John Stuart Mill

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John Stuart Mill-Enlightenment and the freedom of thought

Short biography

John Stuart Mill was born in 1806, after the Enlightenment and after the American Declaration of Independence, but his interpretation of the basic ideas of liberty, individual rights, women's rights, and other issues contribute to the continuing development of democratic ideas. Mill was a philosopher, economist, and (like his friend Jeremy Bentham) was a proponent of Utilitarianism. Utilitarians believed that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness and wrong if it tends to produce the reverse of happiness -- not just the happiness of the person involved in the action but also the happiness of everyone affected by it. In other words, things that produce the greatest happiness for the most people are good. He particularly approves of common sense morality. There are things people do without systematic thought. Mill believed that ethically, a person needs to be concerned for how the individual action affects society. Rights are ultimately founded on utility. In On Liberty Mill made the statement that self-protection alone could excuse or justify either the states tampering with the liberty of the individual or any personal interference with someone else's freedom. John Stuart Mill believed that there is an intellectual elite. Without men of genius, society would become a "stagnant pool." He recognized that a person and society has to be trained properly to make use of the liberty he advocated. He was in total opposition to any government censorship. Without complete liberty of opinion, he insisted, civilizations would not develop. A society has to be free and open without suppressive government or private organizations. Mill was also a believer in women’s rights. He and his wife, Harriet, worked for women's suffrage in England. As a member of Parliament, Mill presented a petition for women to receive the ability to vote. On Liberty

The topic of justice received further treatment at Mill’s hands in his famous 1859 book On Liberty. This work is the one, along with A System of Logic, that Mill thought would have the most longevity. It concerns civil and social liberty or, to look at it from the contrary point of view, the nature and limits of the power that can legitimately be exercised by society over the individual. -------------------------------------------------

Chapter 2, Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion (Part 1) Summary
In Chapter 2, Mill turns to the issue of whether people, either through their government or on their own, should be allowed to coerce or limit anyone else's expression of opinion. Mill emphatically says that such actions are illegitimate. Even if only one person held a particular opinion, mankind would not be justified in silencing him. Silencing these opinions, Mill says, is wrong because it robs "the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation." In particular, it robs those who disagree with these silenced opinions. Mill then turns to the reasons why humanity is hurt by silencing opinions. His first argument is that the suppressed opinion may be true. He writes that since human beings are not infallible, they have no authority to decide an issue for all people, and to keep others from coming up with their own judgments. Mill asserts that the reason why liberty of opinion is so often in danger is that in practice people tend to be confident in their own rightness, and excluding that, in the infallibility of the world they come in contact with. Mill contends that such confidence is not justified, and that all people are hurt by silencing potentially true ideas. After presenting his first argument, Mill looks at possible criticisms of his reasoning and responds to them. First, there is the criticism that even though people may be wrong, they still have a duty to act on their "conscientious conviction." When people are sure that they are right, they would be cowardly not to act on that belief...
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