Saturday, January 21, 2006

Comments on "On Liberty"

Book : On liberty

Author : John S Mill

Edited by : Elizabeth Rapaport

Date : 01/05/2006

Comments : This is a dynamic write up of things that impress me/ my thoughts/ questions that the book brings up as I am reading it right now! The book deals with the democracy, the need for it, its definitions and the extent to which people need to surrender their rights to yield an orderly working of the society, and what might constitute the greater of the two evils – surrendering individual rights to a democratic power ruled by the majority (surrendering to tyranny of the majority) versus suffering chaos and having every individual to fight for their personal survival.

  1. P4 : Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs ass protection against political despotism.
  2. P5: All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the action of other people. Custom is not only perceived as second nature, but most often mistaken as the first too. The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving that mankind might develop, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. The importance of traveling, seeing different cultures and customs and realizing the futility of spending good time and effort in trying to adhere to unexplainable/ irrational customs has to be recognized. Infact, only irrational/ unexplainable actions are classified under the term – custom! If it can be rationally explained, then it has a reason to be done/ not done and no longer needs to be classified as a custom. People, who travel a lot, see different customs and still fail to understand the fundamental similarity of humans and their problems frustrate me beyond words!
  3. P8 : The majority have not yet learned to feel the power of the government their power, or its opinions their opinions. When they do so, individual liberty will probably be as much exposed to invasion from the government, as it already is from public opinion. Would this occur when dictatorship prevails? When a select group of individuals decide to take power into their own hands and refuse to step down/ yield when the majority that voted them into power no longer wants them to be in power? Will the majority ever be subject to inspection, let alone persecution of its values? Is there ever an absolute right for anything? Is what the majority feels to be right, right?
  4. P 10: Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to a state anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. And who gets to decide that?!!! How does it get decided???
  5. P 32: No one can be a great thinker, who does not recognize that as a thinker, it is his responsibility to follow his intellect t o whatever conclusions it may lead..
  6. P 34: Assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument - -this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition more, accidentally clinging to words which enunciate the truth. So, every person needs to know the truth personally, after sufficient argument with others and their selves! No one person’s truth can ever be another person’s truth. No one philosophy/ way of life/ religion will ever be the ultimate way to the state of consciousness/ awareness/ tolerance and though the world can start from a common point, one has to tailor their religion to suit their growth, to suit their vision. And in achieving tolerance, a person will see that to be intolerant of the intolerant is equally intolerant!
  7. P73 : Everyone who receives the protection of the society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in the society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. This conduct consists, first, in not injuring the interests of one another, or rather certain interests which either by express legal provision, or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights, and secondly, in each person’s bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labors and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation. Does the society actually think about how it affects an individual life? Basically, the top echelon/ tier of the society represent the fittest of the survivors and their will/ actions dominate/ determine the ways and morals that are upheld as being righteous at any point of time. And if they determine that a person somewhere along the bottom is wrong, then he is doomed. I find it difficult to believe that the society offers its protection/ services to an individual for his particular sake. If a person is left unharmed, it is more so, so that 1. the society may benefit of his services, rather than for his own particular existence, or 2. he has not done anything/ expressed any ideas that go against the grain of the society and hence, has never come out of the obscurity of the masses. If the people at the top decide to screw somebody, most of the masses underneath them will either adopt a NIMBY approach/ at the most - a sympathetic attitude. Only a handful of people who are capable of facing those at the top will dare to rise against them. And then, the whole cycle will repeat itself again, only - with another set of people at the top, oppressing different causes. The framework of a society provides for interaction of people, establishment of a hierarchy, division of labor and unwritten rules of symbiosis, with the “Society” forming the greater and the individual - the lesser of the two entities. (The society assumes a greater value than the individual, because, the more a person relies on the framework for different aspects of his life, the more he becomes dependent on other people and lesser capable of living by himself. The reverse does not hold good for most cases, since the individual is considered expendable – if not X, then Y; if not Y, then Z! Only when the person is somebody right on top, is he considered essential for the functioning of the society.) If only being at the top matters at the end of the day, and everybody in the pyramid is trying to get to the level above the one they are placed on, then, everybody inevitably is going to hit a glass ceiling at some point, either by being displaced by/ losing against somebody / by hitting the top of their personal achievement curve. So, why should we participate in a false social euphemism proclaiming the betterment of everybody, and lifting of the whole pyramid itself? And even if we did manage to lift the pyramid to a higher level, the relative distance between the bottom and the top tier is going to be just the same. It is a personal survival of the fittest and if fighting is what it is all about, why can we not do it minus the hypocrisy?
