Political Philosophy/Social Philosophy: J. S. Mill and Karl Marx

John Stuart Mill (1806-73)

Libertarianism (also known as "laissez-faire" liberalism or classical liberalism): According to J. S. Mill, it is important to distinguish between the public areas of our lives that involve others or the common good and those private areas of our lives that are not the legitimate concern of others.  Even if the majority of a society believe that certain private actions should or should not be done, that does not mean that the will of the individual should be ignored in favor of the general (public) will.  Contrary to what Rousseau claims, I do not become more fully human by merging my private will with the general will except in regard to those areas of my life that are properly public.

In the past, liberty meant protection against the tyranny of political rulers by means either of appeal to rights or constitutional checks. Today, the greatest threat to freedom does not come from rulers and other individuals but from a "tyranny of the majority," where the majority of a people try to impose their will on the minority.  The way to counteract this threat is to insist that government has a right to limit individual liberties only when harm to others is involved.  Such insistence should be seen as a guideline that restricts social tyranny and protects individuals from the whims of the majority.

Mill refers to this guideline as the "principle of liberty."  According to the principle, individuals can justifiably be coerced in society only to protect the health and welfare of others who will be harmed by an action.  No one can be justly coerced to improve himself or protect himself (though we may try to persuade him or her).  Law is appropriate where harm to others is concerned; social pressure is appropriate where people are offended but not hurt by an action; and persuasion is appropriate where we would like a person to develop his or her own sense of right and wrong (conscience).  But against the view that says that the government should make us better and perhaps even happier people (i.e., state paternalism), Mill insists that the state has no right to make people choose what is best for them.  Liberty of thought and freedom of expression require that the society respect the rights of the individual not to be harassed by do-gooders intent on improving their personal lives.

In other words, if someone is inconsiderate (annoying) without being harmful, we are justified in trying to change his or her opinion, but we cannot use the law to modify such behavior.  If no one is either offended or harmed by the action--i.e., where it is simply a matter of taste--no interference is justified.  Of course, each person who benefits from being in a society has an obligation to defend the society from injury, and state intervention is justified to improve general living conditions in a society (e.g., protection of the environment, support of the arts), but it cannot force individuals to take advantage of those improvements.


Summary: The Political Spectrum

Because people often use terms (e.g., "liberal," "conservative") without knowing  what those terms mean, it is important to understand the concepts underlying different political philosophies.  By spelling out the characteristics of these concepts, we are able to situate the thinkers we have studied.

Regarding personal matters (e.g., sexual activity or drug use): the classical liberal says that people should be allowed to do what they want because they can generally be trusted to do the right thing.  The conservative assumes that people cannot be trusted to act properly and must be told what to do.

Regarding economic or governmental matters: the authoritarian says that decisions about what is best for everyone must be made by the government.  By contrast, the civil libertarian says that individuals should be allowed to pursue their own interests without interference: the least government is the best government.


                                                Locke                                     |
                                     Rousseau (state of nature)                   |                 Rousseau (civil society)
                                            Mill (private)                                |                      Mill (public)
 Liberal ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- Conservative
                                                Hobbes                                    |                  Plato

Plato is a conservative-authoritarian because he does not trust most people to make informed, impartial decisions; such decisions should be made by the rulers.  Hobbes is a liberal-authoritarian: people in the state of nature make a rational decision to place all decision-making power in the hands of the sovereign.  Locke is a liberal-libertarian: people can be trusted to choose the kind of government that best protects their property, and if those in government fail to uphold their end of the social contract, the people have a right to replace them.  In regard to the natural state of human beings, Rousseau is a liberal-libertarian, but he is a conservative-libertarian in regard to people once they are under the influence of society.

For Rousseau, individuals become fully human insofar as they unite their particular wills to the general will.  By contrast, Mill highlights the difference between the public and the private.  Though he agrees with Rousseau's libertarianism, Mill is more liberal regarding private, personal matters, and conservative regarding public matters.

(It should be noted that in the 20th Century, both liberals and conservatives have increasingly collapsed what was previously considered private into the domain of the public.)

Social Philosophy: kinds of questions raised:

Possible answers:

1. Fascism: the state alone is responsible for the distribution of goods and services, and it alone determines the legitimacy of citizens' claims; the State, not the individual, is real

2. Organicism (G. W. F. Hegel, 1770-1831): the existence of every individual is meaningful as an expression of relations of power in the State

3. Communism: Karl Marx (1818-85)

Historical materialism: history is the story of the conflict of the material conditions of existence.  Socio-economic structures of power determine the nature of individuals.  Individuals are not (as liberal social contract theorists claim) "naturally" one way or the other, for the very notion of individuality is itself a creation of a capitalist mentality.  However, human beings are naturally creative, productive, and social beings.  Indeed, they fulfill themselves in their creations, so that what they make is an expression of what they are.  In an unjust socio-economic system, the products of our labor are not our own: we have to sell those products to survive (forced labor).  So what is natural for us (i.e., work, labor) becomes unnatural, and our essence--our love for producing (labor)--is alienated; only in leisure do we feel "at home."

Objections to Marx: