Channelling John Stuart Mill


In the opening few pages of his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill warned about the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion.” Anyone familiar with the mob mentality than can erupt on social media, its potential for divisiveness and the platform’s inherent weakness to be manipulated by outside forces (such as Russia) would consider Mill’s words as topical today. 

Mill was writing in this essay about, “…the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” and how to contain the “tyranny of the majority.”*

He was passionate about individuality and the freedom of the individual, warning against state control (thought or otherwise)  by any means for any reason other than one, and would have, I suspect, been aghast at today’s social media as a tool for manipulating public opinion (in a way the late Neil Postman would have appreciated**):

…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

The current rise of right-wing conformity to nationalist, religious and racist ideologies masquerading as populism poses a similar threat to individual freedoms. Populist movements threaten western democracies by attacking the fundamental principles of an open, free, inclusive and democratic society and replacing them with conformity to restrictive, exclusive nationalist and racist views.

Mill wrote that people often based their opinions not on a reasoned analysis of issues and events, but on feelings – and feelings are both selfish and more easily manipulated than reason:

People are accustomed to believe and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary. The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act… Sometimes their reason–at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves–their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest.

Mill, I believe, would have railed against modern populism as a tyranny:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyran–society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it–its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.

The main principle Mill states, his guide to determining what control any government or society should have over its members is stated in one paragraph (emphasis added):

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

The latter two sentences are, in another form, woven into our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other similar constitutional documents:

Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.

Mill’s imperfect yet robust definition of liberty and our own Charter, however, have run headfirst into challenges posed by modern media and by hate speech aficionados preaching intolerance. What defines harm? That has raised a whole category of debates most famously and recently expressed by philosopher Karl Popper in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. However, that’s a (challenging) topic for another post. ***

John Stuart Mill was one of the great political thinkers of the 19th century – one of the great “moral architects” of the era, coming of age in the post-French revolution/post-Napoleon Europe. He began a career as a colonial administrator and eventually became a member of Parliament in the high Victorian era. He saw firsthand how the Industrial Revolution changed societies, economies, classes, and governance. He saw how nationalism and imperialism shaped nations. He saw the rise of political thinkers like Marx and Engels and the shift from autocracies towards democracy and socialism.

During his life he was a prolific writer on many issues, including the rights of women, representational government, the scientific method, liberty, free speech, slavery and his most famous contribution to the philosophy of utilitarianism.

We cannot, of course, simply transfer his 150-plus-year-old words verbatim to our modern situations and expect the gears mesh perfectly. Instead, we should use them as guideposts on a common path towards a free society. True, Mill is sometimes inconsistent and, at least to me, misses some core components. Like the necessity of pairing responsibility with liberty, without which we suffer the entropic slide towards anarchy or worse, libertarianism. But nonetheless, he is an impressive writer.

I had read about Mill in many other books, and read excerpts of his work over the years, as well as critiques of his utilitarianism, but not sat down to wade through his essays directly until recently. In my never-ending effort to understand politics and power, I picked up a couple of anthologies online and started in. What I found was a brilliant mind, a passion for open and free society, and a prescient warning about tyranny that still has wisdom for us today. I am only beginning to appreciate the depth of his thinking, and hope to find more of his works to read soon.

I was tempted to write a “Mill for Municipal Politicians” as I did for Machiavelli,  but perhaps that might be a bit limited. There are others worthy of consideration beside Mill. Perhaps a more general “Political Philosophy for Municipal Politicians” (or for mayors) will be penned in the near future.

In a future post, I’ll comment on his essay On Representational Government and perhaps others.


From On Liberty, emphasis added:

It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government,” and “the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the “self-government” spoken of, is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

** Postman’s book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future included Mill and other early 19th century philosophers in Postman’s definition of the Enlightenment era, not simply the calendrical century.

*** From The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl R. Popper (emphasis added):

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any constraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek…

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

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