Mill on Progress

According to Mill, in Chapter 1 of On Liberty, liberty only divides men “in the stage of progress into which the more civilized portions of the species have now entered” (Mill, 5).  It is on the very notion of separating mankind into the civilized and uncivilized portions that his whole theory turns.  But how does he define “civilized”?

Well, through chapter one, in the history of liberty from direct government oppression, one can come to the conclusion that the first part of a civilized nation is a political environment that fosters liberty, i.e. a state that is limited in its powers.  The reasoning is simple:  if government stands as tyrant, whether democratic or autocratic, those who have ideas that may improve society will be held down by the violent force of government.

The second aspect of civilization in Mill’s view is a protection, however weak, against the social tyranny of custom.  This force preserves society as it stands, without rhyme or reason to explain its particulars beyond the ‘it’s always been done this way’ or ‘this way is the best’ platitudes.  But genius, as Mill states in chapter 3, needs to be able to work without the straightjacket of doing things the same old way.  If anything is wrong with the current system, only those with genius can point it out and find a superior replacement.

The third part of his definition is reason, or the ability to be persuaded to change through “free and equal discussion” (14).  Only in this “maturity of faculties” (13) can mankind realize its true potential.  Mill is a realist in that he recognizes that some are simply not capable of restraining their own actions, such as children, and that external, coercive force must be applied to protect everyone from them.  The real force behind liberty, then is positive freedom, or the freedom to place and abide by rules that limit your own behavior.  The origin of these rules, since they are imposed from within, must be reason, as only reason can inform a man (or woman) whether any rule is necessary.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *