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Authority And Liberty

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In his opening chapter, Mill contrasts two political traditions, that of authority and that of liberty. These traditions imply two quite different views of the individual and his or her relationship to society. In the authoritarian view society, perhaps in the form of the monarchy, is dominant, and the individual exist only as a member of society. To use an analogy which Mill does not use, society is the machine, and the individuals are cogs within it. In the libertarian view the individual comes first, and society is simply the aggregate of the relationship that individuals make with one another.

In Mill’s analysis the tension between authority and liberty is a matter of historical fact, and he see this tension as a major theme of human history. But Mill himself also makes a value judgement in that he firmly puts himself on the side of liberty. Thus from the outset Mill is implying a bias towards minimal government, in which the main role of the state is to provide a secure framework with in which individuals can freely relate to each other.

In preferring liberty to authority Mills is also favouring a particular view of the individual. The authoritarian model tends to assume a rather pessimistic view of the individual, believing that individuals are irresponsible and irrational, so that social order can only be maintained if they are forced to obey strict rules and laws. The libertarian view has a more optimistic view of human nature, regarding human beings as rational, and as using their rational faculty to pursue consistent goals. Thus social order will be largely maintained because people will enter relationships with one anther for mutual benefit. In taking this view of the individual Mill was largely adopting the belief of his father’s mentor Jeremy Bentham.

Between authority and liberty Mills describes a third position which in his view is deceptive, in that it promises liberty but in fact leads to tyrannical authority. Mill say that this third view is often describe by its supporters as �self government’ and the power of the people over themselves. Although he does not name him Mill appears to be referring mainly to the ideas of Rousseau which strongly influenced the French revolution and which remained popular amongst progressive thinkers. Rousseau believed that once a democratic decision has been reached, it expresses the �general will’ and that individuals are then obliged to summit there own wills to it. Like other libertarians Rousseau had an optimistic view of the individual, believing that they would exercise there democratic rights for the good of society as a whole. However Mills believed that this form of freedom would lead to the majority tyrannising the minority and on some issue almost everyone is likely to find themselves in the minority. By refuting Rousseau idea of the general will with individual freedom; and so he argues that, to uphold individual freedom, the state’s power must be limited. The question is then is how much should the state power be limited.

The individual in relation to thought and speech

Mills optimistic view of the individual and especially his belief in human rationality forms the basis of his commitment to free speech.

Mill explains his commitment to free speech by contrasting once again authority with liberty the authoritarian view implies that there is a monarch or an elite who are infallible, or who are at least far wiser than the population as a whole. Therefore people not belonging to this elite should not be aloud to speak freely for fear of misguiding the population. Mill by contrast argues that no one can claim infallibility and that rationality and wisdom are widely distributed amongst the population as a whole.

Mill argues that a libertarian society with free thought and speech tends to produce people of genius from which society as a whole benefits. However it could be argued that authoritarian with an wealthy and educated elite are also good at producing geniuses because the elite can provide excellent education for their offspring. Mill himself is an example of this; he received an intensive education as a member of the elite and is widely regarded as a genius.

For Mill Silencing discussion rest on the assumption of infallibility; and people frequently regard the majority opinion of their society to be infallible. And yet other societies may have quite different majority opinions: so majority support cannot guarantee rightness.

On the basis of his belief in individuality Mill advocates freedom of speech, giving a variety of reason. The first and most important is that rational people are able to distinguish good idea from bad one’s, and hence insure that good ideas prevail.

The second reason is that even the expression of bad idea’s can be helpful because they compel people to use there rational faculty’s in rejecting them. Thus by allowing foolish people to express there beliefs people commitment to there belief will be strengthened.

A third reason is that if a good idea is silenced this deprive the masses the opportunity of hearing it. Mill points out that in the past radical and reforming ideas have been persecuted which we know believe to be true, highlighting his view that the majority opinion may not always be correct.

By presuming that that every individual is capable of rational thought Mill stresses the importance of debating to bring about social progress. Mill explains that because humans are endowed with rational faculty, testing our opinions in open discussion is the best process for ensuring that an opinion is sufficiently close to the truth to be a guide for action.

Although by adopting this belief Mill is presuming that good ideas will always prevail over bad one even though there is sufficient evidence that this is not the case. For instance it is well known that the rise to power of Hitler in the 1930 was furiously debated over even though Hitler’s anti-Semitic views could not be justified by any one of true rational mind the German people still decided to elect Hitler and the Nazi party as there political representatives.

This also seems to bring into question whether all people are capable of rational thought. Mill seems to show a lack of understanding of people’s tendency not to assess each individual action on its merit but to adopt packages of idea’s like a religion or middle class set of values. These are socially determined and are in some respects created to bind society together, creating a common platform for society to work from. Otherwise if we all held



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