top-rated free essay

John Stuart Mill

By dianastv Jan 14, 2013 1708 Words
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 and to allow doctrines to be expressed that they believe will hurt mankind. To this, Mill replies that the only way that a person can be confident that he is right is if there is complete liberty to contradict and disprove his beliefs. Humans have the capacity to correct their mistakes, but only through experience anddiscussion. Human judgment is valuable only in so far as people remain open to criticism. Thus, the only time a person can be sure he is right is if he is constantly open to differing opinions; there must be a standing invitation to try to disprove his beliefs. Second, there is the criticism that governments have a duty to uphold certain beliefs that are important to the well being of society. Only "bad" men would try to undermine these beliefs. Mill replies that this argument still relies on an assumption of infallibility--the usefulness of an opinion is still something up for debate, and it still requires discussion. Furthermore, the truth of a belief is integral to whether it is desirable for it to be believed. Mill observes that the assumption of infallibility about a certain question implies that one not only feels very sure about a belief, but also includes the attempt to try to decide that question for other people. It is in stifling dissenting opinions in the name of social good that some of the most horrible mistakes in human history have been made. Mill writes about Socrates and Jesus Christ, two illustrious figures in history, who were put to death for blasphemy because their beliefs were radical for their times. Mill then considers whether society should be able to censor an opinion that rejects a common moral belief or the existence of God and a future state. He gives the example of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a just and kind man who still persecuted Christianity, failing to see its value to society. Mill argues that if one is to accept the legitimacy of punishing irreligious opinions, one must also accept that if one felt, like Marcus Aurelius did, that Christianity was dangerous, one would also be justified in punishing Christianity. Third, Mill considers the criticism that truth may be justifiably persecuted, because persecution is something that truth should have to face, and it will always survive. Mill replies that such a sentiment is harshly unfair to those who actually are persecuted for holding true ideas. By discovering something true, these people have performed a great service to humanity. Supporting the persecution of such people suggests that their contributions are not truly being valued. Mill also contends that it is wrong to assume that "truth always triumphs over persecution." It may take centuries for truth to reemerge after it is suppressed. For example, Mill writes that the Reformation of the Catholic Church was put down twenty times before Martin Luther was successful. It is mere sentimentality to think that truth is stronger than error, although truth will tend to be rediscovered over time if it is extinguished. Fourth, Mill responds to the possible argument against him that since we do not actually put dissenters to death any more, no true opinion will ever be extinguished. Mill replies that legal persecution for opinions is still significant in society, for example in the case of blasphemy or atheism. There is also no guarantee, given general public opinion, that more extreme forms of legal persecution will not reemerge. In addition, there continues to be social intolerance of dissent. Mill argues that societal intolerance causes people to hide their views, and stifles intellectualism and independent thought. Stifling free thinking hurts truth, no matter whether a particular instance of free thinking leads to false conclusions. Commentary

In Chapter 2, Mill looks exclusively at issues of freedom of thought and of opinion. It is significant that he attempts to justify the importance of this freedom by showing its social benefits--for Mill, diversity of opinion is a positive societal good. Mill's argument that the dissenting opinion may be true brings up some important points. First, it highlights that Mill believes that moral truths do exist. Thus, in defending liberty, Mill does not say that all opinions are equally valid. Mill is not a relativist; he is not saying that all things can be true according to their circumstances. Rather, he is simply saying that any single idea might be true, and that for this reason no idea can be dismissed, since truth is a boon to progress. Second, Mill tries to show the contingency of popular beliefs about truth while going to great lengths to not actually state that any popular views about things like religion are wrong. To accomplish this, he observes that in the past people have been persecuted for what is now believed to be true. Thus, Mill creates a logical situation in which anyone reading must accept that if they support persecuting "false" views, then they are required to accept their own persecution if in the minority on a specific issue. Mill is thereby able to dismiss the persecution of "false" views, without condemning modern views as being false. Third, Mill's examples of persecuted truths reflect some of his rhetorical strategies in this essay. Mill is very conscious of his audience in 19th century England, and he uses examples, like the crucifixion of Christ, which would certainly have resonance with his readers. This reflects a more general strategy in this essay of choosing familiar and often uncontroversial examples in order to make much broader moral claims. In reading this essay it is important to remember that England did not have the same legal protection of liberty that it has today; Mill uses examples to make his points that would not get him into trouble with the law or English society. Finally, it is worth thinking about the importance of Mill's assumption in the existence of truth to his justification for freedom of opinion. If no one could be wrong or right, would this require tolerance and respect of difference, or could the strongest opinion simply try to defeat all others? Mill does not try to answer this question, because the existence of truth is assumed throughout. However, thinking about such issues is important in seeing how persuasive Mill can be to people who do not share all of his assumptions.

Cite This Document

Related Documents

  • John Stuart Mill

    ...J.S. Mill He was the most influential thinker of 19th century. The importance of his political theory is that liberalism made a transition from laissez faire to state centered, from negative to positive concept of liberty and from an atomic to more social conception of individual. Mill’s criticism of Bentham’s utilitarianism was one of th...

    Read More
  • Theory of John Stuart Mill

    ...Theory of liberty According to this principle says that the freedom of individual will be conduct by society due to certain reasons. On Liberty, Mill always opened a question about liberty and democracy, of how people can understand about the doctrine of the sovereignty. Mill’s struggling for the liberty between subjects and Government. Liber...

    Read More
  • Analysing on Liberty by John Stuart Mill

    ...Analysing On Liberty by John Stuart Mill POLS1300 / by Joy Qin Humanity’s attempts to study the state of society have stretched back throughout the ages. From forefathers such as Socrates or Aristophanes to the great enlightenment philosophers of Locke or Voltaire, all have grappled with the questions of how humanity best functions as a co...

    Read More
  • On Liberty - John Stuart Mill

    ...John Stuart Mill was a great philosopher of the nineteenth century and the author of 'On Liberty.' In this writing (written in 1850), Mills voiced his ideas on individual freedom, both social and political. His intended audience is educated, healthy and 'civilized' adults. He equates our personal freedoms with the pursuit of happiness, in partic...

    Read More
  • Impact of John Stuart Mill’s Philosophies on Philippines’ Society, Politics and Economy

    ...Impact of John Stuart Mill’s Philosophies on Philippines’ Society, Politics and Economy Mendoza, A.; SocSci 2 WBYDX John Stuart Mill’s social, political, and economic philosophies are widely applied in the Philippine setting. His conception of social liberty, feminism, political democracy and economic democracy is practiced in the ...

    Read More
  • John Stuart Mill's On Liberty Analysis

    ...John Stuart Mill once said, “The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.” John Stuart Mill is one of the most prominent English-speaking philosophers during the 19th centu...

    Read More
  • Mill vs Dostoevsky

    ...expressing my views alongside. Mill’s core assumption of man is that he is a rational being who will strive to maximize his own utility. “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal… on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” (Mill. On Liberty. Trans. Rapaport. 10). He believes man is naturally geared towards good. He believ...

    Read More
  • Economics Malthus and Mill

    ...Group Take-home Test (THT) 3 DUE August 5 MWF/ August 1 TTh Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill Date accomplished: 8/3/13 Class schedule: MWF 9:30-10:30AM Contributing group members: *BASIC REFERENCES: lecture files and linked chapter readings from "The Worldly Philosophers” (6th ed., by Robert Heilbroner) in the Links...

    Read More

Discover the Best Free Essays on StudyMode

Conquer writer's block once and for all.

High Quality Essays

Our library contains thousands of carefully selected free research papers and essays.

Popular Topics

No matter the topic you're researching, chances are we have it covered.