The concept of liberty seems to have been consistently analysed and re-structured throughout history by ambitious philosophers keen on creating a ‘better world’. John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher of the XIX century, is not an exception from this trend. With his thought-provoking work “On Liberty”, he sets a basis for what he believes will lead to the development of the human being and contribute to its progress. This gives way to his Principle of Liberty, which illustrates that only a free person, and by default also the society, has the opportunity for growth through searching the truth by questioning and debating.
It may be agreed upon that a strong barrier to any form of progress is the avoidance or omission of the truth. Mill goes even further and argues that an opinion may be wholly true, wholly false, or partially true, and all three benefit the common good. The only way to attain this truth is through discussion, as “If all mankind minus one, were of on opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. This quote is a prominent example of the importance of seeking the truth through thought and expression, and is one of the factors contributing to individual liberty. The world a human being grows up in shapes his opinions, and while this is acceptable for initial formations of thought and awareness, Mill argues it is dangerous to rely only on it and not reflect on other ‘worlds’. Not only would such an attitude impair the total formation of one’s mental capabilities and capacity, it would also lead to seeing yourself as infallible.
After all, if a person surrounds himself with people of the same convictions as him, then it is plausible to presume that he will believe many things as issues that are no longer doubtful. This in turn results in the line between opinion and fact getting blurred due to the inexistence of debate, causing many future errors which could have been omitted otherwise. “The suppression of opinion based on belief in infallible doctrines is dangerous”, whereas any silencing of discussion is, according to Mill, an assumption of infallibility.
Treating truth as a relative concept by refusing to hear what one considers a ‘false’ opinion is “assuming that their certainty is the same things as absolute certainty”. Humans should keep their mind open to criticism of their belief and listen to a variety of views on it in order to understand it and be able to defend against it. A clash of conflicting opinions enables us to find ‘fuller’ truths. The only way we may know if a belief is true or not is to challenge it. If a doctrine “is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”.
Mill seeks to point out this fundamental issue which, due to its simplicity and obviousness, is often underrated. “No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner”. Of course, a major problem in attaining the truth is that it may remain in “narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or deceptive light”. This is precisely what Mill wants to avoid.
Moreover, he wants to advance the discussion to a higher level of clarity without an individual’s actions and beliefs being restricted by bonds of custom and conformity. He notes that the most venerable beliefs arise from a person’s own critical assessments and reasoning. The Principle of Liberty illustrates his argument that freedom is indispensable to originality of character as it is the means by which a person can develop as an individual. And, Mill claims, “The free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being”.
This line of reasoning leads us to an important aspect of Mill’s Principle, i. e. how it contributes to individual and, in the long run, social progress. We have already established that seeking the truth provokes the mental development of an individual. The cultivation of individuality will result in human happiness as it requires making choices that one thinks is most beneficial to their life. “First, Mill argues, even though people do make mistakes, individuals are still more likely to be right about what would make them happy than anyone else. It is essential to help one another distinguish between worthy and unworthy pursuits through persuasive argument and use of liberty in a sensible way to fully develop as free individuals. ” A second reason for liberty is that it will not only lead to better decisions in the long run, but also that the exercise of freedom of choice is itself vital to the full development of human nature. Those who are slave to customs, Mill suggest, will never develop into rounded, flourishing individuals; not necessarily because they will be nhappy, but because they will fail to develop one of their most distinctively human capacities, the capacity for choice. ” Consequently, one can argue that since individuality is a positive thing, it is necessary to build social institutions that contribute to that individuality. A functioning society whereby individuals are able to learn from others’ ‘experiments of living’ is, according to Mill, human progress at its best. “Liberty is vital as a condition of experimentation” , for without it peoples’ rational would not be used and thus would not develop.
When a person becomes more valuable to himself, he immediately becomes more valuable to society. It is necessary, however, to stress the limit of liberty, also known as the Harm Principle. As long as one person’s actions do not harm the interests of another, society should not interfere. Mill identifies ‘the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’ as his interests in autonomy and in security. Furthermore, when a human being does not intrude on another person’s freedom, that person can develop accordingly, and incidentally become a role model showing others how (not) to live.
This is how the “less creative” individuals of society can make informed decisions on leading their own lives, i. e. learning from experimenting, which is “quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress”. Nevertheless, critics of Mill’s Principle are quick to notice that his ideas rest on the optimistic outlook that human beings are capable of learning from experience, indeed, that they even want to do it. Yet as history shows, humankind is consistent in failing to learn from mistakes. “Progress is the cornerstone of Mill’s doctrine” , yet if humans are not prepared to learn, how do they differ from ‘children and barbarians’?
