Essay on the Importance of Individual Liberty According to John Stuart Mill

Human beings are fallible creatures—and their certainty that the opinion they hold is true is justified only when their opinion is constantly opposed to contrary opinions. Mill wanted us to give up the assumption of infallibility—when our certainty about our beliefs makes us crush all contrary points of view so that our opinion is not subject to criticism.

What if the minority opinion were false? Mill gave three reasons for why it should still be allowed freedom of expression. It’s only by constantly being able to refute wrong opinions, that we hold our correct opinions as living truths. If we accept an opinion, even if correct, on the basis of authority alone, that opinion becomes a dead dogma.

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Neither do we understand its grounds, and nor does it mould our character or move us to action. Finally Mill argued that truth is a multifaceted thing and usually contrary opinions both contain a part of the truth! Suppressing one opinion then, leads to the suppression of one part of the truth.

When it comes to the liberty of action, Mill asserted a very simple principle: “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 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.” Mill acknowledged that it was difficult to draw a line between self-regarding and other regarding action, and he provided some hypothetical examples as proof of this difficulty. If a man destroys his own property, this is a case of other regarding action because others dependent on that man will be affected. Even if this person has no dependants, his action can be said to affect others, who, influenced by his example, might behave in a similar manner.

Against this, Mill said that only when one has specific obligations to another person, can one be said to affect his or her interests; therefore the case of an individual affecting others by his example will not stand. On his own ground, Mill cited all kinds of restrictions on not eating pork or beef, or priests being required not to marry, as examples of unnecessary restrictions on self-
regarding action. Other examples are Sabbatarian legislation which prevents individuals from working or even singing and dancing on Sundays.

Mill wrote that sometimes even in the case of other regarding action, no restrictions can be placed on onefor instance, if one wins a job through competition, this action can be said to affect others’ interests by ensuring that they do not get the job, but no restrictions are applicable here.

Similarly, trade has social consequences, but believing in the principle of free trade, Mill argued that lack of restrictions on trade actually leads to better pricing and better quality of products. And when it comes to self-regarding action, as we already showed, the principle of liberty requires the absence of all restrictions.

Mill defended freedom of association on three grounds. First, “when the thing to be done is likely to be done better by individuals than by government. Speaking generally, there is no one fit to conduct any business, or to determine how or by whom it shall be conducted, as those who are personally interested in it.” Second, allowing individuals to get together to do something, even if they do not do it as well as the government might have done it, is better for the mental education of these individuals.

The right of association becomes, for Mill, a “practical part of the political education of a free people, taking them out of the narrow circle of personal and family selfishness, and accustoming them to the comprehension of joint concerns—habituating them to act from public or semi- public motives, and guide their conduct by aims which unite instead of isolating them from one another.”

Further, government operations tend to be everywhere alike; with individuals and voluntary associations, on the contrary, there are varied experiments, and endless diversity of experience. Third, if we let the governments do everything; there is the evil of adding unnecessarily to its power.

Mill’s ideal was improvement he wanted individuals to constantly better themselves morally, mentally and materially. It was to this ideal that he saw individual liberty as instrumental: “The only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals.” Individuals themselves would naturally lead to a better and improved society.

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