JS Mill's Definition on Freedom and how It Changed People's Views on the Government

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Mill’s concept of freedom changed the way people viewed its relationship with the government. In this essay, I will be addressing Mill’s views on freedom with specific interest on freedom of speech. Mill’s definition of freedom is the best one there is, but it is not perfect. Mill’s solutions to the problems that occur with too much freedom, is more freedom and thus more power for the people. I will argue that anthropomorphizing society is not always a bad thing, even when accepting all of Mill’s other points. It is important to understand how Mill defines freedom. He divides freedom into three distinct categories: freedom of speech and religion, freedom to make your own life choices and, freedom to associate.

Mill envisions an ideal society as one that grants each of these freedoms to its people. Mill strongly encourages people to live as they please by guaranteeing individual rights. Everyone is capable of being self-sufficient enough to take care of their physical, mental and spiritual health. Society progresses as a result of people being given individual freedoms. The only way an individual’s freedoms can be limited is if they limit the freedoms of another. Individuals can not legally violate the rights of others. Individuals must accept the responsibilities and the necessary sacrifices of living in a civil society, otherwise an uproar will consume society. Mill sees freedom as being a public good.

Evidence of this is that someone who is free is more productive than someone who is not, and therefore has a greater chance of happiness during their work. A logical conclusion from this is that freedom is a prerequisite for the evolution of the individual and thus, the collective evolution of people as a society. The survival of an individual depends on how they think and it is impossible for someone to think if they are unfree. So, a fair question to ask is how concerned was Mill with human evolution? It is possible that Mill was troubled by the direction humanity was heading, so he could have viewed freedom as a code for evolution. However, Mill did not like to anthropomorphize society, he was most concerned with the problems people were having in the society he was living in.

The significance of freedom for every individual can not be overstated enough. Mill strongly supports everyone’s right to exercise their freedom. One of the most essential freedoms is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the one of the most useful because it forms the basis of civilization. Regarding the liberty of thought, Mill was most worried about governmental censorship on individuals rather than people censoring each other. During Mill’s life, the European governments wanted to have control over people’s lives and freedom of speech. But, the governments did not have full power over people because it was not possible, not because they did not want to. That was a big reason for Mill to write On Liberty because he wanted to open people up to what a utopia of freedom would look like. The regular people were not aware of their potential for freedom because life was miserable for them, and their lives were regulated by the morals of their church and community. In my opinion, the treatise On Liberty is one of the most significant pieces of liberal thought, because it explains the foundation of a free society. Mills definition of freedom would be brought to reality by the means of a democratic society. However, many democracies in the world today operate through a representative government, and corruption and oppression by the majority exists in some of those countries.

Mill emphasizes the importance of a diversity of people, with diverse opinions, free from a tyrannical government. But, freedom does not defend from a tyrannical power alone, it also defends against the majority opinion controlling all of the ideas and habits of its people. Mill sees individual freedom with such importance that would prevent a group of wise rulers from obtaining power because of the threat that they could become corrupt. According to Mill, society should never coerce people into certain behaviours. However, in modern Western society, the law and the popular beliefs will encourage people to abide by certain social standards that they may not take part in otherwise. The question then becomes, what is the purpose of these rules? Throughout all of history, there are rules that tower over the people because they are understood as being indisputable. The people do not think about questioning the law if no one has ever questioned it before them. This is not specific to one society, the habitual influence people have over each other is universal.

Mill explained that there are various factors that play a role in the creation of social standards, whether it be through law or public opinion. The most important factor surrounds the agenda of the ruling class. People have been conditioned to accept the laws passed by the ruling class, this creates a vicious circle where the ruling class has the power to gain further control over the people. Another important factor is people have an intrinsic desire to obey their rulers. The rulers of particular countries, in the past and present, have treated their people like slaves: treating them as pawns, only useful for votes. Mill has analyzed that the fact that we see good governments and bad governments, as represented by our personal views, is not a particular positive thing. For instance, Mill stated this when he said, “The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it”. Everyone’s opinions form a part of themselves that they may not like to hear. When it is clear that a bad government is making irrational decisions, that government’s actions can define the people who are living in that country. The government has the power stronger than that of a majority opinion. So, if Mill thinks that it is erroneous for a majority group to silence the minority, then it is a fair assumption to say that a government acting irrationally must be held in check by the rest of the people.

The world is in a constant state of flux; the world is changing just as much, if not more, with the passing of each generation. With the coming of new generations, new ways of looking at the world and world issues also arise. My point is that for an individual to criticize the government, they need to have a comprehensive understanding of history and all of the details surrounding the aforementioned government. Nevertheless, it should be a consensus for a government to guarantee its citizens the right to free speech. People have been fighting for freedom of speech all around the world for the last few centuries. One of the central aspects to freedom of speech is freedom of the press. We are seeing a gradual growth in press freedom around the world and a decline in censorship, which could be seen as evidence for the world sharing universal values of what it means to be free. It is in human’s primal nature to make our opinions valid, and make others emulate our opinions so it will eventually be viewed as the truth. It is important for people to be aware that others hold opposing viewpoints from theirs.

