- Series: Dover Thrift Editions
- Paperback: 112 pages
- Publisher: Dover Publications; 1 edition (June 19, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780486421308
- ISBN-13: 978-0486421308
- ASIN: 0486421309
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.2 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 211 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #50,113 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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On Liberty (Dover Thrift Editions) Paperback – June 19, 2002
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From the Back Cover
Discussed and debated from time immemorial, the concept of personal liberty went without codification until the 1859 publication ofOn Liberty. John Stuart Mill's complete and resolute dedication to the cause of freedom inspired this treatise, an enduring work through which the concept remains well known and studied.
The British economist, philosopher, and ethical theorist's argument does not focus on "the so-called Liberty of the Will but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." Mill asks and answers provocative questions relating to the boundaries of social authority and individual sovereignty. In powerful and persuasive prose, he declares that there is "one very simple principle" regarding the use of coercion in societyone may only coerce others either to defend oneself or to defend others from harm.
The new edition offers students of political science and philosophy, in an inexpensive volume, one of the most influential studies on the nature of individual liberty and its role in a democratic society.
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This book is very densely written; you get a full page worth of reading on each page. The book was written in 1859. So the language is a bit more formal and strange compared to contemporary writings. But it's very readable. He explains the thought process behind his opinions. They're very logical. If be reading And think "Gee, never thought of it that way" Or "so that's why things are the way they are". And, for a book written 160 years ago, it is surprising my relevant.The
Pros: One of the most practical pieces from the utilitarian thinkers of the era. Almost prescient on a number of matters (his genealogy of christian morality, proto-feminist thinking, religious diversity as including atheism).
Cons: I don't think that Mill ever fully resolves the concept of social tyranny in this work, which he rightly gives serious thought. Additionally, there is some (unsurprising) apologia for imperialism, and his assumption that Parliament is, or will become shortly, the will of the people, seems a bit overly optimistic.
Regardless of these quibbles, I think this is an important read for anyone interested in political philosophy.
Milll's basic point is simple: people should be left free to think and do as they please unless what they are doing causes actual harm to others. Mill's essay is spent both giving reasons for this principle, and exlporing what the principle means in practice.
He offers a plurality of reasons for his libertarian ideas, some utilitarian in nature and some based on (what some might call) natural law. Not only does freedom of action and thought encourage innnovation, keep public discussion vigorous, and lead to a more effective social network than government incursion, but people just-plain prefer directing their own lives to being directed from outside.
Mill gets into sticky territory, however, when he talks about the libertarian principle in concrete terms, as his distinction between what is private and what is public is often less clear than he might want. Should persons be free to tell others to do harm to themselves? Yes. Should parents be free not to educate their children? No. Should "vice-merchants" like bars, gambling parlors, and pornographers be free to conduct business without heavy government regulation? No. Should people be free to marry a plurality of spouses? If mormon, yes. If British, no.
My biggest criticism - and a criticism offered in Richard Posner and Jeane Bethke Elshtain's essays - is that Mill is all over the map when his principle is "put to the real world" because the distinction between public and private is just-plain fuzzy. Another interesting criticism, brought up in Elshtain's essay, is that Mill demonstrates a very unjustified bias in favor of experiment over tradition (where the former seems always presumed inferior to the latter).
In short, I like Mill's essay but see it as an edifice built on not-quite-solid sand. Mill relies on seperate categories, public and private, that are just not clear and distinct enough to be distinct. (While Dewey may have gone too far in the "all acts are social" direction, I think Dewey hit closer to the truth.) This is why the six supplementary essays in this edition are a nice touch.