On Liberty is the philosophy classic that laid the foundation of modern liberal politics, by applying the concept of utilitarianism to societies and countries, in order to create a working system between authority and liberty.
John Stuart Mill was the most influential English philosopher of the 19th century. He took an interest in civil rights, feminism and politics.
The maxims and principles laid out in his greatest work, On Liberty, would later become the foundation of what liberal politics are today.
- Democracy alone does not guarantee personal freedom.
- The only reason to limit liberty should be to save peoplefrom harm.
- False opinions are not only good, they’re important.
Let’s take a stroll down politics lane!
Lesson 1: Democracy alone does not guarantee personal freedom.
Ancient Greece, England, pre-World War II Germany, Libya, Egypt, Cambodia – we all know plenty of cases of dictatorships and need not discuss the terrible consequences a single-leader tyranny can bring about.
Today we widely accept democracy as a useful tool to limit the power of political authorities by letting the people elect their political representatives.
But Mill says democracy alone still isn’t enough to ensure personal liberty.
Because in this model, the majority rules over the individual.
Yes, the elected officials are what the majority wants, but that’s not the same as allowing each individual to govern him- or herself.
Personal freedom can still be threatened in a democracy by something that he calls social tyranny.
This happens when the majority imposes their own opinions, views and beliefs on individuals who don’t agree.
For example, while today a lot of religions are common and accepted in the US, as recently as 1950, 91% of all Americans were Christians.
It’s easy to imagine that all people from other religions were often criticized, excluded and sometimes even prosecuted, just for holding a different belief than the majority.
So no, democracy alone won’t solve all of our problems.
Lesson 2: It’s only okay to limit people’s freedom when you’re trying to save them from harm.
One of the rational principles that Mill suggests we adopt in order to truly assure personal freedom is that we meddle in and limit other people’s freedom only when the reason is that we want to save them or others from harm.
There are 3 possible scenarios where interference with personal freedom can prevent harm:
- Harm by default
- Harm by omission
- Harm by accident
Some examples: Harm by default means a person is known to cause harm to him or herself or others under certain conditions. In that case, legal entities should restrict their freedom until said conditions are cleared. This could mean punishing drug addicts with prison time, letting drunks sober up at the police station, or heavy fines for reckless drivers.
Harm by omission could be bystanders watching a murder, or tax evasion. In this case the government should use certain government agencies, like the IRA, to enforce people’s contribution to the greater good.
Harm by accident could literally mean pulling someone away from a nearing train and holding them back or catching a falling child, because it’s safe to assume that the harm they would’ve endured was unintended.
These are scenarios in which limiting freedom would be okay, because it helps the greater good, but in the next lesson, it wouldn’t.
Lesson 3: False opinions are good and important.
You would probably agree that we’d all be better off if people with radical opinions stopped spouting them around on Facebook, in public and at work.
But Mill says that’s not only wrong, prohibiting false opinions would actually hurt our society.
He says it’s important to be confronted with wrong and heavily controversial opinions, because it gets society to think about if and why the common opinions are correct in the first place.
If what you believe about gender equality wouldn’t constantly be tested and argued against, you’d eventually just start accepting it as the norm, which would lead right back to the problem in lesson 1.
When we reduce our convictions and values to mere customs and stop questioning their reason, we simply mimic what everyone else is doing and they won’t affect our character as much.
Never stop questioning yourself and challenging your own opinions. As billionaire partner of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger would say:
I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do. — Charlie Munger
My personal take-aways
The full text is available online for free, but if English isn’t your first language, and you don’t have studied politics, philosophy and history a lot before, you’ll find it overwhelming.
The level of thought is incredible and it’s very interesting to learn some of the thought patterns and ideas that precede what we consider to be the most evolved and modern form of governing countries.
Not a light read for sure, but if you’re taking an interest in any of the 3 above subjects, or just want to learn something that’s really outside of the box, you can try to read the full text.
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