John Stuart Mill: Liberty & Flourishing

From Christopher Macleod’s brief essay on “John Stuart Mill: higher happiness”:

In contrast to many contemporary thinkers, Mill’s defence of liberal principles is historical and local – not abstract and universal. Whereas the prevailing wisdom maintains that individuals possess certain rights to free speech and action simply by virtue of their status as human beings, Mill was suspicious of that claim.  As a robust naturalist – one who believed only in those objects discovered by observation or the methods of empirical science – Mill could not accept the idea of rights which attach to every human being but were wholly imperceptible to the senses.  Nor could he agree with those who, like the US Founding Fathers, held that our possession of certain unalienable rights was “self-evident”.  If such rights genuinely were self-evident, he notes, there would hardly be so much disagreement about them.

Mill’s argument for the principle of liberty is based on an observation about the conditions most conducive to flourishing in societies that have reached a certain level of civilization. Given the level of moral and intellectual cultivation achieved in Western Europe – modest, Mill suggests, but not insignificant – a robust atmosphere of freedom is indispensable for the advancement of knowledge and the achievement of happiness…

While individuals in “civilized” societies thrive in an atmosphere that protects rights of freedom, for nations that belong to a “barbarous state”, he writes, the best thing would be “obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one”.

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