John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty of Thought and Discussion"
1. What are some of the evils caused by silencing an opinion?
2. How does Mill answer the argument that we can forbid discussion because we must act on the basis of the knowledge that we have?
3. How does he deal with the argument that although some opinions are untrue, they are socially valuable and should be protected?
4. Why do you think he chooses beliefs concerning God and a future state as test cases for discussion of opinion? Does this choice make his argument more or less persuasive?
5. Which historical examples of the suppression of opinion does he choose, and why?
6. How does he answer the argument that truth will survive persecution anyway?
7. What is his argument against denial of the right to give legal evidence to those who will not profess belief in a god?
8. Is his belief that religious persecution could revive in England consistent with his view that England has a free press?
9. What does he believe are British attitudes towards those with heretical opinions?
10. What is the effect of suppression of free opinion on individuals and groups?
11. Even if an opinion is true, are there reasons why it should be further discussed?
12. What example does he use of a once powerful series of beliefs now held by rote?
13. Does Mill believe there will be doctrines which will not be disputed? Is his belief that the number of uncontested opinions will increase consistent with his earlier comments on the need for freedom of discussion?
14. What features does Mill feel are lacking from contemporary education?
15. What are features of Christian ethics which seem limiting to Mill?
16. How does he answer those who would only permit temperate discussion?
17. Are there any defenses of free discussion which Mill has omitted?
How would you characterize his style and argumentative method?
J. S. Mill was one of the most eclectic, thorough and comprehensive European thinkers of his century, and virtually the only one to be systematically preoccupied with reconciling the claims of the individual with those of a group. In his Autobiography Mill sees himself as the synthecizer of great trends of his day; On Liberty is important as an attempt to arbitrate between some of the assumptions of nineteenth-century individualism, libertarianism, and utilitarianism and early socialism (represented in his case by the political persuasions of his father and wife respectively).
It is perhaps not a coincidence that On Liberty, among other things a great document of political liberalism, appeared in the same period as poetic assertions of individual perception and emotion, and of mercantile demands for laissez-faire; one can find, for example, parallels between Mill's thought and that of Alexis De Tocqueville, Matthew Arnold, and Florence Nightingale.
Mill was a chief administrator of the East India Company; the author of treatises on a wide range of subjects in psychology, logic, religious thought, and politics; a lifelong journalist and essayist; the editor of the Westminister Review; a member of Parliament; and the author of the first bill for women's suffrage. His Autobiography, considered perhaps the finest example of a Victorian inteclletual autobiography and a model for its genre, represents a psycholgically acute and introspective explanation of the genesis, internal tensions, and personal limitations which both activated and constricted his intellectual preoccupations and achievements.
On Liberty results from a passion for social freedom, balanced by scrupulous concern with procedures and determination to synthesize seeming opposites of opinion into a more comprehensive unity, and the Autobiography reveals the origin of these temperamental and mental characteristics. In so doing Mill presents a paradigmatic document in the history of education, an unusually astute analyis of mental depression and a sense of alienation, and a documentation of a Victorian intellectual's problem of the separation of human affection and emotion from work, analysis, and sequential, rational thought. On Liberty is a tribute both to the effectiveness of his father's systematic training and to the healing powers of his intellectual partnership with his wife, with whom he wrote his boldest defenses of human freedom, On Liberty and the Subjection of Women.
At least in 1859, what did Mill see as the chief threat to political liberty in the nineteenth century?
--the popular will, lack of restraints to majority control, 5, 15; the "self-government" spoken of is not the goerment of each by himself but each by all the rest.
[It has been estimated that in 1859 about 5% of adult persons could vote in Britain (as a result of the Reform Bill of 1832); in 1867 about 10% of adults could vote.]
According to Mill, in what ways does the majority enforce its opinion other than through civil laws?
--6, enslaves the soul itself, hinders individuality
In which country(ies) may be seen the evils of majority rule?
