John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is based on the idea that a society needs to develop from the lower stages to the higher stages. Out of the progressive society, there will rise a system of representative democracy. The emergence of the government that resulted from the representative democracy is the type of government that Mill sees the development and growth of liberty. Civil liberty is a limitation that must be set on the power of the society over its members. In all the historical battles, liberty was the primary goal and it was seen as a form of protection from tyranny and oppression. Over the years, the meaning of liberty has changed along with the rulers of government. They were seen not as masters but more like the servants of the people. This brought a new problem to society which is the tyranny of the majority. The tyranny occurs because the democratic majority is forcing the minority to follow its will. This situation exercises the power of tyranny outside the bounds of the political realm. The tyrannical majority has the power to stop the expression of individuality and the beginnings of a rebellion.
The society becomes the oppressor by deciding to inflict its values and willpower to those who do not follow it. According to Mill, liberty can be divided into three types in which each of them must be acknowledged and respected by the society. The first liberty is the liberty of opinion and thought. The second is the freedom of following what people desire in life and the third liberty is the freedom to seek alliances with others who have the same common purpose in life. Each of the three liberties is against the resilience of the society to require compliance to its will.
In a seemingly perfect society wherein people are not born out of natural means but out of test tubes, the three types of liberties do not apply. The people who were born out of test tubes do not have their own will. They were programmed to do the things they do, to like the things that they should like and be content for the things that they have. These people in this kind of society cannot choose how to live their lives because they were programmed to do only specific things. These people are imprisoned in a society that does not allow them to decide on their own. They are under the tyrannical rule of a society that seems perfect on the outside because of its social harmony but when examined closely, the people seem like robots following a program set by society. They cannot express their thoughts and opinions because they were programmed to think, act and feel a specific way.
An individual’s freedom to express an opinion that does not agree with society should not be suppressed. Any efforts to do so is considered an illegitimate activity according to Mill. The opinion of the individual must be respected no matter how far it is from the views of society. The opinion must not be silenced because it is morally wrong to do so. Mill further argues that the popular opinion does not necessarily make it a correct point of view. Deviation from popular opinion is necessary to help preserve and maintain the existence of truth. This concept is called dissent by Mill in which he describes it as the individual’s freedom to express unpopular opinion.
A society that does not allow expression of divergent opinions is trying to impose its will on everyone. There is order and social harmony if everyone will accept popular opinion as correct. Based on the given example of a society with people born out of test tubes, the society encourages them to take legal drugs so that they can be happy again. If they ever feel unhappy, it is only temporary because they can return to the state of happiness by taking the drugs. This type of society controls the emotions, thoughts and aspirations of the people. It imposes on them what a society should be like. The society does not allow the will of the people to determine what they want and how they think their life should be lived. Their actions are programmed to do a certain thing that they might not have liked when their willpower is restored.
A society that has no books, religion or art is a society that does not encourage learning and development. This goes against the idea of Mill as a progressive society. This kind of society is not progressive because it does not allow growth and progress to emerge. The society is stagnant and does not have a particular direction. For Mill, “Human beings are fallible” (Mill 1978). This means that people need to experiment with different ways in which they could live their life. The exercise of power over individuals must have only one reason, “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill 1978). The liberty of the individuals must always be expressed to achieve progress in one’s social and personal life.
Liberty is important to ensure progress in the society and the individual. Social progress can only happen when there are limitations on the liberty of the individual. People should not be allowed absolute liberty because chaos and disorder could ensue. A society and government that is able to balance individual liberties will enjoy progress and harmony. Happiness is important to the individual and the only way to achieve this is through a civilized and progressive society. It is in this society that are people are free to pursue their dreams and interests that make them happy. Their skills and abilities are developed within the system of a progressive society. This is unlike a society where people are always happy in which their happiness is based on drugs and not on the pursuit of their own dreams and interests.
The given society does not resemble our own and this is a good thing. Such a society is like a world filled with robots who are programmed to do certain things because they were born out of test tubes. Their actions and emotions are limited by the programs that are inherent in them. There are no avenues for learning and growth. The society does not develop into a progressive society. Life is meaningless with this kind of society because will and intelligence is controlled. There are no morals and no concept of right and wrong. Liberties are taken away from people who should have the chance to exercise them to live like human beings and not programmed robots.
Mill, J. (1978) ‘On Liberty’, Hacket Pub. Co., edited by Elizabeth Rapaport