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  1. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    John Stuart Mill

    Discussion in 'Debate Room' started by Steerpike, Nov 4, 2013.

    Hopefully the title to the thread has attracted some philosophers.

    In discussions with a friend of mine who is more in favor of government interference in daily life than I am, it came to light that the friend's favorite philosopher is Mill. It's not the first time I've heard Mill invoked from similarly-minded people, typically to justify some government regulation on the grounds of Utilitarianism (greater good).

    I'm by no means an expert on Mill, but I thought he was pretty much in favor of letting people do anything they wanted, so long as they didn't harm others, and was in general suspicious about increased government authority. Since we live in a society, I suppose he did see some harm to self as harm to society, but I don't find what I've read of his work (which consists entirely of portions of On Liberty) to be consistent with favoring expansive government regulation, even if it is for our own good (something that I think Mill specifically said was not a valid justification).

    Anyone who knows something about Mill want to clarify this? It is quite possible my limited reading of Mill has lead to a misunderstanding, but I'm not yet convinced that is the case.

    **FULL DISCLOSURE: Anyone replying with helpful comments should be aware that they're arming me for my next debate over pints with this person**
     
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I don't know much about Mill either, but this is just what I understand of it. He and Bentham, the main figures in Utilitarianism, believed in the idea that the end justifies the means. Mill would have been still a Liberal from what I can, but unlike John Locke it seems he would not have been considered much of a Classical Libertarian, which was the happening thing at the time.
     
  3. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Mill's idea that a person should be able to do more or less what they want, so long as they aren't harming anyone else, seems more Libertarian than Liberal, but I suppose he qualified that statement quite a bit.
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I suppose it depends on exactly how you define those words. But Mill's idea of the ethics of actions being based on their end result tells me he had a much more complex opinion of the state as a unit when compared to someone like Locke.
     
  5. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I've only read On Liberty and that was something like 6 years ago. I think what you're getting at, @Steerpike, is the harm principle, which states that the actions of an individual should only be interfered with if he causes harm to others. From what I understand, he didn't like the government very much and explicitly mentioned that the government should have no say in people's private lives. Unfortunately, he seems to waver on this issue because I remember him saying that a government should be allowed to step in and stop someone from harming someone else. So there are some issues for which he supported government interference (aid for example) and other issues for which he did not (stuff dealing with private life).

    That's all I know I'm afraid. Maybe someone who knows more about Mill will come along.
     
  6. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Your characterisation is on the money, SP.

    If your conversational partner is working on the delightfully crude basis that, say for example, because universal healthcare conceivably extends a desirable service to the bulk of the population Mill would have sanctioned it on the grounds of simple arithmetic, then that is flat wrong.

    We might imagine him saying: Big govt is to be avoided wherever possible. The individual knows his own needs best. Lay everything on a plate and it saps his vitality, usefulness, purpose, autonomy, produces sheep ripe for tyranny. The greatest happiness is served by having many folk like Socrates about and not a bunch of idiots.

    That's the point where the two ideas (util. + lib/ indiv) meet happily: flourishing individuals make for flourishing societies. He does make great play on man being a social animal. The flourishing individual will be drawn (and should be educated) to act in a pro-social fashion.

    But because of the tremendous value he places on society there are perhaps tensions too. On the matter of freedom of speech he's largely doubtless and so predictable (and, of course, delightful). But when he turns to freedom of action - where harm can be tangibly done to society - he perhaps says some unexpected things. So eg if a state prevents from marrying those who lack the means to look after any kids, he doesn't think that beyond the pale.
     
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