--the United States, 5; yet in 1859 in the U. S. the majority of persons could not vote.
--in Britain, since rule is more by majority opinion than by government
Do you think Mill's fears were valid for their time? (during the early and mid-Victorian period, restrictions on plots were imposed by Mudie's Circulating Library; religious restrictions limited enrollment and teaching at Oxford and Cambridge; severe restrictions limited female occupations and property ownership)
What do you think of Mill's contention that in some respects resistence to pressure was easier in former centuries?
According to Mill, whose opinions now determine social morality?
--those of the dominant class, 8; its feelings of class superiority are upheld in the public domain (cmp. Marx)
What have been some defects of previous moralists?
--8, "They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like and dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals . . . ."
Does Mill feel British religious tolerance is a good sign for the future?
--9, intolerance still exists where issue of great concern
According to Mill, what is the sole purpose for which governmental power can be exercised over an individual's actions?
--when these would harm others or society, 11; cannot legislate for an individual's alleged own good
Whose rights should not be protected?
--11, children's rights
His comments on children's rights here should be read in the context of his later comments on the need to protect children from excessive paternal control.
--those of "backward" or "barbarian" civilizations [a general Victorian blind spot, but also Mill was an administrator for the East India Company; although children may attain maturity, Mill does not here allow for any process by which British colonies might obtain self-rule, or a series of steps toward learning and practicing self-rule]
According to Mill, are there things a individual can be compelled to do?
--12, bear share in the common defense; give evidence in court; save a fellow creature's life; protect the defenseless
What rights of the individual does Mill have in mind beside political liberties?
--13 domain of conscience and liberty of opinion; expression of opinion; liberty of tastes and pursuits; liberty of combination and association
What changes make Mill fear that we are experiencing a diminishment of civil liberties?
--15, growth of Puritanism
--power of society increasing as government repression has declined
--power of religion to control opinion has increased, 14-15
--power of individual decreasing
What difficulties of definition or competing claims might there be in making this distinction? What examples does Mill himself seem to have most in mind?
II. "Of Liberty of Thought and Discussion"
1. What are some of the evils caused by silencing an opinion?
(deprives others of right to exchange error for truth 18; deprives others of livelier perception of truth produced by its collision with error; we can never be sure an opinion is false; no one can see his/her blind spots 19)
And even if we could be sure, stifling is an evil--why?
--can only act on our opinions if we permit the possibility of contradiction to test these opinions, 20
--makes overarching statements without overstatement--carefully modulated statement of extreme opinion--controlled sarcasm, 20
How does Mill answer the argument that we can forbid discussion because we must act on the basis of the knowledge that we have?
--must keep issues open, only by keeping a doctrine open to debate can we render it true, 20
--human progress has occurred through correction of errors through experiment and interpretation, 21; truth evolves from century to century, 22
--can only be sure of truths by examining and collating all partial points of view, by listening to criticism, 21; only then "we may rely on having attained such approach to truth as is possible in our own day," 22
--gives example of an almost certain belief in Newtonian philosophy, which he nonetheless thinks should continue to be reexamined; interestingly, since the Victorian period views on matter and gravity have indeed been modified with time (and there are many other examples from the history of science)
How does he deal with the argument that some opinions are not true but socially valuable, and should therefore be protected?
--the usefulness of an opinion is of itself a matter of opinion, 23
no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful
Why does Mill choose beliefs concerning God and a future state as test cases for discussion of opnion? Does this choice make his argument more or less persuasive? For the Victorian period, these would have been the most significant issues, 24, and would have been at the forefront of everyone's mind.
Which historical examples of the suppression of opinion does he choose, and why?
--Socrates and Christ were persecuted, Marcus Aurelius, though a tolerant philosopher, persecuted Christians, 27, St. Paul an early persecutor
--those who persecuted Christ were respectable men of their time, 25-26
--it is an irony that those who were persecuted are now persecuting others
How does he answer the argument that truth will survive persecution anyway?
