Defining Theor Y Behind J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty” Essay, Research Paper
After suffering a severe bout of depression during his twenties, John Stuart Mill found himself modifying the views he had learned from his father. Conceiving mentally his own opinions to supply valuable insights from authors with whom he sometimes had the most complex disagreements. He believed that any opinions might prove fallible, and that the recognition that this was so was the prerequisite for intellectual progress and the core of intellectual integrity (Mill XIII). Making an incomparable contribution to our cognition of a theme of superior importance: the character and extent of liberty in the democratic age, who would have known students would study the defining theory behind J.S. Mill s political writing, On Liberty.
Let us examine Mill s definition of utilitarianism and liberalism along with discussing his assumptions about human nature, the social order, and the flow of history. In conclusion, we will explore the possibility of Mill either being an original thinker or a product and reflection of his age.
Mill defines utilitarianism, …that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, or every individual as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole; and secondly, that education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for the universal happiness prescribes; so that not only he may be unable to conceive the amenability of happiness to himself,
consistently with conduct opposed to the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human beings sentient existence (Mill 115). Mill extends a foundation for us to visualize that in a democratic society the greater number of the whole will ascertain and set limits to tolerance. Mill believed this would result in the tyranny of the majority (Mill XVIII). Since majorities have been infamous for branding certain activities of society damaging while the non-majority may view it as being harmless we are enlightened by this reinforced definition by reason of if the majority decides what is and is not harmful to society it will lead to a tense relationship between liberty and democracy while disheartening the individual.
Mill s explanation of liberalism is contained in several categories. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness, demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense, liberty of thought and feeling, absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits, of framing the plow 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, perverse or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual follows the liberty, within the same limits of combination among individuals; freedom to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age and not forced or deceived (Mill 12). Mill s explanation of liberalism sets guidelines for individuals to pursue happiness or good in their own fashion. Liberty and freedom are the most important elements of well being or happiness (Mill XVIII). A powerful supporter of individual liberty, Mill s foundation of utilitarianism and his guidelines of liberalism can be interwoven and brought forth to explain his assumptions of human nature.
Mill s aspect of human nature deals primarily with the relationship between utilitarianism, liberalism, and happiness. For Mill, happiness could be obtained if critical judgment and choice were developed and employed (Mill XIV). Mill contrasts primitive societies who accept ready-made beliefs and values with the existence of humans who think for themselves and prepare to place distance between themselves and traditional lifestyles. Expanding on this, if we accept and engraft Mill s definitions of utilitarianism and liberalism we can determine and intensify his assumption on human nature. Specifically, if you have the ability to choose your own path in life (the freedom that liberalism offers) and live in a society where you are able to exercise that capability (a society built on utilitarian thought) then you can achieve happiness. After the individual develops the capacity for critical judgment and choice he or she will be able to employ these aspects and know their place and purpose in society. On our own accord, we have the opportunity to increase our knowledge, experience, wisdom, critical judgment, and choice. With the guidelines of liberalism, we can decide on enhancing ourselves. We all have the ability to become great contributors to society. The decision to do this is ours.
We are aware Mill believed not all individuals are created equal and some are granted with a greater capacity for critical judgment and choice. Those that have this greater capability know what freedom they have, how to interact, and by Mill s definition procure happiness. However, in order for an individual to obtain critical judgment and choice they have to exist in the correct social order.
Recognizing that a democratic social order provides opportunities for intellectual and moral progress, it could also achieve two goals that are impossible in traditional societies. First, democracy granted each individual with a choice to develop a full humanity available only to a privileged few in conventional societies, and second there would be an increased rate of intellectual and moral progress in this society since free exploration and experimental living would not be demoralized. Mill assumed his social order would consist of individuals learning from each other that would incorporate …beliefs and values of others which had passed the test of their own critical reflection (Mill XIX). Mill explains that within the social order there would be responsible men who have obtained happiness that rises above the average individual by perfecting their critical judgment and employment of choice. All human life has a rational purpose. If you begin recognizing this process then you have taken a step in obtaining it. Some people may have to give up happiness so that others may best be served in the community. Those that decide this are the responsible men. Mill continues to explain that in order to achieve an optimum social order individuals must do without at times. You can not measure happiness in a social order. It is a state of being. The desire to be in unity with a fellow individuals is the defining aspect of social community and order. Mill firmly believed that a democratic social order that protected liberty was the best substructure for social progress and the pursuit of individual happiness. Not only should the social order be tolerant of individuals and their behavior, laws should not be passed unless other s individual freedom or happiness was hampered by another individual.
Mill s assumption regarding the flow of history is comprised of several points. First, men chose to live in society. Second, G.W.F. Hegel, J.S. Mill, and Saint-Simon believed history progressed forward while the laws of humanity existed in nature. Dominating the flow of history, the educated middle-class would encompass politics and public opinion. Believing government had only one legitimate and utilitarian function: to create a safe condition in which individuals could pursue their own interests. The natural laws of economics and human selfishness would collaborate to produce the greatest good of each and all. In order for this to occur, Mill assumed that history would progress and a form of government would unfold. A government that would not allow those with power to corrupt the liberty of the governed; the solution was a representative form of government. These representatives would be held accountable to the people through elections, therefore the government s interest would be identical to the collective interest. Government would grow and change to secure liberty rather than act as a device of oppression. The flow of history would reach this level of evolution due to the utility principle. The test of the legitimacy of all social establishments, and their sole purpose is to encourage the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
In conclusion, we have examined the development of J.S. Mill s utilitarianism, liberalism, and a few of his assumptions on social order, the flow of history, and human nature. All encompassing, Mill s theory is difficult to utilize especially when we try to develop it against a specific rule, behavior, or law. On Liberty s philosophical and theoretical definitions are applied in order to deepen and reinforce our understanding of what many individuals would not want to have happen in a democratic society, tyranny of the masses (Mill ) Not only is J.S. Mill dynamic, original, and progressive in thought he is also a product and reflection of his age.
Influenced by his wife and very few men, J.S. Mill absorbed different progressive ideas from Alexis de Tocqueville and Jeremy Bentham. The first man to complain about the standardization of items, politics, and people Mill spoke out about Negro slavery and extending the franchise to women. As traditional society was being overtaken by democracy in the United States, Mill envisioned a society where the expansion of institutions did not secure liberty. Presuming an educated middle-class would lead a representative government, he hoped that reform would allow all individuals to participate in education and cultural improvement. Realizing on the other hand that a democratic society does not necessarily protect individual liberty, Mill had to settle on how conflicting ideology, faiths, and interests would be tolerated or suppressed. He had to comprise or think of an environment where this society could exercise authority over individuals yet they would remain free to do as they desire. Trying to develop a foundation that provides this atmosphere, Mill turned toward the group or community that would be governed instead of the government that would overlook the community. Specifically, he examined the coercion s to which those with deviant beliefs and lifestyles may be subjected. His lasting testimony to a higher society is marked in On Liberty by the simple guidelines he offers in the definitions of utilitarianism and liberalism. A foundation and set of guidelines that help create a culture of tolerance. Many may argue that J.S. Mill is simply a product of his era. That I do not dispute, however he is the first man to raise legitimate questions regarding the governing of a community where oppression and intolerance can be unfairly enforced by the majority. For this reason alone, I believe John Stuart Mill is not only a product of his era, but he is also an original thinker that enlightens all readers of On Liberty.