One of the finest and enthusiastic defenses on freedom of thought it is found in this writing of John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, published in 1859. This work constitutes one of the most liberal writings I have ever read. The intention of this article is making the analysis of the conception that John Stuart Mill has about individual freedom; in order to show the limits of power society can exert on the individuals.
In his work, Mill departs from the assumption that human society is a spontaneous order and that the Government is only the suitable institution to guarantee the permanence of that spontaneity. He thinks that individuals are free by nature and their rights only exist to assure that freedom. Mill conceives the man like a free being, who is able to choose, who characterizes himself from looking to aims and not just means.
The intention of John Stuart Mill when he postulated the existence of an open minded and tolerant society, responds to the belief that as long as men are comfortable with life and more freedom is given to them, they will have more opportunities and possibilities to project their own character towards new things and experiences. He thinks that: “Human nature is not a machine that is constructed according to a model and had to do the exactly work that is prescribed to him, but a tree that needs to grow and to be developed by all its sides, according to the tendencies of its inner forces which make him an alive thing.”.
He was a great defender of individual freedom. For him, freedom consists basically on a rigorous limitation of the right to coerce. He considers that man cannot be totally developed if he is not free from other men´s interferences in a minimum area of his life. In his work he affirms that unless men are allowed to live as they wish, «so that their life only concerns to themselves», there will be not a true progress of civilization. Truth may not arise since there will not be a free communication of ideas; so there will not be any opportunity for spontaneity nor originality. In the name of individual freedom for man, Mill makes his defense of civil liberties, individual rights and the vindication from the individual against the State and authority, but mainly, against custom and public opinion.
On his work, Mill is very interested on regarding the nature and limits of power that society exerts on man; issue that, he thinks, it has been little examined on the past. Nevertheless, in spite of his attempts to separate public dominion from private one, the limit between both seems difficult to find.
According to Mill, There is a struggle between the governors and the governed that always has existed. He affirms that when a liberal position arrives to Government, problems are apparently solved because of the assumption of a civil government which no longer would go against the interests of the individuals. He affirmed that to believe this can lead us to an error because will of people only means will of the majority, or more active ones, and this type of government can be oppressive. Therefore, Mill is aware about the risks of thinking that a liberal State does not need some restrictions.
The author separates the sphere of the man from the one of the government. He says that government cannot interfere in men´s one because this one belongs only to them. He thinks that government must act, but to only protect man´s interest in case of actions that affect third parties.
Mill expresses that human freedom includes: freedom of thought, feeling, expression and publication; freedom in tastes and freedom to reach our own goals, that is to say, the freedom of action; and he also demands the freedom of association and meeting. In that last point Mill affirms that: “a society is not free, whatever its form of government is, when any of these liberties are not respected in their totality; and is not free completely if they are not absolute and totally guaranteed.”.
The coexistence of different opinions is good for society since it helps to reach the truth. He thinks that there is not a real universal truth but a matter of conciliating and combining opposite opinions.
One of the main purposes of Stuart Mill´s On Liberty is made in the field of individual freedom, as we stated above, and his defense against social pressures, because he considered that customs usurp the true human nature. His argumentation also goes directed against the unanimity of opinions and recommends a very complete and exhaustive comparison of opposite ideas and opinions.
Nevertheless, the limit of the sovereignty of the individual is questioned on where the sovereignty of the society begins. Mill affirms that the individuality must be a part of the life which may correspond with the individual as the main actor; while the society has to take part on the life in which it is interested. On the other hand, Mill considers that all men that receive protection from the society must give compensation from this benefit. Living in society implies to observe certain rules and commitments like not to harm the interests of the thirds and to participate in the necessary task to defend third parties from damage. It maintains that if the conduct of a person does not affect the interests of another one at all, then «perfect legal and social freedom exists, to execute the action and to confront the consequences.».
I want to stress the importance that our author gives in relation to individual freedom, mainly in the sense that a minimum scope of personal freedom must exist that cannot be violated under any concept, since if that scope is violated the individual will be in a restricted situation to secure its own aims and those that he considers good and right. Nevertheless, I think that it is very difficult to define the border between the private life and the one of the public authority and that no human activity is as private to not interfere in the life of the others.
From my point of view there are some minimal conditions that have to be achieved by the government; such as health and education; so a little interference from the government should be seen as normal. Another idea which may be understood in an inaccurate way is the one defending that freedom is above of everything; this can be dangerous nowadays. His continuous references that man does not have to give explanation to society for his acts, although it does not attempt against the interests of another person, can be judged and be understood of different ways.
To sum up, I found John Stuart Mill´s work, On Liberty, a great defense on what we understand by liberalism and capitalism nowadays. His attempts to bring more freedom to men against government control may be seen as very actual ideas; it is for that reason that I consider that reading a very accurate way to describe our society and the problems it faces if socialism takes control instead of liberalism and freedom.