--28, cruel; inhibits new ideas
--28, 29, also this is untrue; truth has been successfully suppressed
What is Mill's argument against the denial of the right to give legal evidence to those who will not profess belief in a god?
--this is a legal not social discrimination
--only atheists who will lie are permited civil liberties, 30-31
These observations have the sting of personal resentment.
Is Mill's belief that religious persecution could revive in England consistent with his view that England has a free press? (31, 17)
When the issue concerns him, Mill takes legal penalties seriously--doubtless he suffered from prejudice against agnostics.
What does Mill believe are British attitudes toward those with heretical opinions?
--32, peroration on social prescriptions--the unconventional are prevented from earning their livelihood.
--even if thinkers are not hurt, we hurt ourselves, 32 Why? A great indictment; he felt deeply on this issue
What is the effect of the suppression of free opinion on individuals and groups?
--limits moral courage of human beings, 32-33
--would stifle thinkers from following the conclusions of their thought, 33; this applies both to great thinkers, 33 and to average human beings 34
--we have a need for an era of thought--general cultural progress requires the intellectual activity of people, which is only possible with mental freedom, 34
--even error can add to truth: "Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think," 33.
Even if an opinion is true, why should it be discussed?
--truth must be discussed to form a living dogma, 34-35 [this had been mentioned earlier, p. 20]; "truth held in ignorance is but one superstition the more," 35
--all except mathematical truths admit of more than one opinion, 36--even here, 20th-21st century science and mathemathics admits the possibilty of multiple universes
--truth depends on the balance beween conflicting reasons, 36; since judgments are complex, much of understanding a disputed opinion consists of "dispelling the appearances which favor some opinion different from it."
--one cannot really know one's own case until one knows the other side, 37; one must hear the opposition speak persuasively; if good opponents don't exist, one will even have to imagine their arguments
If opinions are suppressed, even the meaning of a belief will be forgotten, 38-39, and the words which convey it will become empty
--40, prevents other forms of learning
What example does Mill use of a once powerful series of beliefs now held by rote?
--long digression on nominal Christiaity--nominal belief prevents real belief, 40
--states what would have seemed to many extreme views in simple laconic form, 40
--dry irony, 41
Does Mill believe there will be doctrines which will not be disputed? Is his belief that the number of uncontested doctrines wil increase consistent with his earlier comments on freedom of discussion? 42
--sense of determinism--range of controversy will contract, 423
--Socratic dialogues reopened definitions of received opinion
--even church disputations to some degree opened debate
Which features does Mill believe are lacking from contemporary education?
--43, debate, after Socratic pattern; the promotion of analyses and critiques of opponents' positions
--44, must study opponents' opinions, should practice the ability to point to weaknesses in theory and practice
--Conflicting doctrines may each contain a partial truth--heresies reflect partial insights--all are need to counterbalance each other, 46
--defense of pluralism--all have some truth, 46; one needs to learn from the minority
His great example, again, is religion; what are features of Christian ethics which seem limiting to Mill?
--even Christianity a partial guide--a negative rather than positive ideal, 47; teaches submission to the reigining authority, obedience, no sense of service to the state
--agains he reiterates that many of the best people have been irreligious, 49
--opposes narrow religious conception of education
--evil of suppression, 50; free discussion prevents rigidity of idea
How does Mill answer those who would only permit temperate or moderate discusson? 651
--people judge what is temperate differently
--moderation will prevail anyway, for a reasoned argument is more persuasive, 52
Are there any defenses of free discussion which in your view Mill has omitted?
--individuals learn by pursuing the truth they have
What final comments does he make on the real morality of public discussion?
-- 52, need to give full weight to opponent's ideas
What are some features of Mill's mode of argument?
--gentle sarcasm of argument, 18-19, 40, 101
--argues opponents' views carefully, 19ff
--able to state the same arguments without repetitive wording, 53--either briefly or at length
III. "Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being"
1. What do you think of his opening example of an instance where the suppression of an opinion is justified? Does it contain latent biases or assumptions?
