Monday, June 3, 2013

Liberty Articulated: Quotes from John Stuart Mill

Having completed On Liberty, written by John Stuart Mill, I thought I would share some of the best quotes.  Mill has a wonderful way of expressing his ideas.  Many of them are hard hitting and potent:

On The State

"But in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation."

"Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority."

"They [opinion leaders] have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavouring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defense of freedom, with heretics generally."

"What the State can usefully do, is to make itself a central depository, and active circulator and diffuser, of the experience resulting from many trials. Its business is to enable each experimentalist to benefit by the experiments of others, instead of tolerating no experiments but its own."

"It is not, also, to be forgotten, that the absorption of all the principal ability of the country into the governing body is fatal, sooner or later, to the mental activity and progressiveness of the body itself. Banded together as they are—working a system which, like all systems, necessarily proceeds in a great measure by fixed rules—the official body are under the constant temptation of sinking into indolent routine."

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, 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."

"All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility."

"The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people...but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals."

"In many cases, though individuals may not do the particular thing so well, on the average, as the officers of government, it is nevertheless desirable that it should be done by them, rather than by the government, as a means to their own mental education—a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgment, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal."

"Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion."

On The Individual

"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

"A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury".

"This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological."

"All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people."

"Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favours from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear."

On Truth

"The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful."

"The impressiveness of an error is measured by the wisdom and virtue of him who falls into it."

"The dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods."

"Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either."

"We may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it."

On Intellectual Development

"There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people."

"No one's idea of excellence in conduct is that people should do absolutely nothing but copy one another."

"The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used."

"He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision."

"Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom."

"Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of."

"The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind."

"That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time."

On Character

"It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it."

"Strong impulses are but another name for energy. Energy may be turned to bad uses; but more good may always be made of an energetic nature, than of an indolent and impassive one."

"The same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control."


I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of his work.  It is a window into the time in which he lived and there are many lessons we can take from it and apply to dilemmas we face today.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Liberty and Polygamy: An English Perspective

I recently finished John Stuart Mill's classic essay On Liberty.  It is a fascinating read and covers many subjects relating to the freedom of humanity to think and act.

Mill wrote the piece in 1859, as Mormon missionary work was underway in earnest in England.  My maternal grandfather's progenitors arrived in Utah based on these efforts.  While citing contemporary examples for his readers, Mill makes mention of the faith and its treatment by the press. Although not a fan of the faith, he makes arguments in its defense.  Here is the entire section.  It is long but has many interesting points embedded in it:

I cannot refrain from adding to these examples of the little account commonly made of human liberty, the language of downright persecution which breaks out from the press of this country, whenever it feels called on to notice the remarkable phenomenon of Mormonism.

Much might be said on the unexpected and instructive fact, that an alleged new revelation, and a religion founded on it, the product of palpable imposture, not even supported by the prestige of extraordinary qualities in its founder, is believed by hundreds of thousands, and has been made the foundation of a society, in the age of newspapers, railways, and the electric telegraph.

What here concerns us is, that this religion, like other and better religions, has its martyrs; that its prophet and founder was, for his teaching, put to death by a mob; that others of its adherents lost their lives by the same lawless violence; that they were forcibly expelled, in a body, from the country in which they first grew up; while, now that they have been chased into a solitary recess in the midst of a desert, many in this country openly declare that it would be right (only that it is not convenient) to send an expedition against them, and compel them by force to conform to the opinions of other people.

The article of the Mormonite doctrine which is the chief provocative to the antipathy which thus breaks through the ordinary restraints of religious tolerance, is its sanction of polygamy; which, though permitted to Mahomedans, and Hindoos, and Chinese, seems to excite unquenchable animosity when practised by persons who speakEnglish, and profess to be a kind of Christians.

No one has a deeper disapprobation than I have of this Mormon institution; both for other reasons, and because, far from being in any way countenanced by the principle of liberty, it is a direct infraction of that principle, being a mere riveting of the chains of one half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them. Still, it must be remembered that this relation is as much voluntary on the part of the women concerned in it, and who may be deemed the sufferers by it, as is the case with any other form of the marriage institution; and however surprising this fact may appear, it has its explanation in the common ideas and customs of the world, which teaching women to think marriage the one thing needful, make it intelligible that many a woman should prefer being one of several wives, to not being a wife at all.

Other countries are not asked to recognise such unions, or release any portion of their inhabitants from their own laws on the score of Mormonite opinions. But when the dissentients have conceded to the hostile sentiments of others, far more than could justly be demanded; when they have left the countries to which their doctrines were unacceptable, and established themselves in a remote corner of the earth, which they have been the first to render habitable to human beings; it is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny they can be prevented from living there under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations, and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways.

A recent writer, in some respects of considerable merit, proposes (to use his own words), not a crusade, but a civilizade, against this polygamous community, to put an end to what seems to him a retrograde step in civilisation. It also appears so to me, but I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised. So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied, should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant, who have no part or concern in it.

Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people. If civilisation has got the better of barbarism when barbarism had the world to itself, it is too much to profess to be afraid lest barbarism, after having been fairly got under, should revive and conquer civilisation. A civilisation that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy, must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it. If this be so, the sooner such a civilisation receives notice to quit, the better. It can only go on from bad to worse, until destroyed and regenerated (like the Western Empire) by energetic barbarians.
Keep in mind that by sharing this passage, I am not advocating polygamy. My simple mind cannot comprehend the difficulty any man would experience in providing for the emotional needs of more than one woman. One is ample enough.  My wife agrees with me on this.

The first thing that strikes me about Mill's account is his astonishment at the success of the faith.  Given all of its supposed weakness, and in an enlightened age of technology and learning, the faith's success at the time defied all he could reason.  I know a couple people who could explain why this was.        

The second insight I thought was interesting was the double standard in treatment between the Mormon and non-Christian faiths.  Mill calls the press out in their hypocrisy in dealing with the subject of polygamy.

Third, if we don't like something about the way an individual lives or group of people live, we have the liberty to preach to these folks a way that we feel is better.  However, using the laws or legislation to change their behavior to one that is "acceptable" is unbecoming of freedom and the spirit of liberty.

This third insight is particularly poignant because it leads us to where Utah finds itself today.  Since the Church (i.e. majority of the population) abandoned polygamy in the 1890's, the State has had to navigate an awkward path in dealing with a few leftover polygamist pariahs still lingering in various nooks and crannies throughout the state.  It seems the force of law has mostly been withheld in dealing with the issue of multiple marriages. Except, of course, rightfully in cases of abuse or mistreatment of youth in those communities.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how Utah has countenanced its history in how it chooses to deal with the inconvenience of today's brand of polygamy.

Mill gives an interesting account and in some ways it seems that his views have percolated into present State policy. In light of this, I hope this account has given you a moment to reflect on our laws and history.  By knowing the past, we can better understand the principles necessary to govern the present.