Saturday, April 13, 2024

Mill, "On Liberty"

 On Liberty - John Stuart Mill (

I decided I needed to re-read this because it was referenced so much in "Public Intellectuals", soon to be reviewed. 

Mill is one of the early foundational progressive thinkers. He is heavily influenced by Bentham, the famous Utilitarian.

Mill recognizes it (personal liberty)"as the vital question of the future". Civil liberty was not a widespread thing for much of history, and Mill acknowledges that: "Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement." However, once mankind "have attained a capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion" -- which, by his time, he believed mankind certainly generally had -- then compulsion is no longer an acceptable means of rule.

Mill believed that in 1859, man had "improved" to the point of being able to decide good and evil by "conviction or persuasion". He also assumes that it is fairly easy for a vast majority to recognize "barbarians". 

"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign", Mill insists. It sounds convincing, and sensible, but the issue isn't quite so simple. In restating his guiding belief, Mill adds the standard liberal caveat:

"The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it."

We are somewhat familiar with the problems here. Who decides what is "impeding"? The right to hire and fire whomever you want can "impede" the ability of others to obtain wealth. If the government decides you MUST wear a seatbelt, they are clearly impeding your liberty, and not depriving others. Once you allow government such intrusion, where does it end?  It seems doubtful that mandatory vaccination will be the last intrusion on liberty. 

As with all progressive thought, there is the assumption that humans "progress" by some undefined "arc of history", assumed to be more and more radical individualism. He does realize that intolerance is a natural
human trait.

"Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized."

While progressives believe that the universe and humans were created by random events, they also believe that there is some innate (also randomly created) social order that includes society evolving toward more "liberty". 

He indicates freedom of the press and speech are "absolutes" ... although he is cognizant of the "yelling fire in a crowded theatre" type of issue. Apparently, his assurance of "progress" in "conviction and persuasion" would include such advances as suppression of "hate speech", "disinformation", "misgendering", etc. 

He doesn't see that human attempts to create "values, morality, etc." have to fail, since radical individualism creates an atomized "set" of people with no common ground beyond universal selfishness, greed, envy, assorted vices, with right and wrong determined by power. 

The faith in the long march toward godless human utopia took some major hits with WWI and WWII. A reading of the Gulag Archipelago ought to be enough to convince most that the evidence of history since Mill's confident statements does not seem to validate his assumptions in any area save technology. 

As we see our fragile distracted click addicted young largely fail to reproduce, there may be hints that godless "progress" is not particularly adaptive. Evolutionary "progress" has some dependency on survival of succeeding generations. 

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