In this essay I will discuss the relationship between freedom and authority in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s essay The Social Contract, and John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. I will argue through my comparison of each philosopher that Mill’s conception of liberty is the richer and more persuasive of the two.
Rousseau’s conception of freedom in The Social Contract is that people attain their freedom through a transformation from a state of nature to civil society. We give up our natural freedom in exchange for civilized freedom. His contention is that we can be both free and subject to political authority; Rousseau thinks it’s possible to be autonomous and subject to law, when we obey those laws of which we are the author. He justifies this model of political authority by saying that government and laws are the will of the sovereign – we give our consent for them to exist. That consent is guided by what Rousseau calls the “general will”.
The “general will” is an idea that signifies the wishes or welfares of society as a whole. The purpose of the general will is to guide society to a “common good”, to advise society in its creation of laws and express what is best for all individuals. The problem with the general will, Mill claims, is that it seems to reject individual diversity. Mill is worried that minorities may be oppressed if they think differently to the majority. Considering all individuals revoked their natural liberty through the change from a state of nature to civil society, Rousseau thinks that society must force individuals to conform to the general will, or as he puts it, society must “force them to be free”. He thinks that by associating ourselves with the general will we acquire morality, and actually become freer than we were before. To Rousseau, freedom is attained when one follows the “general will”.
Mill’s essay On Liberty is a strong counter argument to Rousseau’s conception of freedom, especially regarding the ‘general will’. Contrasting Rousseau, Mill’s idea is not a social contract theory. According to Mill, in order for a society to be free it must avoid interfering with the lives of its people wherever possible. The threat, as Mill sees it, is that if we subscribe to the concept of the ‘general will’ then society risks becoming paternalistic, or a “tyranny of the majority” – where minority views are supressed if they do not conform to those of the majority.
Mill thinks that society constrains the individual, and that society should be limited in the power it can exert over individuals; he enumerates three conditions upon which society must follow in order to be free: freedom of “thought and feeling”, freedom of “tastes and pursuits” and the freedom to “unite with other consenting individuals” for any reason providing it does no harm to others. He says that if a society does not follow these conditions it is not free. Mill wants to avoid principles and laws as much as possible because he sees them as unnecessary constraints.
The only principle that Mill does want to establish is the “harm principle” – what he calls the “object” of his essay. The harm principle says that the only time one can interfere with the liberty of another person, “individually or collectively”, is for “self-protection”. This principle claims that if an individual is not doing any harm to anyone in their actions, then society has no right to interfere. “Over himself” says Mill, “over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” – it is the individual, and not society, who should decide how best to live.
Mill’s conception of freedom appears to be a version of “negative liberty”, a type of freedom that allows one to do what they want free from restrictions. His freedom is “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints”. Rousseau’s social contract theory is a type of “positive liberty”, that allows citizens to act “in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realise one’s fundamental purposes”.
Rousseau characterises two types of freedom in The Social Contract: the natural liberty, which is limited “only by the strength of the individual” and civil liberty, which is “limited by the general will”. Natural liberty is the freedom to follow one’s own desires. Civil liberty is the freedom one attains when they follow the general will.
Like Rousseau, Mill talks about a type of civil or social freedom; however, unlike Rousseau he doesn’t speculate about a “state of nature”. Rather, Mill states that his theory is justified by utilitarianism, he isn’t making a comparison between a state of nature and civil society. I think this makes Mill’s argument more persuasive because he isn’t making an assumption that we have “natural rights”. Mill doesn’t seem to think we have natural rights, and even if we do, Rousseau doesn’t tell us how we can actually know what they are. Rousseau appears to think that we have an intrinsic freedom that exists in the state of nature, and he wants to merge the individual liberty one supposedly has in the state of nature, with civil society. He thinks the way to do this is by following the “general will”.
I think the biggest problem at the heart of Rousseau’s social contract theory is the way he deals with individuals who disagree with the general will. He states that “if anyone refuses to obey the general will he will be compelled to do so by the whole body; which means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free”. His social contract declares that if an individual disagrees with the ‘general will’, then they must be wrong, and for their own good they must be forced to conform to the general will. Mill would undoubtedly consider such forced conformity a “tyranny of the majority” because of his strong belief that individuality is something that should be cherished and valued. Mill would disagree with Rousseau’s notion that people should be “forced to be free” since he thinks it’s detrimental to both the individual and the majority when an alternative opinion is oppressed. Rousseau on the other hand, thinks that taking up the general perspective of the community is always the right thing to do.