This is why it is important for the government to allow criticism of each others beliefs. Mill assumes that people have the grounds to defend their beliefs because people need to learn that there are other people out there that they can trust. People gain the ability to trust others when they engage in conversations and realize that they share a similar worldview. There have been people who were historically ostracized from society for their opinions. Mill mentions Socrates when he says, “Mankind can hardly be too often reminded, that there was once a man named Socrates, between whom and the legal authorities and public opinion of his time, there took place a memorable collision”. Socrates was one of the most misunderstood men of his time and, thus he was sentenced to death simply because of his beliefs. There have been several cases over the course of history were someone was put to death only because they held views that conflicted with that of the governing body. This is another example of the government having too much power over the people, in other words it shows the lack of freedom.

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Mill thinks that it is very important for people to have their own opinions but, he sees a person having the ability to defend their opinion as equally important. Mill demonstrates this thought when he writes,

“There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents doubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defense of it against the most superficial objections”.

There are some people in society who expect others to only listen to them and to accept everything they say as the truth. A conversation with that individual always ends in an argument and potentially punishment for both of the parties involved. This is particularly troublesome when the party who expects everyone to believe them is the governing body, and people would have no choice but to trust the government. This has the potential to create a vicious circle, where people who trust the government because they are forced to begin to believe what the government is saying, and thus they see their lack of freedom as the best and only available option. Every civilized person’s greatest weapon to preserve their freedom are their words. They allow people to portray their opinion in a well-constructed, reasonable way without the threat of physical violence. Extensive debates are the best method to show that you maintain your values and any form of punishment should never even be considered. Freedom to express one’s belief is a necessary requirement of a free society but, it is equally as important to listen to opposing viewpoints and understand from where others beliefs are coming. The people who should become leaders of a free society have extensive knowledge of opponents’ opinions, and the ability to rationally debate opposing beliefs. It is very important for political and logical reasons to have debates regarding various opinions, ultimately exposing the foundations of flawed opinions.

By examining Mill’s position, we see that he is against self-restraint, the restriction of an individual by society, as well as, the restrictions on individuals and society by the government. Upon inspection, it is apparent that Mill realized it is impossible for a society to not have some restrictions on its freedom. Mill ascribed by the belief that the freedom of one ends where the freedom of another begins. This imaginary boundary of freedom fluctuates, and it is up to the people where it will be determined. It is entirely justifiable for the people to determine what limitations should be placed on freedom. It is justifiable to limit freedoms only when the entire population comes to a consensus on what specific laws the limits should address. For example, according to Mill’s harm principle, an individual is allowed to do whatever pleases them, as long as, they do not cause harm to another individual. Furthermore, it is necessary to determine how one defines harm and to what degree an action warrants being categorized as harm. For instance, if an individual’s actions causes moral condemnation by their neighbours, Mill does not see any problem with that because people’s feelings should remain with themselves; the freedom of public good is more important than a single individual’s feelings. This is very beneficial for a society because it teaches people rationalization of tolerance. When people learn to tolerate others’ differences, they become better individuals themselves because they are able to learn from each others flaws.

Mill was concerned with Christianity because he believed that many individuals who were avowed Christians lacked a deep understanding of its foundation. Mill illustrated his concerns with Christianity when he exclaimed,

“To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity”.

In other words, where does it stop when people are professing something of which they do not have a full understanding? If it applies to religion, it could certainly apply to other facets of life. I could go as far to say that what is the point of being a Christian, if not everyone understands or follows it correctly. For example, the bible allows slavery, but everyone can agree that slavery is morally reprehensible. Then, this becomes an argument about truth. To believe that there exists an all encompassing truth is farfetched, especially when debating the truth in opposing beliefs. People do not live in a vacuum: one’s thoughts, activities and lifestyle are influenced by others whether they are knowingly or unknowingly influenced. Everyone’s lives are freely given to them, and more importantly, their freedom to influence the environment around them. In a society where people’s lives are being influenced by the people more powerful than them, there needs to be a presence of capability in their leaders. It is respectable for leaders to make decisions and enforce punishments on behalf of the people, but there needs to exist a logical justification for their actions.

Politics requires competent leaders, not only in their ability to take appropriate actions, but also in their ability to communicate their intentions and the reasoning behind their actions. It is important to understand that governing powers are bound be irrational, so it is important to give the people all of the freedom and power they need to overthrow the government.

Most of history has been about trying to gain a greater understanding of humans. For instance, Darwin showed that humans were animals in a sense, while Mill tried to explain how humans were unique from all other animals. Animals act mostly on their instincts, while humans are able to choose their own lifestyle and we are best able to do this under the society that Mill envisioned. Humans are best able to achieve natural human abilities when they are provided freedom of speech, and Mill realized that it was most important to provide people with these freedoms as soon as possible. In conclusion, Mill is deeply concerned with the emancipation of the human species and the prospects of further human development.

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