The Liberation of Liberty


The 75th anniversary issue of Forbes magazine (Sept. 14, 1992) posed the question "if things are so good (in the United States), why do we think they are so bad?" One contributor, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, responded in short, "we think [things] are bad because they are bad" (see her article, "A de-moralized society?," p.120). She surmised,"While it is generally assumed that moral progress goes hand in hand with material progress, this assumption is rarely made explicit, because moral concepts, still moral judgments, are understood to be somehow undemocratic and unseemly. We pride ourselves on being liberated from such retrograde Victorian notions.... We are now confronting the consequences of this policy of moral 'neutrality.' Having made the most valiant attempt to 'objectify' the problems of poverty, criminality, illiteracy, illegitimacy and the like, we are discovering that the economic and social aspects of these problems are inseparable from the moral and psychological ones."(p.124)

Gertrude Himmelfarb analyzes our cultural malaise in greater detail in her latest book of essays, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). And in our world where the philosophy of relativism reigns, her critique is "untimely" indeed. One essay which is particularly deserving of careful study is "Liberty: 'One Very Simple Principle?'" Here she examines John Stuart Mill's classic text On Liberty, which was published in 1859. (The complete text may be found in Mill, Three Essays [London: Oxford University Press, 1975].) Two ideas govern his essay and continue to influence our thinking today, and that is, that each individual's independence is absolute, and that human beings are essentially good.

Mill offers "one very simple principle" in which society may interfere with the rights of an individual:

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.... His independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (pp.76-77)

Perhaps to the modern mind, such a declaration does not appear extraordinary. Yet Himmelfarb records that Mill's argument was unprecedented in his time. He disregarded the writings of Milton, Locke, Jefferson and his contemporary Tocqueville, none of whom characterized the freedom of the individual as nearly absolute. Locke limited the scope of liberty involving "opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society" (p.81). Tocqueville wrote that "liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith" (Democracy in America,v.1, p.12).

"It is not always appreciated how far On Liberty goes," Himmelfarb points out, "in denying not only to the law but to the informal mechanisms of society any control over the individual in respect to behavior that is properly regarded as immoral but that does not harm others" (p.83). Alas, the response is: "Who are you to tell me what I can't do?" Indeed, Mill writes, "Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men" (see chapter 3 of full essay). If one believes that man is the measure of right and wrong, then moral expectations voiced from the pulpit or lectern are understandably viewed as infringements upon one's rights -- or worse, mere opinions (see chapter 2 for his discussion on morality and Christ).

Presumably, Mill's view of liberty hinges upon his idealistic belief that human beings are essentially good. He writes:

"To say that one person's desires and feelings are stronger and more various than those of another, is merely to say that he has more of the raw material of human nature, and is therefore capable, perhaps of more evil, but certainly of more good.... The danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences." (pp.84-85)

Mill attacks John Calvin as the perpetrator of the doctrine that humans are innately sinful, but Himmelfarb contends that many theologians and philosophers of his day were also skeptical of the individual's passions and one's ability to choose the good over evil. I might add also that Mill misrepresents Calvin regarding obedience (see chapter 3). Calvin does not espouse blind obedience to God out of duty alone; even more, such devotion is motivated by gratitude for Christ's benevolence. Whereas Mill believes obedience to God's rule shackles one's better passions, Calvin understands the joyous liberty found in knowing and serving God.

And surely, as Himmelfarb writes, Mill "took for granted that those virtues that had already been acquired, by means of religion, tradition, law, and all the other resources of civilization -- would continue to be valued and exercised" (p.86). But in Himmelfarb's other essays, particularly in her title piece, we discover that the assumption held in Mill's day -- that truth is knowable -- is no longer generally believed. Many agree with the words of Nietzsche: "Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses" (p.13).

Interestingly, in Himmelfarb's survey of Mill's other writings, she finds that he disavows the arguments he makes in On Liberty regarding essential goodness. In fact, in his essay "Nature," which he wrote only nine months earlier, he states, "It assuredly requires in most persons a greater conquest over a greater number of natural inclinations to become eminently virtuous than transcendently vicious" (p.86). And yet the ideas of the absolute liberty and essential goodness of individuals have taken on a life of their own, for they have become imbedded in the modern psyche.

Finally, consider two observations. Given Mill's treatise on "one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual," one can only chuckle at his assertion: "Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest" (see chapter 1). Yet this is in itself a compelling statement; Mill declares, "Don't tell me how to live" and thens spends sixty pages urging the reader to live in accordance with his ideas!

Secondly, the Scriptures and the experience of our world witness to the undeniable reality of evil in the hearts of humanity. Hence, while Mill's writings on liberty provide some framework by which to understand democracy, his conclusions are ultimately flawed because he commences with a faulty assumption, namely, that human beings are essentially good. And this is precisely why Himmelfarb's On Looking into the Abyss is worth reading: She questions the presuppositions of several leading philosophers and historians (see especially her essay "Postmodernist History") and urges the reader to consider the serious consequences of their arguments.

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