EDIT: Hello from the future! This post is part of the old blog. That means it may be deprecated. However, I deemed it valuable enough to keep around. The new blog starts here!

I'm reading On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. And today I make good on my promise to discuss philosophy. Mill has interesting and still applicable things to say about fundamental aspects of society. So going through some of his ideas with a modern look should be enlightening. Don't worry. This jaunt in philosophy-land shouldn't be too bad. It might. But it shouldn't be.

If you are not familiar with Mill, here's a quick recap: he's a 19th century British philosopher most known for his treaty on liberty (that's the one!) and for his take on utilitarianism (I might talk about that too... later).

The former is what I want to cover a little bit today. It won't be a review or a thorough summary. It will be a casual cherry picking of the ideas that struck my fancy or ... hem ... highlights if you will. Hmmm my titles are sometimes meaningful. And yes, as the title implies this will be a multiparter. I am about halfway through the book but I will only cover things in the first two chapters (and since one of them is the intro it won't be very much).

Oh and disclaimer: I am an amateur and not an expert. I am doing this for fun!

Let's start

Obviously this "On Liberty" is about liberty, but it's about social liberty and not about "Liberty of the Will". "Liberty of the Will" asks if everything is pre-ordained and those sorts of questions. "On Liberty" isn't about that. It's about liberty in the context of society. How much authority can be imposed on the individual and how much leeway does the individual have? Answering this is the core of the text.

If we look at history (and even up to modern days), the problem of the tyranny of authorities comes up often and pits itself against the liberties of the individuals. But beyond the usual places where this occurs, Mill notes that this friction exists outside totalitarian and autocratic regimes and finds its way in democracies.

There is of course the tyranny of the elected majority. The people having voted for the minority are subject to the decisions and laws of the majority. Rules inscribed in the legislative process attempt to attenuate the effects of a lopsided government; the details of their implementation is debatable, but they serve a purpose ... a priori.

Mill does talk about the authority of the state... as an example. It's not his main focus (at least as far as I've read). The political debate is only a byproduct of what he deems of more importance. He's more interested in something wider that also englobes a far more insinuous kind of tyranny. And that tyranny is ...

The Tyranny of the Social Majority

By "Social Majority", Mill is really referring to society outside the democratic representative body. An individual might be completely exonorated from child pornography charges, but his or her social reputation has been irrevocably nuked. In any kind of grouping, tacit rules, understandings and opinions establish themselves. Those are (among others):

  • Moral frameworks : what most people deem "good" or "bad"
  • Technical frameworks : the technical 'truths' held by the community e.g. 'tools / techniques that any real X uses' where X is your choice of job title
  • Expectations
  • Mores
  • Implicit practices

Anyone or any subgroup who is not 'in' on these cabalistic procedures or who decides to challenge them (sometimes unbeknownst to themselves) are exposed to ridicule, shunning, exclusion, reputation smearing and other tactics. Yep, Mill was saying that. I am pretty sure the software development world provides rather flagrant examples of this.

Sure, laws are sometimes appropriate to protect the individual from the social backlash triggered by some breach of this mystical "norm", but really it is often more appropriate to deal with these things outside of the law (no... not that way). They can be dealt with by civility and openness to discussion.

Mill's view is that these dissenting opinions are actually really crucial to enrich and empassion any intellectually inclined person - read: anyone that aspires to really do anything in this world. That's why expression of opinions is so important he argues. His argument is simple. It centers on 4 straightforward key points (and those are the last meaty points of this post):

  1. Shutting down differing opinions assumes infallibility of one own's or of the prevalent opinions. The challenging opinion might be true, don't you know.
  2. Even if the challenging opinion is false overall, it might hold parts of truth that the prevailing thoughts are missing. "This hotdog is disgusting... but the bun is tas-ty."
  3. Even if the challenging opinion is actually the whole truth, it can't expect to take hold and be understood unless it is debated against the other opinions. It needs to live on its own and be shared and discussed by multiple minds. Let it fly on its own.
  4. Finally and consequently, the meaning of a doctrine and its vibrant application will be wiped out with time unless challenges keep it alive and evolving in the minds of Men. Mill compared the nature of Christianity when it emerged in the Roman Empire to the modern day one (modern to his day, but the comparison holds). Just compare the evolution of any organisation that shuts down opposing views. The before and after is not always pretty.

The ability to express dissenting opinions or, as we will see, do things outside of the expected norm is a boon to all who strive for improvement. We lose so much by bullying others into complacent uniformity - even if they are admittedly wrong. It's the bullying and exclusion that is wrong ... and the complacent uniformity I guess.

Mill emphasizes that we need true and civil liberty of expression to be better persons.


Ouf, that last part was a bit preachy. Sorry about that. Anyway you got my highlights of Mill's chapter about the need for liberty of expression.

In future weeks I will tackle the next chapter: his defense of the need for individuality.