Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Concept of Liberty

Concept of Liberty in "On Liberty"


In 'Chapter 1' of the famous essay, "On Liberty", Mill gives a rational justification of the freedom of the individual in opposition to the claims of the state to impose unlimited control. Mill addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. Mill expresses the idea of Liberty in such a way that it covers all the spheres of human life and here he means to say that without these liberties one can not be considered to be truly free. However, before justifying Mill's conception of liberty we need to know what we mean by Liberty.


The word Liberty refers to the meaning of the state of being free from the excessive restrictions imposed on one's life by a powerful force. As J.G.H Cole says,


"The freedom of the individual is to express without external hindrance of personality."


And to Ruskin freedom or Liberty means "A world, where an individual is totally free from restriction to express his own opinion."


But Mill's liberty is more constructive which shows respect to the freedom of others. Mill says:


"THE subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual."


In this essay Mill also warns of a second danger to liberty, which democracies are prone to, namely, the tyranny of the majority. The phrase "tyranny of the majority", used in discussing systems of democracy and majority rule, is a criticism of the scenario in which decisions made by a majority under that system would place that majority's interests so far above a minority's interest as to be comparable to "tyrannical" despots.[Wikipedia].In a representative democracy, if one can control the majority (and get them to vote for, and elect, your candidates) then one can control everyone (because one's candidates, once "democratically elected", will pass whatever laws are needed for this. In this way the liberty of the individual is hampered.


Mill speaks in the aforementioned section in terms of monarchy. However, mankind soon developed into democracy where "there was no fear of tyrannizing over self". "This may seem axiomatic", he says, but "the people who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised". Further, this can only be by the majority, and if the majority wishes to criminalize a section of society that happens to be a minority — whether a race, gender, faith, or the like — this may easily be done despite any wishes of the minority to the contrary. This, in his terms, is the "tyranny of the majority".


In Mill's view, tyranny of the majority is worse than tyranny of government because it is not limited to a political function. Where one can be protected from a tyrant, it is much harder to be protected "against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling".


According to Mill, there is only one legitimate reason for the exercise of power over individuals:

"That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."



On Liberty involves an impassioned defense of free speech. Mill argues that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. He asserts the necessity for free speech and feeling


"Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society…to fetter the development…of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own."


Social Liberty for Mill was to put limits on the ruler's power so that he would not be able to use his power on his own wishes and make every kind of decision which could harm society; in other words, people should have the right to a say in the government's decisions. He said that social liberty was "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual". It was attempted in two ways: first, by obtaining recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights; second, by establishment of a system of "constitutional checks".


However, limiting the power of government is not enough. "Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."


"The rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will." By will of nation, he means the will of "the most active part of people [and] the majority."


"The people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power." He calls this type of power the "tyranny of majority" when the majority oppresses the minority by their decisions which could be harmful and wrong sometimes. As he writes, that tyranny of majority "is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities."


At this point, Mill divides human liberty when in private into its components or manifestations: The freedom to think as one wishes, and to feel as one does. This includes the freedom to opinion, and includes the freedom to publish opinions known as the freedom of speech, the freedom to pursue tastes and pursuits, even if they are deemed "immoral," as long as they do not cause harm. The "freedom to unite" or meet with others, often known as the freedom of assembly. Without these three fold freedoms, in Mill's view, one cannot be considered to be truly free.




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