On Liberty and Other Essays

On Liberty and Other Essays

Book - 1998
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Collected here in a single volume for the first time, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, Considerations on Representative Government, and The Subjection of Women show John Stuart Mill applying his liberal utilitarian philosophy to a range of issues that remain vital today--the nature of ethics, the scope and limits of individual liberty, the merits of and costs of democratic government, and the place of women in society. In his Introduction John Gray describes these essays as applications of Mill's doctrine of the Art of Life, as set out in A System of Logic. Using the resources of recent scholarship, he shows Mill's work to be far richer and subtler than traditional interpretations allow.
Publisher: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, [1998]
ISBN: 9780192833846
Branch Call Number: JC585 .M74 1998
Characteristics: xxxv, 592 p. ; 20 cm
Additional Contributors: Gray, John 1948-

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Jul 27, 2017

With the 4 major essays in this book, Mill succeeds in at least one of the aims of a philosophic thinker and commentator: He provokes further thought and surely a great deal of discussion, some of it bound to be passionate. My view of his offerings here is that they have more to do with ethics and less to do with political philosophy than might first appear. "On Liberty" is the essay that most people would probably first think of when considering Mill's writing. It's a fairly straightforward argument, one that has been used to justify the behavior of folks who call themselves libertarians while giving themselves the privilege of ignoring Mill's proviso that one's freedom to act is limited to not causing harm to others (and one's surrounding world). Therein lies its danger. Mill's "Utilitarianism" really lies at the center of his creed and is an essential force behind his argument in all the other three essays. But both utilitarianism and it oft-referenced alternative deontological ethics strike me as flawed. Mill's version of utilitarianism holds that whether an act is moral or not depends upon the end result of that act. This comes perilously close to "the end justifies the means" and has rightfully raised serious challenges. Contrarily, deontological ethics, by claiming certain acts to be intrinsically wrong (regardless of the outcome) also sends off alarm bells. Such a creed risks being hostage to dogma, especially religious dogma. It also suggests a highly questionable belief in the unique value of humanity -- clearly a self-serving belief that has encouraged mankind to lay waste to much of the natural world.
The other two essays, dealing with representative government and the subjection of women I found much less interesting inasmuch as they cover ground that has been worked to death by dozens, possibly hundreds of other writers and Mill offers very little that is unique.
A word about Mill's writing style may be in order. For most readers, philosophy can be mind-numbing stuff; few philosophers succeed in making it less so and Mill is not exceptional here. In places, he is delightfully clear and direct in his statements, but most of his text tends to be highly academic and fussy. He raises sound arguments but a lot of it can be heavy going.


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