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Overview of Mills

April 6, 2011

John Stuart Mill tends to be more liberal than the average utilitarian. Utilitarianism is the idea that a moral decision is based solely on its contribution to the happiness of all the people in a community; with maximized goodness being the preference. Mills wrote On Liberty in 1859 describing the limits of power that the government can have over an individual. He supports the idea that people can do whatever they want up until that point in which their actions harm another individual.
Mill was a very radical thinker during this era. You have to remember that prior to his ideas, European countries had pretty much always had a form of hierarchical society in which you were born into nobility and/or the upper class or you were born into peasantry. Certain rights were given to the upper class and certain rights or lack thereof were reserved for the middle and lower classes. In On Liberty,Chapter 2: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion, Mill proposes that, “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” (p. 515). Even in our society today, where “all people have equal rights”, this is an extremely radical statement. For although we do give everyone equal rights, we rule through a majority and Mill’s proposition is certainly no majority. But, during the Victorian Era, where only a select few are given individual rights, this is beyond a radical statement, although an interesting one. For Mill states, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion, is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation…” (p. 515). As Mill goes onto explain throughout the rest of the chapter, only through hearing all opinions can we, as a society, gain knowledge. Even when the opinion is wrong, it will only help validate the truth; and if it is right we can exchange it with what he had previously thought the truth to be.
I think Mill makes a great point in that, “The majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify” (p. 515). The only way a society can advance is through radical and different ideas. If no one can think of something new and different then society will become stagnant. We see examples of this throughout history including Martin Luther King’s belief that black men should have the right to vote, Galileo and heliocentricism, or the idea that a black man could be the President of the United States. All these and many more opinions when first publicized were seen as absurd, ridiculous, outrageous, and probably false to the majority. What if the majority had silenced some of these great individuals with their one opinion? Their individual opinions were able to grow and flourish into accepted truths.
The last thing Mill discusses in the end of Chapter 2 is the idea of discussion and argument. Having opinions and expressing them to one another is essential, but it is not the end. In order for these opinions to be questioned, debated, and ultimately judged valid or false, one must enter into discussion or argument. Mill states, “Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it” (p. 516). As previously stated, any opinion is helpful for society’s growth. If it is a wrong opinion it will only enhance and support the truth. If it is a true opinion, but goes against the preexisting truth, than it will probably result in debated argument, but will eventually produce a truth propelling society forward in a positive direction.

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