--His cited instance is the handing out of a placard stating that property is theft (Proudhon) to an assemblage of people gathered in front of an official's house.
Is this consistent with Mill's earlier defense of free speech?
--This would seem to be a case where the utility of anarcho-revolutionary views is open to debate, and where the opinions of several factions may contain truth. Religious people feel atheistic doctrines promote infidelity and consequent risk of hell, yet Mill has argued that they must permit the expression of contrary views. Surely property is a less important issue than that of a supposed eternal punishment.
Possibly he's unable to apply his own views to political as opposed to religious issues?
2. What does Mill argue are some advantages of diversity for individual character?
--necessary for choice, 55; choice itself a necessary mental and moral activity, 55
--absorbs all faculties, 56 perfects man himself
--strength of impulse is the basis of good and of character, 57
--we now have a deficiency of personal impulses, 58; attacks conformity, 58
--development of character is the food of life, 59
--others can learn from these developed characters, 60
--genius needs freedom, the few original minds are the salt of the earth, 61
--persons of genius are more original, 61
3. What does Mill believe about the nature of men in a group?
--masses are by definition a collective mediocrity, 62
--masses need to be governed by one or the few, cmp. Fabians, Carlyle, 63
Mill here exhibits the standard 19th century liberal fear of the "mob"--the masses will sink to the lowest common denominator of activity. He is unable to see any creative potential in group social interaction, only tyranny. As his Autobiography shows, he himself often collaborated with and benefited from the efforts of other like-minded young men, but these collectivities were small.
To be fair to Mill, he was a steady proponent of wider public education, so that the masses, whom he wished to benefit from universal suffrage, would use their vote in an informed maner.
4. What does Mill see as the dominant character of the time, and what is needed to counteract this?
--eccentricity is needed to balance the conformity of the time, 63
5. Is contempt for individuals in a mass consistent with the doctrine of individuality? How does Mill reconcile (or does he reconcile) belief in individual freedom with his belief in the worth of a "merely average man"? He seems interested in each individual when (or insofar as he/she is) distinguished from the group.
--There may be a kind of tension, perhaps, between democratic values, often promoted through group agitation for the vote, etc., and fear of "mob rule" and the levelling down of mass opinion.
6. Also with his mistrust of collective groups, Mill conveys a real sense of the value of individual mental achievement.
Does this seem inconsistent with his emphasis elsewhere on the common man's need to follow the "one or few"?
--elsewhere he emphasizes different needs for spiritual development of different kinds of people.
Compare Ruskin's horror at standardized art with 63, "That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the times"?
--comic reversal, "Human beings are not like sheep," 64 (Victorian audiences would have heard the Messiah frequently, with its great chorus, "All we like sheep, have gone astray"). Mill has the power of deflecting or subverting a metaphor by analysis.
7. Again, Mill is concerned with the legal sanctions on individuality. What examples does he give of this?
--institutionalization for insanity, deprivation of property, 65
In the 19th century many were deprived of the right to will their estates by religious nonconformity, and at least in some places, a person declared officially "insane" lost all right to the disposition of their property. Annie Besant lost her right to her children because she was an atheist.
Are these issues ever the focus of civil libertarian dispute today?
8. What does Mill claim is the Victorian ideal of character?
--ideal of character is to have no character, like the binding of a Chinese lady's foot, 65
9. According to Mill, the greater part of the world has no history because the despotism of culture is complete (cmp. George Eliot's sense of "unremembered histories"). Would Mill's view be shared by modern historicans and sociologists, who study the culture of populations rather than individuals?
10. What does Mill see as a dominant conflict within history?
--conflict between progress and custom, 66
Are there any limitations to this view?
11. Why, according to Mill, do some cultures cease to prgress?
12. What example does he give of a custom-dominated people?
-- the Chinese, 67 What political conflicts may underlie this cultural bias? (Opium Wars, British desire to "open up" China to trade, foreign missions, and other influences)
13. According to Mill, what kind of change characterizes modern Europe?
--all change together
14. According to Mill, what has prevented Europe from following the Chinese example?
15. What kinds of social pressure and recent forms of Victorian change does his argument seem to reflect?
--69 increased standardization, mass literacy, education, urbanization, transportation. Many other observers, such as Ruskin in Modern Painters and "The Nature of Gothic," had defined their age as one of turbulent and restless change.
--Almost veers into an argument for the aristocracy! 69 (cmp. Arnold in Culture and Anarchy)
He concludes with a good final epigram and peroration, "Mankind speedily becomes unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it," 69.
IV. "Of the Limits to Authority of Society Over the Individual
Society can enforce that each indivdual bear his/her share of the common good. (includes conscription)
1. Should humans promote each other's welfare? (70-71) Yes, but can't enforce their recommendation
2. What methods may properly be used to influence the behavior of others?
--71-74, persuasion, exhortation, disapprobation, warning--a rather stern and intrusive view
--yet people know their own circumstances best, 71
3. Why can't one forbid an individual to contract vicious or harmful habits? 75
--will suffer the natural evil consequences him/herself, 74
--only a social concern if people actively harm others, 76
He favors a morality based on obligations rather than on puritanical judgments.
4. Why should one not punish self-destructive or immoral activity on the grounds that it sets a bad example? 78
--example displays degrading consequenes of the action as well
5. When can one punish drunkenness, if at all?
--When they hinder the performance of a public duty, as when a soldier or policeman is drunk on duty, 76; see remarks under V on his failure to deal with the misrepresentations of advertising. Often people may be unaware of the consequences of a certain behavior, or at least not fully aware.
6. What other examples does he give of potential controversial infringements on individual rights?
--prescription of Sunday amusements, Blue Laws ( fairly serious matter when working-classes had only one free day each week)
--sale of (and consumption of liquors)--Temperance Alliance--Prohibition (Maine Laws)
--again, chiefly fears religiously motivated suppressions.
7. Why does he see the work of labor unions as a form of suppression of liberty?
--enforcement of a standard wage by unions, which suppresses the artisan's right to do better work, or to sell piecework [Here Mill ignores the overwhelming effect of the prohibition of collective bargaining, as the indvidual artisan is bargained down, not up, at the pain of loss of employment.] See comments below regarding p. 82, where he takes up the issue again.
8. Are any infringements of personal liberty on the basis of religion still problematic in contemporary U. S. society?
9. According to Mill, what might be the consequences of the over-repression of individuality on persons of strong will?
--might prompt to rebellion, some will feel obligated to revolt, 77
--Also, society may be wrong in its assumptions themselves, as well as in its claim of the right to impose on an individual, 78. Society tends to impose no limits on its intrusion on the individual.
9. Next, he notes that the aberrations of existing moral feeling are too major a subject to be disussed parenthetically, 79. To approach this topic, he gives some examples of traits or acts condemned by some in the name of morality. Why do you think he chooses these examples for his audience?
--Mohammedans abhor the eating of pork, 79 [a difference which was one of the causes of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when the English refused to permit the native troops to refrain from using pork to grease their guns]
--Spaniards abhor married clergy, 80
Mill then switches to discussing the Puritan enforcement of public morality in Britain. Many of his readers might have considered Sabbatarian restrictions quite natural but condemned the prescription of pork eating or the marriage of Anglican priests as sheer bigotry.
What approach does he take to the issue of outlawing polygamy? (86, he agrees that it is retrograde but does not see how it can be prohibited; here he ignores an argument to which he would usually have been sympathetic, that it oppresses women)
10. What seems to have been Mill's attitude toward the goals and practices of trades unionism?
--a wary distaste, 82; seen as a means of oppressing the superior worker by preventing piece-work
--voluntary associations, yet capable of repressing those of their own class (cmp. Dickens' portrayal of unions in Hard Times)
Here Mill seems to accept the view of the manufacturing classes, that unions were a violation of [their] liberty to give wages of their choice.
