Theory in itself has intrinsic value in political thought but a theory is only as strong as the case made for it and the explanation thereof. Even the most beautifully constructed theory that lacks sufficient evidence or specificity is useless in practice because a theory is worthless if it cannot be used in reality. The English economist and political philosopher John Stuart Mill theorized about government and its role in protecting liberty under the framework of utilitarianism.
He makes a persuasive argument that the method to achieve the greatest utility for society to achieve the greatest happiness for the reatest number of people is through not restricting but instead promoting the liberty of individuals. John Stuart Mill makes a convincing case that the best way to promote utility is through liberty, though there are a couple crucial shortcomings that weaken his argument. John Stuart Mill, as a utilitarian, believes that the end goal of a society should be the happiness of the individual as this promotes the greatest happiness for society and therefore the greatest utility.
He, in his work Utilitarianism, says that this moral principle “holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they end to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 9-10 Utilitarianism). Claiming that “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle” (9) is the ultimate goal of society to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is the foundation of Utilitarianism.
Mill takes this one step further in his work On Liberty and argues that what constitutes happiness is different for different people, as each person is individual and unique. Therefore it follows that individuals can only find out what makes them happy through a process of trial and error. For this experimentation to be possible, there must be freedom ranted to these individuals to pursue this course of action. Mill argues that there must first be liberty in order for individuals to achieve happiness in order to promote utility for all of society.
He argues that liberty can lead to happiness only if the individual actively uses the freedoms he or she is granted to pursue happiness. He contends that mistakes are as valuable for society as successes and both are good for the overall society as one person’s mistake could be a learning experience from someone else. According to Mill, progress can only be achieved through experimentation, as what one age believed to e true may be proved entirely ridiculous in the next.
Nothing can be simply accepted as true but rather most everything should be approached with a level of skepticism and ideas can only be held as true if they are continually challenged. As a result of this process, either existing ideas become stronger by being challenged and holding up to that challenge or becomes replaced by the challenging idea. One of the most persuasive aspects of Mill’s argument is that in Chapter Two of On Liberty warning of the dangers of silencing any opinion.
He introduces the paradigm that “if all mankind minus one, were of one pinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (25, On Liberty). This idea that there would be one individual solely opposing the rest of mankind, at first glance, may seem outlandish but at the heart of this is a concept which, to liberal societies, should not seem far-fetched at all, the protection of the freedoms of the individual.
Mill warns of “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing eneration; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it” (25, On Liberty). The idea that dissent is not, as some may view it, a necessary evil of society but instead is a benefit to society although society itself may not be able to see it in this way at the present. His defense of individual opinions and how they must not be silenced is persuasive in that it can be applied to a broader defense of individualism.
His specificity in this argument is what gives it its strength; he identifies two facets to the danger of silencing opinions. The first touches on he fact that mankind is not infallible and in order to deny one opinion this implies that that opinion is absolutely wrong, and those who reject it know it to be so because they know what is true and what is false when in fact “the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true” (27, On Liberty).
The second aspect he identifies is that if the opposing opinion is “wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (25, On Liberty) and that the firmly held belief is stronger and better for having been challenged. Even if the opinion that is denied truly is false if the opinion that is generally thought to be true “is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth” (59, On Liberty).
In suppressing an opposing opinion the one that is being supposedly protected is damaged in that it may not be able to stand up to this challenge and is not given the chance to. The fact that Mill is so specific in this part of his argument is what makes it a particularly strong section. Just as Mill’s strongest parts of his case lie in those that are detailed and unambiguous, his argument’s greatest flaws in rgument come from the places he is not specific.
Firstly, his ambiguous reference to the concept of harm and the fact that he does not define it is a main flaw in the argument. He claims that “acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind” (Chapter III, page 123). In other words, the government should not limit the freedoms of the individual unless the exercise of that individual’s liberty is causing harm to nother.
It could be argued that in not defining it that somewhat gives the argument more strength, so it can be defined as is best suited for that society, whether it is just physical harm, physical and some emotional harm, or all physical and emotional harm as well as offense. This idea of a political theory being malleable is dangerous; the sheer scope of what he could possibly mean when he refers to harm is astronomical. His lack of qualifiers to this term renders the “harm principle”, as it is commonly referred to, weak as a buttress for his overall argument.
It is important to cknowledge that the harm principle itself is a qualifier to what Mill says about Liberty and not, as some think of it, the main body of his argument. This prompts the question of how much more specific does he need to get, if he put another qualifier on this principle, would that have to then be qualified and so on. Mill’s own philosophy speaks to the idea that real truths should stand up to being questioned and challenged. No, not every political theory can be highly specific and answer for every single contrived circumstance, most must be broader in nature in order to be applicable to more than one specific situation.
However, this defense of the vagueness of this aspect of the argument fails in that the harm principle is not a contrived specific circumstance, it is an ambiguous phrase and carries a lot of weight depending on how it is interpreted, own way or another. The concept of harm being interpreted only as physical harm would offer more protection to the freedoms of individuals in society to pursue their own happiness, whether or not it offended or emotionally harmed another individual in society.
The broader interpretation of the meaning of the word harm to include both physical and emotional harm would urther restrict the individual liberties a person in society could have. The interpretation of the word “harm” can be so broad so as to severely limit the freedoms of the individual if they offen anyone at all in the society. The wide range of interpretations that can spring from the harm principle makes Mill’s argument weak as an extremely liberal society and a society repressive of individual rights can both claim to follow Mill’s theory of liberty.
In Mill’s theory, in order to achieve happiness and thereby adhere to conventional utilitarian thinking, an individual must use the liberty he or she is granted to actively pursue happiness. This argument is persuasive assuming that people have enough energy and curiosity to actively seek out their own happiness. In his theory, the fact that happiness is inherently individual is what requires liberty to be granted in order for individuals to pursue it. This imagines a world of active agents and not one in which people are lethargic or complacent.
He observes, “as it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living” (95, On Liberty). This word, experiments, makes the assumption that people will willingly engage in the rocess of trial and error for as long as it takes to discover the course of action that truly makes them the happiest. Additionally, saying that everyone benefits from seeing the successes or failings of one individual or one individual theory is true in that all can learn from failures as well as success.
What is problematic about this aspect of the argument is that this worldview also assumes people will be continually active in the pursuit of happiness and exercise their liberties in order to achieve this end. This ignores the possibility that the onlooker could take the result of the action of the original actor, failure, to e the likely result of their action and so not engage in that activity at all even though it could be the true route to happiness for that individual.
This worldview expects constant curiosity and energy on the parts of all individuals and trusts that this is what they will utilize their liberties to achieve. He claims “that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them” (95, On Liberty), showing that he recognizes that attempting to get from liberty to happiness requires agency. Liberty leads to happiness, but it must be actively used to find happiness, and an individual must