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On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

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John Stuart Mill was a great philosopher of the nineteenth century and the author of ‘On Liberty.’ In this writing (written in 1850), Mills voiced his ideas on individual freedom, both social and political. His intended audience is educated, healthy and ‘civilized’ adults. He equates our personal freedoms with the pursuit of happiness, in particular, freedom of speech and expression. Mill defines the meaning of liberty as the relationship between the State and an individual, in regards to the power the government has over an individual. He says that power needs to be guarded against if man is to develop and succeed. He argues that the government should not interfere with an individual’s civil liberties as long as a person’s action does not harm another. He feels that the basis of a healthy democracy is our personal right to freedom and expression without censorship. He also raises the question surrounding the limits of power that can be legally exercised by the state over an individual. In other words, where do we draw the line between individual liberty and authority? What role should government play in our lives? These questions have influenced the practices of societies throughout history and are relevant to the political climate of today and also the future.

He builds his argument by tracing the struggle between liberty and authority throughout history, using Greece, Rome, and England as examples of Classical and Post Classical models. Power was either passed down by inheritance or was won through conquests (with the exception of Greece for a short period of time). There were two types of power, 1) power of the state through its laws and 2) power from popular opinion (hoi polloi). Through the evolution of civilization, the role of the state became procedural. The state became rule makers and could only punish if the rules were broken.

Mill feels that the state should interfere, by imposing consequences through the law, when a person’s behavior impacts others. When behavior only impacts an individual, the state should have no authority and should not intervene. Mill introduces his ‘harm’ principle, which basically states that the government should not interfere with an individual if he/she is only causing harm to himself/herself and does not impact others. Euthanasia, the right to die, is a relevant topic of today that which can be applied to his theory. Mill’s answer to the question of how to properly balance liberty and the power of the state can be found in his theory of utility. The essence of this theory is that the greater good for the greater number of people should be the main consideration in making a choice of actions. He also says that we should not use morality as a basis for making decisions that impact the majority.

If Mill were alive today he would be an advocate of euthanasia. He would argue that it is a persons individual right to choose to die with dignity when facing a painful, slow death, because it does not harm society as a whole. He would say that euthanasia is a case of individual liberty. If a person decides that he wants to die, others might not morally agree with this decision, but does society or the government have the right to tell him that he cannot do this? I do not agree with Mill’s position. How can we make certain that a person is making this decision with a sound mind? And how can we expect our government to regulate laws concerning the right to die when there is such an enormous opportunity for abuse. For example, someone decides that someone else’s life is not worth living because he has become a burden on society and kills him under the guise of euthanasia. “They” decide that we cannot afford to provide the expensive medical care that this person requires and it will only extend his life by a few months anyway. Isn’t it better to spend the money on something more useful? It could even go as far as eliminating people to “strengthen” the gene pool, or we should eliminate “surplus” people because the world is “overpopulated”.

Mill would say that our civil liberties are being violated after the 911 terrorists attacks because of the subsequent back lash of racial profiling and heightened security. I believe the government is required to intervene in this instance because of the fallout from this horrible crime against America. Government leaders have repeatedly warned us to expect another terrorist attack and it would be foolish not to agree. We have been a free nation with open borders, but is this what led to our vulnerability? Now we know that the terrorists have a nearly unlimited arsenal of weapons to choose from: guns, chemicals, and bombs (although all they needed were box cutters and a pilot’s license. I feel that the impending war with Iraq has probably increased the number of people eager to do us harm. We must support our government in any way we can so that they may properly protect us in this ‘new’ environment.

Mill endorses freedom and all of the essential liberties found in the First Amendment. I feel there is a gray area here that Mill fails to address. Freedom of expression comes in the form of television violence, which has led to an increase of an extra 10,000 homicides a year in the United States, according to Dr. Brandon Centerwall of the University of Washington. Violent crime among 13- to 17-year-old teen-agers climbed 126 percent from 1976 to 1992, and the experts conclude that TV violence is partially responsible. Mill would say that an individual should be free to do whatever they want unless it causes harm to others. He wrongly assumes that some human actions are free of social consequences. While I don’t believe our government should be ‘moral policeman,’ I do feel that Mill’s theory is too vague and simplistic and is difficult to apply to the social issues of today.

Harm comes in many forms, so I feel that there are many instances when the state’s interference is justified. For example, 1) spousal abuse (leads to murder) 2) use of dangerous, over the counter drugs (e.g. ephedra) and 3) talking on the cell phone while driving (causes accidents), just to name a few. Mill argues that utility is how we will progress and prosper but I know of a man named Martin Luther King, one of the greatest civil rights leaders who represented the best morality-based politics in America. His emotional “I Have a Dream” speech was based on his sense of right and wrong and his strong morale convictions. His emotional words and peaceful protests caused a mass social movement that changed the world forever.

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