Friday, February 25, 2011

Becoming a Writer: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty

The philosopher John Stuart Mill and Helen Tay...Image via Wikipedia

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the English Utilitarian philosopher, published his philosophical essay in 1859, in which he discusses the limits of power of the government —or ‘the state’— over individuals. Any kind of interference with individual rights is a violation of individual liberty.

How to become a writer
From an early age --having been home-educated by his father-- he practiced writing, even composing serious essays. He was much influenced by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), from whom he learned the doctrine of Utilitarian ethics. This doctrine seeks the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers (Utilitarianism).

On Liberty
Mill says throughout his essay that he is only concerned with one important yet simple-minded principle: self-protection. Power —be that in the form moral, legal, or physical force— should only be used to prevent harm to others.

Besides the main point of argument —liberty— he deals withtwo corollaries: (1) with the individual being responsible only for his own actions and not with the business of other people; though he sees benefit in the improvement of society at large, he objects to restricting the individual in favor of the general welfare. He argues the point that religious intolerance —as deemed beneficial to human welfare— may be harmful to both the individual and society. (2) If the individual actions harm others, then those actions have consequences.
Mill goes on to list some of the acts which a person may be forced to do —for example, to give testify in court, to bear a fair share of the common defense, and to defend the weak— arguing that beyond these acts society has no right to interfere when a man freedom. Freedom, Mill says, extends beyond physical freedom to move about, and includes freedom of thought, feelings, sentiments, and expression (the press). Thus opinions, whether true or false, should not be suppressed because unopposed ideas soon become dogmas—empty words.

In addition, each man should be free to do as he wishes and seek happiness provided what he does not harm to others. Can man form associations? Mill says, yes, as long as such unions do not harm others.
Throughout history states have often used their power to restrict the liberty of citizens in areas in which they should not invade, much less regulate, or legislate. Interference by the government blunts individuality, Mill holds, and fosters group-think.

In closing his essay, he says that governments that coerce individuals to submission makes small men out of them; therefore, nothing great may be expected from them.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.
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