventually leading it to be known as true. We only claim to know something when an
idea has withstood scrutiny over a period of time.
-Evolution: was not spontaneously invented by a majority population, but by a small number of individuals. The
history of the idea, it is a settled theory that is true, and had to overcome opposition to attain this title. We have a
consensus in the room about the theory. There are no serious critics of it anymore, yet we should not silence any
debate that could arise. The idea will continue to be reshaped thanks to critics.
4) What if the state could be certain that a particular idea was false? Can we censor it then? No, because ideas
themselves still benefit from being challenged. Otherwise our thinking deteriorates to an unthinking dogmatism.
Insulting to decide for others what they should believe. (State paternalism to tell citizens what to think.) We should be
free to use our own reason.
5) We should not assume that true ideas will always win out over censorship, and suppressed. We assume that if an
idea is true, even if it is censored, that it will eventually be known to be true. This is a false assumption. It is a
historical assumption, and there is no evidence for it. P.34 “Idle sentimentality… dungeon and the state… for error.”
If it’s a true idea, it will win out in the end, but there is no guarantee. Socrates did not win out in the end, but was
prosecuted. There were many Socrates’ in our world.
We can always be not just slightly, but radically mistaken. This is not unusual. The vast majority being wrong in
their opinions, and fundamentally mistaken in their worldviews is not uncommon.
Our knowledge is subject to ongoing debate. It tends to happen that settled knowledge becomes unsettled in the
next century, .: we must keep the conversation going.
Once persecution of ideas exist, people will be afraid to bring any forth. P.39 “no one can be a great thinker…
duty to follow his intellect to any conclusion it may lead… truth gains more even by the errors… suffer
themselves to think.”
Mill believes he lives in a highly conformist society.
Open-mindedness is actually kind of rare, dogmatism is the norm. The relatively closed mind is more common
than the relatively open one. It is important that the state keeps the marketplace of ideas as open as possible. One
is never where one needs to be intellectually. What matters most is our attitude towards our own convictions. We
must recognize that we are subject to error and that we are fallible. Even our truths can become “Dead dogma”
and they usually do. They are superstitions, absolutes, once they are immunized from thinking. When this
happens, that knowledge no longer inspires us, but just sits there as an absolute. Liberty has become such an
6) Even those ideas that are true, are very unlikely to constitute the whole truths. Even the best ideas tend to be one-
sided and capture only one side of the truth. The whole truth is extremely elusive. Very often the whole truth is shared
by competing ideas, this is even the norm.
His conclusion p.44 “If the teachers of mankind…everything must without restrain.”
Mill’s chapter 3- Of Individuality (one of the elements of well-being)
Little limitation on freedom of speech.
The mind ought to be optimally free, it would follow that our actions should be free.
Reasons in favour of freedom of action, I should be allowed to express my individual ideas by acting on