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Supplemental Notes On John Stuart Mill's On Liberty

4495 words - 18 pages

1) Introduction: Mill's primary work on rights is On Liberty, which was published in England in 1859. John Stuart Mill was the student of his father James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, who raised him to defend the theory of Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill was a child prodigy and a genius of historical magnitude. He began reading Greek at the age of three, and Latin at the age of eight - he went on to published important work in a wide range of philosophy, economics, and some of the earliest feminist theory.2) Overview:a) Not a social contract theory: Mill's theory is not a social contract theory, and he has no hypothesis about the state of nature or natural rights. Rather, Mill states that his theory of rights is justified by his moral theory, utilitarianism. However, it is not necessary to understand utilitarianism in order to understand his theory of rights. Because of this, I will delay most discussion of the connection between the two theories until the end of this section.b) Basics of the theory: Mill's argues that a just state will provide a strong assurance of negative rights to all of its citizens, and will interfere as little as possible in the daily lives of its citizens. The argument begins with a recognition that there is a danger in a democratic government (one that was mentioned as an objection to Locke). The danger is that, since decisions are made by the principle of majority rule, the majority (or simply the most vocal group) will choose to oppress some minority group. For example, when segregation existed in the middle of this century in the US, the black people were being oppressed by the majority of voters which were white; and there were even parts of the US in the 1950's where black people were in the majority, but where the white minority was more vocal and powerful so that the blacks were still oppressed. Mill's theory begins with a recognition that even with democracy there is a reasonable fear of a tyranny, the tyranny of the majority over a minority. To have a just and moral society, there must be safeguards against this potential threat, and Mill's theory is designed to protect against this threat.3) Details of the theorya) Tyranny of the majority (& paternalism): A tyranny of the majority typically arises when the majority finds some feature of a minority objectionable and the majority decides to use their political power to restrict the minority in some way. For example, you can imagine that the majority of some society felt that people of a certain caste (such as the untouchables of India) were distasteful, and so restricted them by law to certain jobs. Another way in which it may develop is when a majority finds some practice of a minority to be dangerous or harmful to those who practice it, and so they pass laws to ban those practices. For example, the majority of people in the US are heterosexuals, and many of this majority believe that homosexuality is a sin, and is harmful (at least morally) to those who...

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