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The Spirit of the Age

John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher and a political economist, had an important part in forming liberal thought in the 19th century. Mill published his best-known work, On Liberty, in 1859. This foundational book discusses the concept of liberty. It talks about the nature and the limits of the power performed by society over an individual. Mill states, “[T]he first in importance surely is man himself” (Mill 87). The book also deals with the freedom of people to engage in whatever they wish as long as it does not harm other persons.

Liberty is one of the greatest ideas ever to occur naturally. John Stuart Mill’s approach to liberty is freedom to do anything except harm others because that is an infringement on that person’s liberty. While people cannot hurt anyone else, they can hurt themselves because it is their liberty. If people act on their liberty and harm themselves then society can do nothing to stop them. If society acts then it is unwanted paternalism meaning no adult should father another adult.

The first argument against Mill is that people that harm themselves are acting like children. The second argument is that these people are dragging society down by wasting their lives. The third argument is that these people are bad examples and the worst kind of role models that society needs. Mill refutes all of these arguments without undermining his own position by using human nature as his best argument. The first argument is that any person that harms himself or herself is acting like a child because they are not dealing with their emotions in an adult way.

The harm can be anything from drug use to purposefully spilling of one’s own blood. Even suicide can be one of the harms that Mill would allow a person to do to himself or herself. Because these persons are acting childishly and not contributing to society, critics of Mill say that this fact alone is enough to limit their liberty. Mill refutes this argument with the simplest of observations. Adults are not children. Children are small of stature, mind and cannot live without their parents.

A child is not allowed to harm itself because their parents limit their liberty so that they will grow up in such a way that they will be productive members of society. Mill says that the parent-child relationship is quite different from the Adult-Society Relationship. Society cannot choose the best course of action for an adult because only that person knows what is best for himself or herself. It is called self-interest. Mill continues that adults cannot be limited in the way that children can be limited.

The liberty of an adult cannot be arrested because an adult will just rebel, whereas a child will submit to the rules set out for it. This is another reason why the adult-society relationship is completely different from the parent-child relationship, and why adults are not children at all even if they are harming themselves. The second argument that Mill refutes is concerning the fact that if explicit liberty with no real boundaries is granted to everyone then there will be a great number of people that will waste their lives and therefore drag down society.

To the critics of Mill, their view is that a society is only successful if everyone contributes to society. Mill sees the ignorance in this statement because even now not everyone contributes to society in the way that they should. Mill says that if society is going to go to hell in a hand-basket then so be it. However, Mill is a firm believer that this sad circumstance will never happen. Just as in his last rebuttal, he acknowledges the idea of self-interest. Humans will not sit idly by especially if they realize that there situation in life is becoming increasingly worse.

Mill states that, “he who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, and has no need of any other faculty other than the ape-like one of imitation” (Mill 86). Every human will work to make his or her plight better and better. For a while, society could become chaotic and hell-like but because people will never be satisfied with living in filth or poverty, they will lift themselves up by their bootstraps and society will recover.

If society was to limit liberty then essentially, they would not only be only worsening the situation, but in fact, they would be signing the death certificate of society. Society does not know what is best for each individual. Society cannot prejudge behaviors in general because what is good for one person might not necessarily be good for another person, and if society cannot accurately determine harm or help then society has not right to interfere with liberty and is only dooming the society to a existence worse than hell.

The last objection that Mill entertains is that people that harm themselves and drag down society are bad examples and only serve to perpetuate the cycle of self-harm and social detriment. “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires growing and developing itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing” (Mill 87). Mill returns the criticism first by saying that the bad examples are the great minority of society.

Mill points out that if everyone were such bad example then society would not have survived to the point where they could be discussing liberty. The fact that the critics picked these bad examples out of millions of good examples only serves to further support Mill’s claim that liberty has done more good than harm. Another way in which Mill retorts his criticism is that bad examples are actually a good thing. Every age has opinions that they are sure about and that future ages prove to be false.

Mill believes we should learn from this, he says that mankind can learn from both discussion and experience. Experience is important, essential even. However, discussion is needed to show how experiences are to be interpreted. To the occasional damage caused by an individual outside these cases, that is for the sake of the greater good of human freedom. Mill believes that the greatest argument against the interference of society to individual’s liberty is that society can often be wrong in their opinions.

Mill believes that during the pivotal years of childhood, the bad examples are needed as a deterrent to that kind of behavior. If a child never sees just how bad they can mess up their own lives then there is no way for them to know when they are headed down the wrong path. A bad example shows the result of a life in which liberty has been taken too literally and self-interest has been perverted into some sort of justification for the horrible circumstance that the person is currently experiencing.

It is true that these bad examples are a kind of paradox because they were once impressionable children that probably saw all of these bad examples but still succumbed to the temptations of a pathetic life. However, as Mill says, bad examples are a sad necessity of society because although they do a great deal of harm to themselves and to society, they serve a greater purpose in making sure the majority of the next generation avoids that kind of life. Mill is a strong believer in the theories of liberty.

It is true that much of liberty has very strong repercussions on all of society but for society to try to control liberty would be the worst possible thing that it could ever do. According to Mill, a person’s self-interest is strong enough to make sure that the liberty granted the person is used in a way that will do no harm to others and will contribute to society as a whole. Overall, he believes that the only way we can really understand a subject is to listen to all arguments. Mill uses many examples to show us what happens when all opinions are not allowed to be heard.

History tells us that the truth is often put down. He gives examples of the Christians being persecuted for their beliefs, but he says that the truth will eventually rise, maybe not the first time it is tried but eventually. Although we may not inflict as much evil to people with a different opinion to us today, we do still repress diversity as something that is bad. Works Cited Mill, John Stuart. Mill: The Spirit of the Age, On Liberty, The subjection of Women. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

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