In his other writings (for example, Considerations on Representative Government), Mill writes in favor of imperialism and despotic rule over "inferior" peoples. How could Mill justify this stance, given his commitment to individual liberty? (Look to his first chapter in On Liberty, particularly to his discussion of children and barbaric people).
It is important to realize that Mill does not believe freedom to be an inherent right belonging to all men simply because they are human. Mill specifically rejects trying to justify liberty claims in this manner (by things like natural law or divine will). Rather, Mill wants to show that liberty is beneficial to the individual and to society; his book is an attempt to show the utility of individuality. As a result, he sets limits on how far liberty should extend. It would seem natural that Mill's support of liberty extends to support self- government, and in general it does. However, he believes that children and "barbarians" lack the necessary tools to enjoy liberty. For these people, it is the state's job to try to provide them with the civilized ability to enjoy freedom. For children, this results in measures like mandating public education. For barbarians, Mill leaves open the possibility of imperial rule, by which people are ruled with the hope that they can one day rule themselves. Thus, Mill accepts imperialism because he has a hierarchical conception of societies, where only some are advanced enough to benefit from the protection of individuality. Mill sees barbarians as inferior peoples, in some sense childlike. As a result, the most beneficial way of treating them is as children. Mill thus would accept a kind of benevolent imperialism whose goal was to civilize people to a state where they could benefit from self-government. For those people who were capable of self-government, however, liberty protections would still hold.
What assumptions about human nature does Mill make in expressing his theory? What would his theory lose if these assumptions were wrong?
One of the most important assumptions about human nature that Mill makes is about how people best learn about their own opinions and activities. He argues that even if a person is correct, she will only truly understand her views if she is challenged by dissenting opinions and has to defend herself. A similar claim holds in the case of nonconformist activities. Mill's belief, however, is disputable; it is questionable whether people will best understand their opinions and values because of facing dissent. For example, one could argue that a person might simply become unnecessarily hurt and upset because of facing challenging views. Thus, since Mill's view is based on the social utility of individuality, if his belief is incorrect some of the strength of the theory is lost. Mill must be able to show that his theory brings about the most desirable outcome from the point of view of overall well-being. If people do not learn from dissenting opinions and nonconformity, then it is much harder to make the case that liberty increases utility. The argument would also lose a lot of rhetorical power if Mill's view of human nature were wrong. Mill is probably correct that most opinions and activities are not completely right. However, most people tend to believe that their own views are correct. Thus, if Mill is wrong that people are best off being challenged when they are right, then his other discussions would likely not have resonance with his readers, because they would not necessarily see themselves as being potentially wrong about deeply held beliefs.
What room does Mill leave for social reformers to influence society?
Mill's theory can be seen as both bolstering and inhibiting social reformers. In some ways, his theory leaves a lot of room for social reform. Mill believes that the only way for society to progress is to allow the expression of individuality in speech and action. Thus, he leaves room for untraditional views of society to be expressed. For example, Mill would not support inhibiting the free speech of reformers, or forcing them to conform to social norms with which they disagreed. In these ways, reformers would be given a lot of freedom to pursue their vision of an ideal society. However, social reformers would also likely be frustrated by Mill's conception of liberty. While Mill believes that social reformers should not be legally or socially restricted, he would also argue that they should not legally or socially restrict other people's activities. Thus, Mill would not support movements like the 19th century temperance movement, or movements against prostitution. He accepts that reformers can try to convince people to change their view of society. He even accepts the idea that there are better and worse ways to structure society, and these reformers may be right about how society should be altered. However, regardless of the correctness of their views, Mill believes that reformers should not try to force people to adapt those views. He holds the value of individuality too highly. As a result, many of the traditional methods used by reformers would not be acceptable under Mill's system.
Who is Mill's audience? How does this affect his choice of examples and the presentation of his argument?
Examine the role of "progress" in Mill's work. How does he define progress and how does it inform his arguments? Would his theory stand without the concept of progress?
What rights does Mill see children as having? How do they figure into his description of social duties?
Discuss the ways in which Mill's essay is a historical argument, and discuss the ways in which it presents an abstract theory. Would the argument stand without one or the other approaches?
Explain the significance of Mill's story about how Emperor Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christians.
Explain why Mill believes that individuality is necessary for social progress.
What avenues of disapproval does Mill leave for society to express towards actions that they don't like? How does he justify such disapproval?
How might Mill reply to a law banning the sale of handguns?
Mill starts off by limiting the scope of his essay to Civil, or Social Liberty. He writes that this essay will look at what kind of power society can legitimately exert over the individual. Mill predicts that this question will become increasingly important because some humans have entered a more civilized stage of development, which presents "new conditions" under which issues of individual liberty must be addressed.
Mill then turns to an overview of the development of the concept of liberty. In ancient Greece, Rome and England, liberty implied "protection against the tyranny of political rulers," and rulers and subjects were often thought to have a necessarily antagonistic relationship. The leader did not govern by the will of his people, and while his power was seen as necessary, it was also considered dangerous. Patriots tried to limit the leader's power in two ways: 1) They gained immunities called "political liberties or rights." The leader was thought to have a duty to respect these immunities, and there was a right of rebellion if these rights and liberties were infringed. 2) Constitutional checks developed, under which the community or their representatives gained some power of consent over important acts of governance.
Mill writes that eventually men progressed to a point where they wanted their leaders to be their servants, and to reflect their interests and will. It was thought that it was not necessary to limit this new kind of ruler's power, because he was accountable to the people, and there was no fear of the people tyrannizing itself. However, when an actual democratic republic developed (The United States), it was realized that the people don't rule themselves. Rather, the people with power exercise it over those without power. In particular, a majority may consciously try to oppress a minority. Mill writes that this concept of a tyranny of the majority has come to be accepted by major thinkers. Mill, however, argues that society can also tyrannize without using political means. Rather, the power of public opinion can be more stifling to individuality and dissent than any law could be. Thus, he writes that there must also be protection for people against the prevailing public opinions, and the tendency of society to impose its values on others.
The question, then, as Mill sees it, is where and how to limit public opinion's sway over individual independence. There has been very little consensus among nations about the answer to this question, and people tend to be very complacent about their own customs in dealing with dissent. People tend to believe that having strong feelings on a subject makes having reasons for that belief unnecessary, failing to realize that without reasons their beliefs are mere preferences, often reflecting self-interest. Furthermore, on the occasions when individuals do question the imposition of public opinion on social standards, they are usually questioning what things society should like or dislike, not the more general question of whether society's preferences should be imposed on others. Mill also notes that in England there is no recognized principle by which to judge legislative interference in private conduct.
After laying out the major issues, Mill then turns to what he calls "the object of his essay." He writes that he will argue that the only time individuals or society as a whole can interfere with individual liberty is for self-protection. Mill states that the argument that a certain law or public opinion might be for an individual's own good or welfare does not suffice to justify that law or public opinion as a coercive force; coercion by the many toward the individual is only acceptable when an individual poses a threat to others. It is fine to argue with a person about his actions, but not to compel him. Mill writes, "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
Mill notes that the right of liberty does not apply to children, or to "backward" societies. It is only when people are capable of learning from discussion that liberty holds; otherwise the people must be taken care of. Mill also notes that he is not justifying the claim of liberty as an abstract right. Rather, he is grounding it in utility, on the permanent interests of mankind.