e-book The Works of John Stuart Mill: On Liberty, Representative Government, Utilitarianism

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A critical chapter in the history of political philosophy.

John Stuart Mill (1806—1873)

Reading the book again after having read about wars and postcolonialism - made me wonder how awfully wrong and catastrophic can a harmless, eloquent rational prose become over time. Mill clarifies that reminding a traveller of his goals does not imply that he must ignore other signposts - much the way utilitarianism doesn't preclude other ethical goals. Yet his worries often seem focussed on the welfare of the political class A critical chapter in the history of political philosophy. Yet his worries often seem focussed on the welfare of the political class he belonged to. It seems rather surprising - living in the world of post-war democracies today - that the upper classes did not consider it inappropriate to claim openly that they deserve the right to govern people.

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However, Mill is also clear that a political system that doesn't treat its subjects as machines is guaranteed to let the power eventually be given to the subject. This is something that, in my opinion, is not talked about so much when talking of J. While postcolonial authors often blame Mill's Utilitarianism for the widespread oppression of Asia in 19th and 20th centuries, the truth remains that West came out of the time when Mill had jotted down the tendencies of his political class.

If his writings reflect in the East in our times - then it probably is because of the phase which postcolonial world has entered into rather than the writings which are largely irrelevant in our times. The rational framework which Mill put together the political theory in terms of is still something that must inspire many.

What we often have to do is to separate the tendencies of the time from the genius of certain minds. Nicole Rodgers rated it really liked it Jan 24, James rated it really liked it Feb 01, Roger rated it it was ok Jan 08, Nicholas Bobbitt rated it really liked it May 23, Stephen Sander rated it really liked it Feb 10, Patrick Ewell rated it it was amazing Feb 02, Christopher rated it it was amazing Jan 30, Mike rated it liked it Nov 25, Les Johnson rated it liked it Feb 27, Farouk Adil rated it it was ok Aug 01, Kate rated it it was amazing Mar 17, Julie Wood rated it liked it Jan 10, Jimm Wetherbee rated it liked it Jul 25, Benjamin Erkenbrack rated it liked it Jan 01, Nathan rated it liked it Sep 30, Patrick rated it liked it Jun 13, Gabe rated it it was amazing Apr 26, Carla L.


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Sanchez-Adams rated it really liked it Dec 19, Tom Rowlands rated it really liked it Jan 17, Jason rated it it was ok Jul 23, Noel rated it really liked it May 22, Kimberley rated it really liked it Dec 21, Yue Ke rated it really liked it Dec 15, Will Crocker rated it really liked it Mar 30, Nathan rated it liked it Jul 21, Whether it is possible to maintain such a precise distinction, and where exactly the demarcation lies, has often been disputed. Mill himself, however, provides a relatively expansive interpretation of the sphere of liberty.

He writes that individuals ought to enjoy complete liberty of conscience, thought, and feeling on all subjects, and a nearly complete liberty of expression. Expression should be restricted only when the act of expression could cause harm, such as incitement to violence. All should have the liberty to form and pursue their own plan of life, to do as they like, subject to whatever consequences might follow.

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Finally, Mill contends that the individual should enjoy freedom of association for any purpose not involving harm to others. Mill also holds a relatively expansive notion of the potential threats to individual liberty.

Mill does not believe that popular sovereignty alone is a sufficient safeguard for human freedom. Rather, he sides with Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville, and believes the tyranny of the majority to be a serious threat in an age of popular government. Further, Mill does not regard the instruments of government as the sole, or even the most serious, constraint on individual liberty.

The harm principle also applies to the informal sanctions imposed by society upon dissenting or eccentric individuals. The first part consists of an argument that contends that complete freedom of expression is the best means of determining the truth. Human knowledge, he argues, is necessarily fallible, and therefore we cannot know with absolute certainty which opinions are true and which are false. It is only through confrontation with competing ideas that any position can be shown to be better or worse than its rivals. Moreover, through debate it is possible to discover useful elements of truth contained within otherwise false positions.

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Limiting freedom of expression hinders the single most important instrument for the discovery of truth. Beliefs and values that are simply accepted without critical scrutiny are mindless dogmas that dull rather than improve human reason. Mill presents his most sustained defense of representative democracy in Considerations on Representative Government. Here, Mill proposes two criteria for good government. The first is the tendency of the government to promote the common good, understood as promoting the virtue and intelligence of the people.

Second is the ability of the government to make use of the capacities of the populace for the common good. He then considers what kind of government is best, comparing benevolent despotism, in which the people are ruled by a wise and well-intentioned sovereign, with representative government. Although Mill grants that there are benefits to rule by a benevolent and exceptionally capable individual, he argues that representative government excels benevolent despotism on both criteria.

The best government, for Mill, is one in which a body of representatives is elected by universal suffrage. The purpose of the representative body is to articulate the needs and concerns of the electorate through free and open discussion, and to decide on the objectives of government policy. However, the representatives will not always craft the legislation themselves. Mill argues that the task of governing a large nation is sufficiently complex as to require a high level of technical knowledge, and, therefore, expert civil servants will conduct many governmental tasks, including drafting legislation, with the representatives providing oversight.

Mill also encourages a high degree of local government, and as much participation in government as is practicable. The most serious drawback of despotic government is that, even if is well-intentioned and wise, it produces a passive populace.

By doing everything for its citizens, the despotic government deprives them of the opportunity to act for themselves, and thus of the opportunity to develop their higher capacities. Representative government has the clear advantage in this regard. The process of selecting representatives, the open debate in parliament, and local participation, all have improving effects on the populace.

John Stuart Mill | Open Library

The very operation of representative government constantly increases the stock of intelligence and virtue upon which government may draw. According to Mill, representative government is also the most effective way to organize the capacities of the citizens for the common good. He envisions the best and wisest rising to the top of government as the people choose their betters to represent them. Moreover, Mill believes that the leading intellects of society, even out of office, will take a hand in governing society without attempting to dominate it.

In general, Mill is significantly more confident about the effects of representative government than many of his contemporaries.