Liberty is something we in the western world take for granted these days, and it’s important to remember that humankind was not always so generously geared towards personal autonomy. Published in 1859, Mill was at the forefront of political science and philosophy thinkers when he proffered his ideas on the subject. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” he writes.
Once we move past this initial foray into the principles of liberty, Mill furthers his offered opinions. He warns us about the oppression of the ideals of the majority towards the minority. These ideas can be captivating, sometimes to the point of detriment. We can see it in society today, how so many of us find opposing ideas (especially political ones) truly intolerable. If we have progressed to a point in society where we accept other people’s religions and sexualities, why do we struggle so much to accept different ideological points of view? On this, Mill says that “There is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it.” I find this sentiment to be alarmingly true, and may we ring all the bells in the land with its message.
The truth is that there is a necessity for opposition to ideas. That is how shaky ideas become strong or how weak ideas are proven anemic. There is tremendous danger in relegating popular ideas to the forefront of public opinion and vilifying opposition. The best ideas are the ones that have continually stood the test of time, repelling opposition not with crushing force, but with uplifting power. For example, ancient tribes used to sacrifice human lives to the Gods for the hope of a better harvest. As civilizations grew, they eventually decided life shouldn’t be ended so simply. Death then became a punishment for wrongdoing, and over the course of centuries slowly transitioned from barbaric to (relatively) humane. Eventually, as a more modern society emerged, we came to condemn the taking of human life with more frequency, until now it is a rarity. History shows us that the acceptable reasons for ending a human life has been a debate for the entirety of humanity. The reason we live in a world today where you don’t lose your life for stealing a sheep is because enough people, over time, spoke up and said it was a bad idea, preferring alternative punishments. This is but an example of how different opinions on a single subject are required to continually clash and debate as to what is most correct. Here we see the good idea (valuing human life) winning over the bad (seeing human life as insignificant) due to the trials of time and ideological combat.
By today’s standards, much of what Mill writes would be considered Libertarian ideology. Basically, get the government and any oppressive bodies of influence out of the individual’s life. The only exception is when an individual would bring harm to another. This is where the government would have an obligation to step in, ultimately in the pursuit of a safer society for all.
One of the areas that becomes grey is the relationship between parents and their children. Parents have a moral obligation to raise their children to the best of their ability, but what happens if a man has no desire to be a part of his child’s life. Can society demand that he participate against his will? What about a contrary case study with a parent who is raising a child to be an abomination. Does a ruling body have authority to step in and violate the liberty of the parent on behalf of the wellbeing of the child? The answers are tricky and each scenario must be evaluated case by case. Even still, decisions made cannot be assured with one hundred percent certainty and approval from all parties. Hopefully, over time and continual debate, humanity will continue to get better at solving this age-old dilemma.
This balance between societal prosperity and personal liberty is constantly teetering back and forth. It is the crux at where we live. Something I think important to remember, phrased quite eloquently by Mill, goes like this: “In the human mind, one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception.” Essentially, if we want to keep our balance as a society, it is important to hear and understand people’s differing ideas. Only with this mutual respect for each other’s ideological liberties can we continue to move forward collectively.