On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

by Paul Mathers

delacroix-libertyThanks to John Stuart Mill there is no chance of me finishing this series this year. The only other author I struggled this hard with in this entire series was St. Augustine… and I agreed with him and liked him! Mill was a slog. Mill made me nostalgic for Edmund Burke.

Why? Well, let’s start with the obvious and work our way down. Here is the first sentence of his section on applications for his thoughts on liberty:

“The principles asserted in these pages must be more generally admitted as the basis for discussion of details, before a consistent application of them to all the various departments of government and morals can be attempted with any prospect of advantage.”

If I told you I just read 300+ pages that read just like that, you wouldn’t exactly run out and buy a copy for your summer beach reading, now would you? Mill throws NO rhetorical bones to the reader. No anecdotes, certainly no jokes, no personality. I’ve read more gripping writing from economists.

Then there are the problems with what he says. One of the major problems that I spotted immediately, I later found is one of the major criticisms of this work. He does not define what he means by “harm.” The context is his arguments about personal liberty. He says, in essence (boiling out his circumlocution), that a person ought to be free to do whatever they like so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. On the surface this may sound reasonable, but what does he mean by “harm”? Does it harm me if homeless people camp on the curb outside of my house and smoke crack? Does it harm a child to have an alcoholic father? Does pornography harm anyone? I know what my own society seems to want to say, but that is part of the problem I have with this concept. I live in a town where “dressing up” seems to mean wearing a t-shirt that you’ve bought within the past 3 years.

You see, I live in a world very much like the one that John Stuart Mill is describing and I see the problems with it. He spends a great deal of time talking about the virtues of eccentricity, claiming that it fosters genius within a culture. I understand that he was writing in England in the days of Victoria, but I live in modern America where everyone thinks they are a special snowflake whose every word and gesture should be applauded. Nobody wants to contribute. Everyone wants to consume. Everyone thinks they are a king and, as a result, you can set your watch by the economic crashes.

Mill has those moments that utterly disgust me when Liberalism circles back around to Libertarianism. Like when the government distrusting hippies become the same kind of anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists whose fears are just as much going to kill us all as the rabid right-wing fringe nuts who fall for that same nonsense. Or when your pot-smoking nephew starts reading InfoWars and spews his internet education all over your dinner table. Or when Arlo Guthrie endorses Ron Paul. Perhaps hope is the worst demon, but I feel a little hope for humankind die within me when these things happen. And when Mill started writing about Free Trade, I groaned out loud.

There are also some concepts I agreed with in part. He has a section on education in which he stresses the importance of the government seeing to an educated population in so much as they need to make certain that said population is educated and NOT that they ought to be in charge of what is taught. The matter of education ought to be left to the institutes of learning, not to the governing body or any other interest. He even goes so far as to suggest that a child of a certain age ought to be tested to see if they can read and if they can’t the parents should be fined! I have mixed feelings about that, but I do agree that a population well educated on all socio-economic levels is crucial to a civilization. Unfortunately today we also encounter a problem that Mill was innocent of any way of foreseeing: that of education becoming nothing but learning to pass the tests. But I suppose that would fall under the heading of how poorly it goes when a government meddles in the matter of the education.

And, finally, there is our disagreement over religion. Mill at least teaches religious tolerance, and we can meet on that level. He doesn’t have much use for the corrective forces which religion contribute to a society, but at least he allows them to exist and so, under his system, they would contribute anyway in spite of his minimizing credit for their contributions. But there is another modern problem which Mill did not foresee (although he might have done well to look at an historical problem like John Knox). There are those in contemporary Christianity called Reconstructionists who would seek to establish the Law of Moses as the law of the United States, along with other obnoxious ideas. I have known people like this and subsequently disassociated myself from them. They are a large and growing group. Suppose they grew to 51% of the people who voted on election day. This would not be good for vast portions of our population… probably including me!

I have major problems with Utilitarianism. It would seek to say that the promotion of happiness is good and the promotion of sadness is bad (or “evil.” For an atheist, Mill sure throws that word around a lot). The problem is in our definitions. Whose happiness? How do we measure this happiness? There is also the problem of human dignity.

Let’s say a person is 70 years old, beloved, with a large family who they have worked their long life to provide for. Let’s say the population shifts dramatically to the point where there are a lot of elderly and, frankly, not enough young people to support the elderly. Let’s say that the elderly person never wanted to be a burden on their family. Let’s say that it is also becoming increasingly hard to find organs for transplant operations and that a vote is coming up for voluntary euthanasia. I see how Mill’s worldview might interpret solutions for this problem:

I actually personally feel that we are not far from this in a society where doctors want to maximize the amount of money they make, drug companies want to maximize their profits, as do insurance companies, and this unholy trinity are given influence over the health decisions of individuals. Not that I think there is any kind of conspiracy. Rather I think that the appeal to the baser elements of human nature (namely avarice) in matters of life and death are a recipe for atrocity. When society decides that a person is a burden, pity the person when society also gets to decide their worth. Unfortunately, I think that Mill’s worldview is currently winning.

I think my major problem with Mill is a question of the dignity of human life. I think his philosophy leads to a low view of that dignity.

I do think it was worthwhile to wrestle with his ideas, to find them fallacious and to understand why. That having been said, I hope to never read another word written by the man so long as I live.