11. How might Victorian trade union leaders have countered these claims? What would Mill and Morris have thought of these views?
Had he lived today, what do you think Mill might have felt about
a. prohibiting smoking in public
b. restricting the sale of alcohol to minors
c. restrictions on driving while drunk
d. FDA bans on various forms of food additives, "sweeteners," etc.
e. the rights of mental patients (for example, to refuse hospitalization, to refuse sterilization, to be able to bear children, to have access to abortion)
f. the right of society to conscript in war, to define a "just war" against the beliefs of the individual
g. the right to censor pornography, esp. as directed to children
h. the right to censor racist or "hate speech"
i. the right/obligation to censor television violence
j. the right/obligation to remove children from situations of child abuse
k. the right of society to penalize corporate pollution
l. the right of society to confine the mentally ill involuntarily and to imprison "criminals" in general
m. the right to penalize prostitution
What are some other issues of government control vs. individual rights which are debated today?
In this chapter Mill gives many specific examples of issues, then argues whether or not regulation inhibits individual liberty. Each example illustrates a different balance between social and individual rights so that a different determining argument is needed.
Can/should one prohibit the following?
a. competitive examinations and professional competition--one individual limits the success of another, but it is useful to society to permit free competition for professional posts, 87-88
b. Can/should free trade be restrained or regulated? yes, to prevent fraud by adulteration or other forms of cheating, 88; yet refraining from interferences is generally good.
He doesn't deal with properly labelled destructive substances-how might he have adjudicated regarding these?
He cites Maine and and Opium Laws as restrictions on the buyer. How may Mill's employment at the East India Company have influenced his views on "free trade"?
Background on the Opium War, 1839-42:
The Chinese government prohibited the importation of opium and destroyed British opium at Canon, and in response the British attacked several coastal Chinese cities. The Treaty of Nanking (182) provided that the ports Canton, Amay, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai should be open to British trade and residence; in addition Hong Kong was ceded to the British. In 1858 after another war China was forced to agree to open 11 more ports, permit a foreign legation in Peking, sanction Christian missionary activity, and legalize the importation of opium. China's subsequent attempt to block the entry of diplomats into Peking led to a renewal of the war in 1859. This time the British and French occupied Peking and burnt the imperial summer palace. The Peking conventions of 1860, by which China was forced to make aditional concessions, concluded the hostilities.
c. restriction of sale of poisons--he believes this would involve a limitation on the freedom of the buyer, 89.
--One shouldn't proscribe, but society can require their registration and forms of witness (compare present-day gun registration), and can require labelling.
--However, one can't restrict a freedom on the grounds that it could be used to commit a crime, for all freedom of action could lead to delinquency.
He ignores until later the tricky matter of advertisng and the commercial puposes of seductive misrepresentation--people do harm themselves but they are part of a society whose vested interests encourage them to consume destructive substances. An individual bombarded by suggestions will be influenced, perhaps against his or her own good or even conscious will.
These same debates have been advanced recently in the United States on the issues of gun control and banning of concealed weapons; alcoholism; and smoking in public places.
Can one prohibit a person from crossing an unsafe bridge? 89 According to Mill it is one's duty to warn, and one could inhibit the crossing if time were short (The use of warnings on cigarette packages probably would have been his mode of dealing with this issue.)
According to Mill's principles, could one prevent a suicide? [I think not.]
Again Mill takes up the issue of restricting drink--an important nineteenth-century topic. Under what circumstances can drunkenness be punished?
Can one penalize those who commit violence under the influence of drink and forbid future drunkenness? 90
--Yes, but how could this be done?
Can one restrict the sale of liquor?
