Wednesday, October 12, 2005

JS Mill (1806-1873)

John Stuart Mill is, along with Locke and Kant, one of the philosophers most associated with the liberal worldview. On Liberty, his most famous work of political philosophy, offers his take on that most liberal of questions, the proper limits of government activity. At what point has government gone too far--what should government, no matter how democratic and well-intentioned--never mess with? How do we figure out what those limits are?

Locke looked to the laws of God and nature to answer this question. Americans tend to look to the constitution and the bill of rights first. Mill doesn't do that--he doesn't assume an unimpeachable list of rights, be they from God of Nature or the smart guys who founded our country, exist. He sets out to defend freedom of speech (ch. 2) and lifestyle (ch. 3) on entirely different grounds.

Here's a list of discussion questions on Mill. Note that the final three refer to material in chapter 3, so we won't address them until next week.

If you'd like to get a discussion started on any of these, please do. Be sure to include the number of the question you are discussing. Alternatively, feel free to introduce your own Mill related topics and questions.

1) What do Locke and Mill have in common? Is Mill’s harm principle similar to Locke’s concept of natural law? Is it different?

2) What kind of reasons does Mill give for supporting freedom of expression and speech? How does this differ from Locke?

3) How (according to Mill) can we tell if an opinion is true or not?

4) Mill gives separate reasons for the importance for freedom of expression and ideas for a) ideas that are correct and true, b) ideas that are incorrect and possibly morally repugnant, and c) ideas that are partially true and partially false. What are his reasons for supporting each of these freedoms of expression?

5) Based on this text, how do you think Mill feels about democracy? Why?

6) What point is Mill making with his discussions of Marcus Aurelius and Plato?

7) Mill is clear that the government should not repress speech or make it illegal, but that is not the only potential source of repression. What does he think about the dangers of social limitations on ideas and expressions?

8) Why (according to Mill) should freedom of expression be extended to freedom of lifestyle and activity?

9) Describe Mill’s theory of human progress. How does progress take place, according to Mill? How does this differ from Marx’s view of progress? Why is Marx more certain human societies will progress than Mill is?

10) Not everyone is included among those Mill deems “suitable for liberty”. Who is excluded? Does this change your impression of Mill?

And one last big one:

11) Who provides a stronger foundation for liberal rights, Mill or Locke?


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