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G. Lee Bowie, Robert C. Solomon

On Liberty

On Liberty - John Stuart Mill Near the beginning of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill states the over-arching idea of the book:...the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. [...:] The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. In many cases, he is consistent with this statement. For example, he is against state education: "A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body."It seems like he is taking a strong moral stance, one that falls in line with libertarianism or possibly even anarchism. Later in the book however, it becomes apparent that, while Mill has lot in common with libertarians, when it gets down to the details of implementation, he diverges. His definition of what type of conduct is "amenable to society," and therefore a candidate for regulation, is more broad than what most libertarians would accept. For example, Mill is generally in favor of free markets. He believes governments shouldn't be able to restrict people from gambling or buying alcohol or sex. Interestingly though, he says that selling those same things falls under the realm of "society," and are thus, by his definition, fair game for minimal government regulation.Other examples of where Mill sees governmental intervention as appropriate are for things "which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offenses against others, may rightly be prohibited." Perhaps most tellingly he, like his mentor Jeremy Bentham, also believes that society can take "antecedent precautions" such as prohibiting people who have committed crimes while drunk from drinking.Based on this, we can be fairly sure that Mill is not an anarchist and his views on what society can or cannot regulate seem to indicate that both economically and socially he is willing to make exceptions that would make him, if a libertarian at all, a moderate one.Mill is no lover of democracy, to paraphrase him: "no government by a democracy in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except they let themselves be guided by a more highly gifted and instructed One or few." It seems that Mill would probably be happy with a good king who used his power only judiciously, or perhaps a very limited aristocracy or a government, like in Plato's Republic, by philosophers with little self-interest. It was difficult for me to get really excited about Mill. I have a hard time seeing how his "classical liberalism" combined with his dislike for democracy could be practically implemented. Personally, at this point, I'm still drawn to seeking a morally pure political philosophy where there are no arbitrary boundaries on when liberties can or can't be infringed on for the greater good of society. Unfortunately the more I look, the less I find.