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By ANDREW R. CECIL, Distinguished Scholar in Residence, The University of Texas at Dallas
Delivered at the 16th Annual Andrew R. Cecil Lectures on Moral Values in a Free Society, The University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas, November 7, 1994
Many theories about the way government should function arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were dominant for a period, and eventually fell. Without going into their merits and flaws, let me only mention those who advocated such theories - the mercantilists, the physiocrats, the believers in laissez-faire laisser-aller economics, the socialists, and the communists. Upon examination, all their doctrines were found to be limited in their application to the period and place where they rose to eminence. These doctrines shared a common fate: They were replaced or modified by new ideas. This is also true of the ideologies of liberalism and conservatism.
Individualism, which during the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries grew out of the cultural and intellectual currents of the Renaissance and the Reformation, paved the way for the birth of liberalism in the eighteenth century. The thinkers of the second half of the seventeenth century and the eighteenth century - to mention only John Locke in England and Denis Diderot and Francois-Marie Voltaire in France - paved the way for liberal concepts of man's right to personal freedom, to dissent, and to the pursuit of his own interest with the greatest amount of individual liberty from governmental interference. Liberalism was the child of the Age of Reason - the Enlightenment.
The influence of Locke was exceedingly great. It spread widely in eighteenth-century Europe and had an impact not only on the British system of government but also on the ideals of the American Revolution of 1776. Locke's conception of a fiduciary relationship between free individuals and their rulers, with the government having the duties of a trustee and the community enjoying the rights of the beneficiary, appealed to the liberals of the eighteenth century.
In the closing decades of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century, the name of John Stuart Mill marks the rise of liberalism in England. He was the moving spirit of the group known as the utilitarians. They were dedicated to promoting the principle of "Utility" or the "Greater Happiness Principle." According to this principle, actions are right when they promote happiness, wrong when they tend to produce pain.
The purpose of my lecture is not to discuss the intricacies of this theory. I have only mentioned it to give a background for Mill's first famous political writing - his essay On Liberty, which epitomizes nineteenth-century British ideas on liberalism.
Mill's primary concern is to find the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. This concern is justified by the fact that "the struggle between liberty and authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portion of history" which goes back to the time of Greece and Rome. Because of this struggle, liberty "means protection against the tyranny of the political rulers."
What comprises human liberty? First, liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense: liberty of thought and freedom of opinion and sentiment "on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological." Related to liberty of thought is liberty of speaking and writing. No government has the right to control the expression of opinion even if this control is exerted in accordance with public opinion. "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion," he wrote, "mankind would be no more justified in silencing the one person than he, if he had power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
Secondly, liberty of tastes and pursuits, so long as our actions do not harm our fellowmen, "even though they should think that our conduct is foolish, perverse, or wrong." Thirdly, "freedom to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others." Whenever rulers have infringed on the individual's political liberties or rights, "specific resistance or general rebellion was held to be justifiable."
In order to limit the power of the rulers, whose interests are frequently opposed to those of the people, Mill suggests establishing constitutional checks to control the acts of the governing power and periodically electing various magistrates, their terms revocable at the pleasure of the governed. In this way the interest of the rulers will be identified with the interest and will of the people.
Mill remained hostile to the tyranny of the majority of the common people - "the uncultivated herd who now comprise the laboring masses" - over the minority of individuals who could meet his standard of intellectual development. Mill's liberalism can be described as a middle-class world view reflecting classical nineteenth-century British political ideas and the rise to power of a new social stratum. The middle-class reformers and their liberalism resented the political and social status of the landed aristocracy and …