Mill's famous vision of freedom is compelling—but of its own time. Instead of focussing on the individual, we should seek freedom through our responsibilities to othersby Graham Tomlin / January 2, 2019 / Leave a comment
You can tell what a society values by what it goes to war over. In the 17th century, we fought our wars over religion. In the 19th, it was empire. In the 20th and 21st, we fight our wars over freedom—either defending our own or trying to export our version of it to other parts of the world.
We tend, of course, to assume we know what freedom is: the liberty to do what we like as long as don’t harm other people. But we rarely know how recent such a view of freedom is.
John Stuart Mill—child prodigy, colonial administrator and philosopher—is one of the primary architects of our contemporary ideas of freedom. Published soon after his death, his book On Liberty, was, in his words, an exploration of the “nature and limits of the power that can legitimately be exercised by society over the individual.” Mill famously argues that the only valid reason for interfering with another person’s liberty of action is to protect them from physical harm. It is never justifiable to interfere with another person’s freedom to ensure their happiness, wisdom or well-being because that is to determine what that person’s well-being is. Freedom is defined as liberty of conscience, thought, feeling and opinion, as “liberty of tastes and pursuits … doing as we like … without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them.”
Mill is one of the great champions of nonconformity in thought and action. Even if just one person held a particular opinion while everyone else in the world held the opposite, there would be no justification in silencing that one voice. For Mill, one of the main ingredients of social progress is freedom from the traditions and customs imposed by others, which restricts the cultivation of individuality, which in turn “is one of the leading essentials of well-being.” Individual liberty is vital, not just for the sake of the individual, but for the sake of human progress. Without it there will be no originality or genius, no new discoveries or innovation. Civilisation cannot advance without a degree of individual freedom which encourages spontaneous expression, and the development of new thoughts…