What is liberty?
Liberty is defined as the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views.
In his work ‘On Liberty’ published in 1859, philosopher John Stuart Mill tried to find the limits that society should have when it comes to exercising its power over individuals.
Should society have absolute power over individuals? Does it have the right to control the thoughts and actions of individuals?
We can all easily say that a society in absolute control like North Korea is wrong and one we would never want to live in.
However, does the society we live in work on the principles of liberty? ‘On Liberty‘ is an attempt by John to unite Utilitarianism and liberal rights.
2 factors that threaten individual liberty
Of-course the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about dangers to our freedom is the Government.
No matter which government it is, there is always a danger to our freedoms and liberty.
The ones in power will often want to stay in power. To do that, it is natural for them to create more and more levers to control individuals.
The Patriot Act passed by the United States is a prime example. It was the first of the many laws that made it a surveillance state.
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”― Benjamin Franklin
The other factor aside from government is the ‘majoritarian beliefs’ or attitudes of society.
This threat to liberty manifests when a few individuals deviate from those majoritarian beliefs.
They are ostracised and then faced with pressure to conform to the will of society. This is what John referred to as the Tyranny of the majority.
The tyranny of the government and the tyranny of the majority are both potential dangers to individual liberty.
Tyranny of the majority
The government elected democratically is called the self-government. The power exercised over its people is called the ‘power of the people over themselves’. The will of the people in a democracy is thus a majoritarian will after all, is it not?
“The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest.
The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as 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.“― John Stuart Mill
Thus, there has to be a limit to the interference of collective opinion over individual’s independence.
John argues it is as important to have that limit for the human condition as protections against political despotism.
Government vs Majority
There is an opinion in modern times that John overstates the impact of Tyranny of the majority and understates the tyranny of the government.
After all the government can use absolute power over its citizens by even incarcerating them.
The majority on the other hand can only ostracise the people that deviate from its core belief structure.
It is much easier for a person with strong convictions and emotional maturity to ignore the tyranny of the majority.
The absolute duress a government can place over him by force can’t be ignored.
One can make an argument that if John had lived to see the modern atrocities of government he might have changed his mind.
However, we must understand that the governments that are democratically elected, as explained above are also a form of tyranny of the majority when they start taking actions against the minorities that deviate from conformity.
Who decides the limits over freedoms and liberty
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”― Thomas Jefferson
The argument then becomes, how much freedom is too much freedom. Where is the line between individual freedom and government control?
John stated that the only interference warranted with the liberty of an individual is self-protection and prevention of harm to others.
Thus, when it comes to the actions that directly affect only the individuals themselves, the government has no business in meddling with them.
However, when those actions directly affect others, society can step in and prevent harm to others.
“Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.“― John Stuart Mill
For example, one person can drink away his life with alcohol.
However, when that person steps behind a wheel and drives bringing danger to others he may be punished.
Harm to others is a necessary but not sufficient condition to curb individual’s liberties. More on that later.
The Three freedoms for liberty
Mill states that there are three basic principles of liberty namely
- Freedom of speech
- The Freedom to pursue tastes
- Freedom to unite
He goes into further depth on each of these principles to explain what they mean and why they are essential to the liberty of the individual.
“It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it.
Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.
Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.“― John Stuart Mill
Any society in which they are not respected is not completely free no matter the form of its government.
All individuals should have the freedom in pursuing their own good in their own way unless they are depriving others of theirs.
Liberty of expressing and publishing opinions
The way we call it, freedom of expression.
Mr. John was a free speech absolutist and he believed that silencing any opinion even if that opinion is incorrect is wrong.
He goes on to say –
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”― John Stuart Mill
Aside from shunning opinions being wrong on principle, he gave reasons for it even being wrong logically.
He said that knowing that the opinion we are trying to silent is false and claiming to know that as certain is the first step towards despotism.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”― George Orwell
There is a chance that the held opinion is the truth. In that case, the majority gets deprived of learning the truth.
If the opinion is untrue, then it can be disproven by facts and logic.
History’s absolute truths are today’s absurdities
Another point he argues is that society throughout history has often mistaken their deep beliefs as absolute truths.
However, over time we do find that they were not only false but also absurd. John himself is a good example of that.
When giving exceptions for these liberties, he argued that children who are too young or humans that still require to be taken care of by others should be protected against their own actions and from external injures.
However, he continues that it is the duty of those civilized to improve the lives of those uncivilized even if it is by force.
“Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.
Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.
But as soon as mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.”― John Stuart Mill
We know how absurd this is. Yet this was a legitimate view held by colonials at the time.
John Stuart Mill worked in the East India Company, responsible for Britain’s colonization of India.
This Proves how history’s absolute truths can be today’s absurdities.
Problems with conformity
We should not aim for conformity as a society.
Each individual should be given the right to express his opinions regardless of what we think is correct.
Even if an Idea is true, it still important that contradictory ideas exist.
This is because a true Idea only holds its strength when it is constantly under attack by conflicting ideas.
Once you proclaim an idea as absolute and shun off everything that challenges it, you make the true Idea lose its worth.
“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.“― John Stuart Mill
Only when we start to challenge our beliefs and embrace our individuality, can we start expressing uniqueness in our skills and talents.
If society starts to impose conformities over individuals in any aspect be it social or otherwise, it leads to stagnation and pent up resentments in its citizens.
This week try to have an open mind when you talk to people.
Try to really listen to their perspectives before you decide what is right and be malleable in your thinking.
This will help you understand the world around you and engender trust in the people with whom you communicate.
“Better to die fighting for freedom then be a prisoner all the days of your life.”― Bob Marley
We urge you to explore what your callings are. Do you possess the courage to chase them?
We provide a free eBook called The perfect beginning that might help you in finding those callings.
That is all for this week. I hope you have a good day and a good life.