--sellers can be taxed only for revenue (that is, not punitively); one should not restrict the number of drinking establishments but one can restrict sellers for selling excessive amounts, 93. [Mill here replicates the debates over the restriction of alcohol sales throughout university towns in present-day United States.]
On page 93, does he seem to contradict his earlier claim that one should not raise the price of noxious substances?
--Since the state needs revenue, it should be taken from sources where least harm will be done; and food is more necessary than alcohol.
Mill also doesn't address the issue of the use of pubs as gathering places for working men; the effect of restrictions on the entrance of women and children into pubs, etc.
Can one penalize or prevent idleness, especially parental irresponsibility? 91
--he believes that compulsory labor to support one's children could be mandated--yet how could this be enforced? (cmp. present-day garniture of wages for child-support)
Can there be restraints on exhibitions of indecency? 91
--He assumes resrictions are self-evidently necessary as these are offences against others. He doesn't address the issue of standards of decency; what to me may be offensive may to you be a valuable form of self-assertion (say, nude beaches)
He's not sure about the issue of serving as a pimp or keeping a gaming house, 92, that is, of penalizing the soliciting of others, but feels that these activities should probably be restricted. This is essentially the attitude taken by present laws. He also sees wrong in fineing the procurer but not the fornicator, an attack on the double standard in punishing prostitutes but not their clients.
What do you think he would have felt about restricting the selling of cocaine or heroin? Of restricting their use? Of imprisoning violators?
Does Mill believe it is possible to place protective sanctions on the labouring class? 94
--No, they are acknowledged to be beyond the state of cultural childhood and therefore paternalism is not appropriate.
According to Mill, can a person sell him/herself into slavery? Why not?
--95, cannot alienate one's freedom: "It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom" (that is, this is a decision which cannot be reversed. [This argument then should apply to suicide and other forms of self-destruction.]
In what ways does Mill believe government can properly regulate contracts between two persons, such as in marriage contracts or family relationships?
--where the interests of third or other parties are affected, such as children, it may not be appropriate to forbid separation legally, but these obligations should be taken into account, especially in a moral realm, 96. [Here he seems to imply that the parents of children should seldom divorce--an issue which would have concerned him directly since Harriet Taylor had three children--and he avoids issues of divorce and separation in The Subjection of Women, doubtless for political reasons. ]
Do you think Mill would have approved of modern divorce laws? (i. e., no-fault divorce, attention to children's rights during separation)
Should individuals be free and unrestrained in acting as guardians for others in their families?
--believes that the patriarchal assumptions of the nineteenth-century family/legal system are excessive; at present husbands are permitted to wield "despotic power" over wives and fathers over children, 97.
Can the state demand that children be educated?
--97, yes, and in cases where the parent won't educate the child, the state can provide education in certified schools and force the parent to pay for it. [resembles our present system, whereby public schools are supported by taxation; education is compulsory to age 16]
What do you think Mill might have felt about the rights of the Amish and others to preserve their separate culture?
What is the best form of education, according to Mill?
--public or private schools schould be permitted, with public examinations (the context for this was nineteenth-century religious controversy). Mill believes that state education would force people to be exactly alike, 98. What do you think?
--children should be tested on their knowledge of different points of view, not their beliefs; this was not too practical a scheme, but in Mill's view was better than consigning children to a completely sectarian education. [Yet arguably both parent and child would be punished for the child's incapacity if the child failed the examinations.] Still Mill had earlier argued that we should hear points of view from those who espouse them.
Would Mill have approved of the U. S. system of education, do you think? In theory perhaps so, though he might have wanted a greater variety of good quality private schools, and no school taxes for parents who sent their children to private schools. In practice, Mill disliked religious education and the Roman Catholic church, and he might have accepted local school board autonomy as a fair equivalent, and that a high level of secular = public education must be maintained by taxes, something not possible in Mill's day.
What is Mill's attitude toward certification in general? Would he approve of requiring medical certification of doctors? Examinations for lawyers? (entire certification-degree systm was very new in the mid-19th century--might have seemed to him to suggest a monopoly)
Can individuals properly be required to limit family size?
