John Stuart Mill’s Understanding of Liberalism and What is Liberalism?June 27, 2021
The 19th century liberals, who were not bothered by the fact that the rights they defended were being used by a small minority, came to their senses in the face of intense criticism from the poor masses and gave up their strict adherence to the “Laissez faire” policies.
The result has been the formation of a “contemporary liberal” ideology close to the democratic, social welfare liberalism of the 20th century. Indeed, between the 1870s and the 1930s, two major liberal strategies—social liberalism and neoclassical liberalism— emerged to cope with the changing conditions of modern societies. In this sense, it can be said that the thinker who built a bridge between 19th century classical liberalism and 20th century social welfare liberalism was John Stuart Mill, who defined liberalism broadly (Örs, 2009: 74-78). Likewise, liberals like Mill opened the door to an interpretation that would enable the concepts of social justice and welfare state in order to reduce the impact of socio-economic inequalities among individuals and to enable the individual to reach a level that would enable him to realize his own potential (Yılmaz, 2005: 576).
In this context, Mill’s work On Liberty (2009) is considered the classic text of the defense of individual freedom. For example, Skousen (2003: 134) comments on Mill’s work as follows:
Mill’s pamphlet On Freedom is considered a classic of philosophy, “the most fluid, important, and most influential expression of human individuality.” Rather than being against the state, the work is a protest against moral imposition and a rejection of Victorian traditions. On the other hand, Mill advocated tolerance, skepticism and free thought; It has taken a stand in favor of women’s right to vote, hold public office and enter all professions.”
In Essay on Liberty, Mill (1972; 2009) argues that freedom of thought and expression, tolerance of dissenting opinions are essential characteristics of a rational, moral and civilized citizen, and that neither the state nor the majority of the people should interfere with the freedom of an individual who does not harm another person. It emphasizes that you have no right. According to him, when we silence an opinion, we harm both present and future generations. Mill argues that “the only freedom worthy of the name is to do our own good in our own way, provided that we do not attempt to limit the freedom of others or hinder their efforts to attain freedom”. Moreover, there is another very important difference between Mill and his contemporaries. This is the defense of women’s suffrage. While Mill says that those who enslave others will never be freed from slavery, they represent the developing libertarian tradition of human history despite everything (Örs, 2009: 79).
Mill’s liberalism differs from the views of Locke, one of the main proponents of liberalism, in many important points. Mill’s teleological liberalism is primarily a ‘gifted utilitarianism’. Mill’s liberalism is secular, without a religious base. Mill aimed to show what kind of life people should live and researched the type of society most suitable for this lifestyle. In this respect, he followed the Greek and Christian philosophers, whose starting points were reflections on nature and man’s destiny, and from whom they provided the guiding principles of their social and political ideas. Therefore, it is not surprising that liberalism remained minimalist in Mill’s hands and began to advocate a contextual view of the good life (Parekh, 2002: 52).
According to Mill, man is the highest being in the world and should lead a life in accordance with this position. His “destiny” and his “relative value as a human being” include perfecting himself, being the most “sublime” or “good thing” he can be (Mill, 1964: 116 et al.). Such a fully human life includes individuality, free will, or independence. Mill seems to use these terms either interchangeably or to denote different aspects of a common ideal. The goal is to determine one’s life for oneself, ideally in such a way that there is little left in one’s life—other than the inevitable—that one does not create or contemplate or approve of. Mill’s liberalism: making one’s own choices and making decisions; identifying his own wishes, beliefs, ideas and values and making sure that they are duly “his own”; critically examine the justifications of ancestral beliefs; includes renewing them when necessary. For, “The character of a person whose desires and impulses are not his own is only as good as that of a steam locomotive.” (Mill, 1964: 118)
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook; EUL Journal of Social Sciences (VI-I) EUL Journal of Social Sciences