Liberty is a means to progress; incapable of free speech and debate, children and barbarians do not benefit from liberty and hence it does not apply to them. Thus we may assume that a certain attitude towards life is needed for Mill’s Principle to succeed, that is to say it strongly relies on humans having the capacity of making moral progress. He believes this can be trained by society in the early stages of human life. It is throughout childhood when society has the biggest influence over a person, when it should strive to embed values it hopes to see materialize in adulthood.
The knowledge a child accumulates should then be left free to be interpreted in any way the adult sees fit after reaching maturity. After all, non scholae, sed vitae discimus. Moreover, “if the person fails to accept those values, or remains immature, it is society’s own fault”. Precisely this point has been the target of much criticism, seen as the crux of Mill’s idealistic vision for an improbable future that goes against human nature. For if everyone remained ‘immature’, then how is liberty to contribute to individual and social progress?
If this were the case, the entire ideology would be abolished in an instant and in lieu of it in modern times, other beliefs would dominate. Yet liberty continues to be epitomized as the best answer to a free, happy society. As previously stated, ‘bonds of conformity’ are considered by Mill to be a restraint on liberty. The reason behind this is twofold. First of all, relying only on traditions and treating them as your moral guide by which you live your life, a form of dogma which one accepts without question, hinders your decision-making abilities.
Mill places great emphasis on the importance of choice. By narrowing someone’s choices and making them complaint to a certain lifestyle, you take away their freedom. Secondly, such forced conformity denies the existence of diversity. This is a key factor in human development, for by “seeing people’s dissimilarities (…) one learns about one’s own weakness”. Mill is eager to draw attention to the potential opportunities that arise with this, for example, by improving oneself: you have the freedom to make mistakes, assert falsehood, and interpret the experience as you see fit.
Whatever conclusion one comes to is still a form of human progress, but this is only possible thanks to an open culture. This stance is severely criticized by communitarians, who see Mill is an iconoclast. They argue that we are too interconnected to simply untie society’s ‘bonds’, and nor is there any reason why we would want to- after all, humans are social creatures and individual separation is not the key to freedom. A counter-argument to this may be that culture is an evolving process as well, and rapid cultural transgressions do occur frequently, especially in terms of technological and scientific progress.
Of course, some morals are static and universal, but if we were to perpetually follow a form of customs of society, we would remain immobile. What is more, there is a lack of consistency in communitarians’ perception of freedom, simply because they do not considerate the full extent of how subjective traditions tend to be. What is customary for one person may not be for another, and enforcing one’s traditions onto another human being, especially if it is done by society, truly harms the minority.
Such a repressive form of society is deemed by Mill as a regression of individual progress, a halt to “create the ultimate good in the future, human progress”. The above mentioned arguments illustrate clearly why Mill was so keen on defending the concept of liberty, what he considers the only way in which progress can be enforced without impinging on others’ freedom. It is, he argues, the fundamental human right. “The sole end,” Mill states, “for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively… in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection”.
Wolff comments on this by saying that “this will enable each to seek his or her own best; it will liberate a diversity of interests to the benefit of the individual and of all; and it will nurture moral freedom and rationality. With the latter comes creativity and the means of social and intellectual progress. ” Such liberty contributing to progress is more so beneficial due to what it entails, i. e. the individual’s freedom of thought and discussion. Mill protests against any stifling of opinion, for even if it were false, we would not recognize its wrongness without contrasting it with the truth.
One will never reach the highest levels of self-development without debate and constant awareness of one’s fallibility. Critical assessments of beliefs and opinions are necessary, and only when they “survive the struggle as it were in the “marketplace of ideas”, then, and only then, will one be entitled to accept them as justified” . Even then, however, we may be in the wrong. As history has showed us, men who we see now as ‘evil’ and ‘immoral’ were not in their time, as they were acting accordingly to the rules of the society they were brought up in. Thus the debate must be on-going and never lead to a “deep slumber of a decided opinion”.
Furthermore, “mere shock to tender sensibilities can never be weighty enough harm to counterbalance the case for free expression of opinion. ” Nevertheless, it is imperative to keep in mind the statements that Mill is being too optimistic and naive. After all, his whole Principle balances on the assumption that human beings are capable of progress. Even if we concede to that, Mill’s Principle still put forward an essential aspect of human growth. How? Let us look at a quote by George Bernard Shaw: “progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”.
The importance of free speech and debate reverberates throughout the whole of “On Liberty”. Mill is always eager to encourage seeking the truth; his Harm Principle states that we cannot harm others’ interests, yet he does not rule out persuasion. Through persuasive arguments and by taking advantage of our freedom in intelligent ways, we develop both ourselves and those we come in contact with and pave the way for progress. Bibliography 1. Bartleby Editors . (2012). On Liberty. Available: . Last accessed 15th Dec 2012. 2. Feinberg, Joel (1980). Rights, Justice, and the Bounds of Liberty. Essays in Social Philosophy.
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