--yes, overpopulation an evil which affects all. One can prohibit marriage to those who cannot support a family, 100 (the present-day equivalent would be to require birth control).
Would Mill have approved of involuntary sterilization? (for example, of welfare mohers) 100, it would seem so, but arguably "prohibition of marriage" is a less intrusive act.
Here Mill is in the Malthusian tradition of utilitarianism. One remembers that as a young man he had been a campaigner for the dissemination of birth control information. His view, of course, would be controversial in 21st century U. S.
Why are volunatry associations generally the best, in Mill's view? 102 What should be the function of the state in promoting the voluntary effort of individuals?
--101-102, 105, government should provide a central repository of information and advice for the aid of local and municipal institutions and private associations (for example, information on how foreign countries have dealt with similar issues)
--should encourage voluntary business and philanthropic organizations (he doesn't mention trade unions)
--people can best tend to their own business
The state should provide the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; the greatest centralization of information and diffusion of information from the center, 105
What according to Mill are the evils of established government bureaucracy?
--102, the reigning government will control everything
--103 standardization will result, and the rulebound nature of bureaucracy will limit initiative--the government shouldn't monopolize talent. [Mill himself worked for a private government-sanctioned enterprise, the East India Company, which may have influenced his point of view somewhat.]
--he believes that no reform is possible against the self-interest of bureaucracy, 103, for each bureaucrat is a sevant of the system, 104 (cmp. his argument against rule by a majority)--an argument which would seem to anticipate that of Foucault in Discipline and Punish.
--as a solution, he suggests that local officials should be permitted to govern according to rules, 105-106 (what is this except bureaucracy?)
What is the emphasis of Mill's final warning?
--government should encourage individual activity.
Can you see any comparisons between Mill's views and Ruskin's notions of the gothic?
--Both believe that the worth of the nation or state is that of the individuals who compose it; man is not a machine, a cog, in a larger effort; humans should learn not to obey but to think and to feel.
What final principles does he propose for recognizing individual and governmental powers? 105-106
The ending to Mill's treatise is negative: government could banish liberty in the pursuit of organization. Several of his chapters end with a warning characteristic of nineteenth-century thought--the fear that government by majority, a dictatorship of the people, may repress minorities in culture or opinion, and that the human being may be lost under the tyranny of public opinion, the strength of enforced convention, or the machinery of government.
Was he justified in expressing these fears, do you think, given the course of history since this work was published in 1859?
Do you feel Mill is consistent in making these distinctions? Is abstract, legal or moral consistency possible in all of the issues he examines?
What are some of the final meanings and principles of Mill's treatise?
--defense of variety, intellectual courage, pluralism, private judgment, voluntary and mutual association rather than legally mandated contracts and efforts (in this regard Mill moves at times towad mutualist or even libertarian anarchism)
What do you think of Mill as a persuasive writer?
--merits of his prose, balance, symmetry, control, precision, lucidity and intensity
--One of best political debaters of his period, and most passionate believer in the salutory intellectual and moral effects of continued discussion.
Do you find limitations in his arguments or approach?
--His critics have charged that his system ignores the rights of society or social obligations, which seems inaccurate. Probably those who most trust the state--from both right and left--have tended to dislike him. Opinions differ on whether he should be seen as primarily a democrat--that is, an affirmer of democratic individualism against the power of the state and enforced convention--or a libertarian skeptical of the power of masses and groups.
In Mill's inability to see any positive aspects to mass culture he resembles other intellectuals of his time. Socialists, by contrast, would have emphasized the redeeming qualities in folk or popular art.
Were Mill alive today, what might he have had to say on the effects of media conglomerates and advertising on behavior? On the interpenetration of business and government? How might he have argued the case for or against the liberty to harm or manipulate the public?
Page numbers are from the Norton Critical Edition.