On Liberty- John Stuart Mill

McJ's picture

"No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study, and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think."
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859
English economist & philosopher (1806 - 1873)

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Attribution Non-commercial Share Alike
Note: For ease of reading, you can view this in full screen just click the screen icon in the upper right hand corner.

John Stuart Mill - On Liberty

Publish at Scribd or explore others: Fiction & Literature Business culture liberty


page 30

For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.

Awkward, indeed. How could

Awkward, indeed. How could anyone with such obvious intelligence to author such perceptive thoughts on liberty go and counter them so effectively and not see it? Or did he?

If he did see it, we have an interesting question that might be answered in either of two ways, to my mind. He saw very clearly that oppressing indigenous people around the globe gave him power and priviledge and he in no way wanted to diminish that. But if that were the case, why write about liberty at all? The other possibility is that he was heading off an anticpated populist argument which would seem almost self evident to the populace of the time; a time when “Authority was King” (or vice versa), when power over others was God ordained and personal liberty was not even contemplated. In other words, introducing changing perceptions gradually or class by class. A sort of proto-typical Fabian!

On the other hand, if Mill did not see the glaring contradiction, we have a more interesting question. It might be answered by “the fish in the cultural water” analogy. Mill's thinking could not be completely independent of his cultural conditioning as he could not be completely aware of it. For sure, he took quite a leap out of this cultural water with his breakthrough essay but retreated somewhat back into that same culture. To run in the opposite direction to the thinking of all those who surround you can feel like a journey into madness. So we try to accommodate our own conditioning and the conditioning of the whole society on which we depend emotionally and psychologically. This survival ploy then has to be denied and driven from consciousness to be effective.

Or perhaps it is all a little simpler, though still coming from his culture and not questioned. Mill may have not considered the “barbarians” as human and so his ideas simply did not apply to them (yet). That when they became “civilised” they would also become human. There was this notion in those days (and still in places today) fuelled, no doubt, through the hubris that comes from power, that humans were (still) evolving. That intellectual prowess was a DNA thing, evidence of evolutionary change, and not, instead, a skill that may or may not be cultivated by a particular culture.

In my opinion, this is what happens when you make man, or mankind, God. It necessarily involves the hubris of power which is blinding and then even the best of ideas (which many of Mill's are, imho) run off the rails in, at least, some applications. At best, it becomes ironic as in this insulated case of our discussion. At worst, it becomes truly tragic as in the “Slave Trade” conducted by men who believed themselves to be enlightened (and convinced others of it) and to be carrying out God's will (their God actually being their own egos - or worse, the demonic).

Mill is not alone in his blindness, of course. We have the case of Jefferson and the early Greek democrats both keeping slaves. And we have Paul of the New Testament and the supposed God of the Old Testament endorsing slavery. All of them going against the very explicit instruction from Jesus that we are all equal as brothers and sisters and the implied instruction not to exploit each other.

It is easy to look back at others' blind lunacy, of course. Can we look forward to how others in the future will look back on our blindness?