On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

Not the best known portrait of Mill, but my favorite because it’s one of the few that make him look alive and interesting.

Time for another book review! I picked up On Liberty at Gloucester Green book stall last week and, idly, turned a few pages. To my great surprise, it was readable. More than that, it was actually interesting. I wouldn’t like to be thought a Philistine, but in my experience, this is a remarkable achievement for a philosophy book. I bought it and took it home, and (with a few interruptions) finished it this evening. Here’s the deal: Mill is worth reading.

The man was way ahead of his time: on women, for one thing (see The Subjection of Women, but in On Liberty he gets practically apoplectic about the status of the father as the only parent allowed any legal stake in the raising of children), but also on the idea of what can be acceptably interfered with by society and what cannot. He would be recognized today as a libertarian: any action by an individual that affects other people can be justifiably prevented, by force, by the state, but any action by an individual that affects only his or her own well-being is entirely up to said individual. No laws can be made against it; it cannot be held against them in public institutions. They may be cajoled, reasoned and pleaded with, but not compelled.

So far, so good. He moves on to a rather knottier problem, which is that of public opinion. Mill agrees that censure deriving from social pressures and the fear of “what other people will think” is an acceptable substitute for law in order to prevent certain kinds of behavior: public drunkenness, for instance, or abandoning your wife. But he also understands that such fear is one of the strongest possible disincentives to free exchange of ideas. He comes out strongly in favour of an open marketplace of expression: no one may be prevented from expressing their opinion or belief, no matter how offensive or impious anyone else may find it. There are two reasons for this: one is that, if it is a true opinion, it is vital that it should be expressed so that people may see it for the truth, even though perhaps an unpopular one; the second is that, if it is a false opinion, it must be expressed so that opinions which are true may be vitalized and rejuvenated by coming into contact with opposition.

I think that idea is the one most applicable to the world as it currently is. Especially in Britain, where press regulation is a hot topic at the moment, it’s essential to think about how we cope with being challenged. Even an opinion that is both true and popular still needs to be exercised and refreshed; without freedom in speech and print, as Mill constantly reasserts, “[neither] this nor any other country [would be] free otherwise than in name.” (He also, intriguingly, defends Mormonism on similar grounds; though I find a little doubtful his declaration that polygamy is accepted fully by the women who are involved, and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of the state, it is quite enlightening to watch him put into effect the kinds of ideas that liberals often love in theory and find distasteful in practice. He also points out that women are taught to believe that marriage is “the only thing needful” and that, under such circumstances, to be one wife among many still appears a better alternative than not to be a wife at all. The fact that he brings this up suggests that he would rather like to see an alteration in how women are taught to think, and that if they were taught differently, Mormon polygamy might be in a rather different situation. I would argue that society is still working on this one, though we’ve made some progress.)

His prose, while not perhaps divinely inspired, is accessible, straightforward and intelligent, and does not rely heavily on definitions of terms to be understood. If you read one work of philosophy this year, read this one. The ideas he puts forth mean a great deal to Western societies that consider themselves free, and they deserve to be fully understood.

[ps: There’s a review of On Liberty here, at the always-interesting and informative books blog Don’t Read Too Fast. It’s probably a million times better than this one, but I didn’t read it before writing this, for obvious reasons.]

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