Contrary to Rousseau, Mill doesn’t think that the majority gain their power because they are infallible, but simply because they are the “most numerous or the most active part of the people”. Mill states that “silencing the expression of an opinion” deprives the human race. Firstly, reasons Mill, if a majority silences an opinion that is different or less popular than their own, and that alternative opinion turns out to be right, then they are depriving themselves of what is right. Almost as great a benefit to society is listening to an alternative opinion even if it turns out to be wrong, because challenging dominant opinion prevents stagnation. Stifling opinion is always a bad thing; Mill says that “Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects” – because their opinion is never tested. It is through this “collision with error” that the truth becomes stronger. Mill thinks that this process of listening to a whole variety of “thought and feeling” leads to a healthier cultural climate and a place of greater freedom and liberty.
Rousseau might object to Mill’s importance of minority opinion by saying that emphasis on individuality undermines social and political obligations. That it’s somehow an unrealistic idea to consider everyone’s opinion. He says in the social contract that citizens must be forced to follow the general will, because it means society will not depend on any one person for change to occur. Rousseau says of the general will that “this condition is the device that ensures the operation of the political machine”. He thinks it’s naÃ¯ve to listen to a minority not only because he assumes they must be wrong, but because they prevent the political system from making any progress. Rousseau thinks that without the general will, a political system “would be absurd and tyrannical, and subject to the most terrible abuses.” However, Mill would still disagree and respond by saying that “if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”.
I think where they really differ here is that Mill doesn’t think anyone can be free if they’re forced to conform to the majority, whereas Rousseau thinks conformity is necessary for liberty and best for the community- he says that “every authentic act of the general will, obligates or favours all the citizens equally”. He knows that it’s unrealistic that all citizens will agree to the general will, and so he says minorities must be forced to follow it (forced to be free). Perhaps it’s painfully obvious here that Rousseau has left himself in a vulnerable position – he doesn’t really explain to us how one must be “forced” to follow the general will. Thus, there’s possibly an element of compatibility between Rousseau’s and Mill’s conceptions of freedom. If it’s the case that the process of being “forced to be free” includes Mill’s notion that people should be free to debate and discuss, and providing everyone’s opinion is treated with respect and they are convinced, through discussion, to change their views, then it’s certainly possible that eventually all citizens will individually come the same conclusions about the “common good” of their community. It’s certainly conceivable, but it seems unlikely. Even if this compatibility were to exist, Mill would object by saying that we still need a variety of opinion – even if it’s wrong – to prevent social stagnation and to challenge popular views. He would say that providing an individual is doing what they please by means of the “harm principle”, then society has no right to demand such an active citizenship from them.
Rousseau may take issue with Mill’s “harm principle” but asking what actually constitutes harm. It’s obvious that physical harm is detrimental and people shouldn’t be free to harm others – but there are forms of consequentialism that can piece together seemingly harmonious actions, and prove that they actually have damaging effects. For instance, universal consequentialism focuses on the consequences for all people rather than the individual agent. Rousseau might say that a person may not seem to be harming another individual in their actions, but an ingenious person could find harmful consequences for almost anything a person does.
One might find themselves aroused by conflicting emotions if made to choose between the philosophies of Rousseau and Mill, depending on how they feel about an issue. It seems especially difficult to feel one has to conform to the majority when they disagree with it, but of course when one is on the side of the majority it can be hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t be. The majority of climate scientists support global warming, and if one believes in global warming it seems hard to understand why anyone would reject it. If you want gay marriage but the majority doesn’t, it seems crazy to think you have to conform to the general will. I think this is what makes Rousseau’s and Mill’s conceptions of freedom so attractive to us.
I find Mill’s argument to be more persuasive than Rousseau’s because even with modifications to Rousseau’s social contract, the general will seems unable to avoid a “tyranny of the majority”. The ‘general will’ seems too abstract to utilise without thinking of it as simply the sum of all private interests; Rousseau makes it hard for us to recognize what the general will is or how to determine it, and he offers no reassurance that the majority knows what is best. He seems to be making a huge assumption that we have natural rights in the first place, but he provides no evidence for them.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. London: Penguin Group, 2006.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. The Social Contract, A new translation by Christopher Betts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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