John Stuart Mill – About freedom or versus government?

As early as 1859, the famous philosopher John Stuart Mill published his book: On Freedom. In very philosophical language he explains what he considers freedom to be, especially the freedom of the individual, and why this is so important.

Freedom of the individual

According to Mill, the freedom of the individual is divided into a number of facets, which nevertheless cannot be seen separately from each other: the freedom of thought, the freedom of speech and the freedom of action. Mill considers the freedom of the individual to be of immense importance. The government must intervene as little as possible in that freedom. The freedom of the individual is of great importance for man’s self-development and well-being. Human progress means human well-being. Mill slightly adheres to the then undiscovered utilitarianism: the principle of greatest utility. Of the greatest benefit to humanity is progress, because with it they will achieve well-being. Progress and well-being are a regressum ad infinitum (a vicious circle).

The truth

According to Mill, this progress can only be achieved if the individual is completely free. The government must restrict that freedom as little as possible. Often such a restriction imposes a certain truth. There are countless examples of this in history, most of them related to religions and faith. Such a belief is then seen as truth, and no one is allowed to deviate from it. Mill thinks that is a bad thing. Not only because it hinders the progress of humanity, but also because imposing a truth offers no possibility of contradiction. Now suppose that this truth is not a truth at all, but only an error. One will only discover the truth if one is confronted about this error. Thus, imposing one truth ensures that the truer truth will never be known.

Submission to truths usually only follows from the realization that the minority fails to become the majority. Ultimately, every person wants to impose their own will and beliefs on others, even if they know that humans do this naturally and should be wary of it.

Limitations of limitations

The government should interfere as little as possible with the individual and not impose truths. It must also prevent citizens from imposing truths on each other. The rule that Mill sets for this is quite simple. All thoughts and actions are permitted to man, provided that this does not (physically) harm another person. As soon as damage occurs, the government must take punitive action (the basis of our current criminal justice system). Therefore, in his view, thinking is always free from limitation, because it is impossible for a person to physically harm someone through his thoughts. Something that could possibly lead to damage in the future is insufficient reason for restriction.

Versus Devlin

Mill is contradicted in the latter by fellow philosopher Devlin. Devlin has a more religious background than Mill, and therefore believes that you can indeed harm someone with thoughts, namely the God you adhere to. A thought of murder (is a sin) will be heard by God and disapproved. Devlin also disagrees with Mill on the fact that all action is lawful as long as it does not harm another. According to him, this rule should be made a little stricter. According to him, if the majority is disgusted by something, that is reason enough to restrict something. To put this in a recent light, for example, all fat people should be expelled from the Netherlands, or given fewer rights, if the majority are disgusted by fat people.

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