  8. P75 : Though doing no wrong to anyone, a person may do act as to compel us to judge him, and feel to him, as a fool or as being of an inferior order; and since this judgment and feeling are a fact that he would prefer to avoid, it is doing him a service to warn him of it beforehand, as of any other disagreeable circumstances to which he exposes himself. It would be well indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person cold honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming. We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of anyone, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours. We are not bound, for example, to seek his society; we have a right to avoid it (though not to parade the avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. We have a right, and it may be our duty, to caution others against him if we think his example or conversation likely to have a pernicious effect on those with whom he associates. True, indeed!!! It is so hard to tell a person that the course of action they intend to pursue is going to cause ill will/ unfavorable opinions. But, beyond judging the person for the sake of our selves, is it valid to “warn others” about their behaviour? Does it not amount to prejudicing the non-educated mind against a particular action? If the person we are warning is capable of individual thought, it would not so much matter whether or not we warn them against the erring person, for they will either reach their own conclusion that the action being committed is repulsive/ dangerous etc. or will decide that they do not perceive it as such. In either case, our warning would only serve as a spotlight to the action, bringing it under their attention for individual opinion formation on the subject. In the case of the uneducated/ immature mind that is yet to reach the independent thinking/ opinion forming level, such a warning against a person will serve to effectively prejudice them to/ against the action. In the first case, the warning is unnecessary and in the second – achieves the exact opposite of what the author is trying to work towards (the development of a free thinking society)!!!
  9. P 103: One would think that a man’s children were supposed to be literally, and not metaphorically, a part of himself, so jealous is opinion of the smallest interference of law with his absolute and exclusive control over them, more jealous than of almost any interference with his own freedom of action: so much less do the generality of mankind value liberty than power. Consider, for example, the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom that the State should require and compel the education, if to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen? Yet, who is there, that is not afraid to recognize and assert this truth? Hardly anyone, indeed, will deny that it is one of the most sacred duties o the parents (or, as law and usage now stand, the father), after summoning a human being into the world, to give to that being an education fitting him to perform his part well in life toward others and toward himself. But while this is unanimously declared to be the father’s duty, scarcely anybody, in this country, will bear to hear of obliging him to perform it. Instead of his being required to make any exertion or sacrifice for securing education to his child, it is left to his choice to accept it or not when it is provided gratis! It still remains unrecognized that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against the society; and if the parent does not fulfill this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent. Most educated people value their education, and try to impart it to their children. And – they generally don’t bring forth children into the world unless they are sure of giving it a decent chance at survival and growth. The under/ un-educated people give birth to children to increase their manual labor capacity as a functioning social unit in the society. This tendency leads to an unproportional increase in the number of uneducated children, while the number of educated children goes on a decline, as the parents want to have only so many kids as they can really afford to have. Unless, the educated people look beyond themselves/ their family and contribute to the society in spreading the importance of education, the cycle can never be broken. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has to be bridged at a more basic educational level. Merely doling out privileges to the under dogs of the society will only shift the pyramid from its current level. In order to reduce the height of the pyramid to the barest minimum required for orderly functioning of the society, people will have to be educated, allowed to think freely, understand the existence of the hierarchy and acknowledge that it is a fight for their survival, everyday.

10. P 104: The objections which are urged with reason against State education do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education; which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as anyone in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another; and as a mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation – in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.

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