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On Liberty - On Happiness

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I am a Scandinavian and we, unlike the Americans, do not read John Stuart Mill as part of our general education. At least that is the image I have, as an outsider, of American education, but do correct me if I'm wrong. " On Liberty " is in any case a famous and central work of American political thinking, and since I thus had never read the work, the other day I thought that now would be a time as good as any to finally take a look into it. I must confess that I haven't come far on it yet, but it has already thoroughly impressed me. It is a very good writing and surprisingly current. It really deserves to be a classic. Simultaneously, it has raised a lot of thoughts and counter-arguments. My first issue with Mill's treatment of liberty is that he treats liberty in a black and white manner. Mill asserts that maximal liberty is the goal, but that we need a government to constrain people from harming each other. That is, the goal of the government or society is not progress or happiness, but merely to prevent people from harming each other. The responsibility of personal progress is thus transferred completely to the individual. Suddenly I understand the philosophical origin of the American dogmatic individualism. The consequence that I do like is that this philosophy encourages or even forces people to take responsibility of their own life and does not allow people to live off the society. The problem is that this approach treats society the same way as western medicine treats people: by trying to remove illness, not by trying to reach health or happiness. Whereas it would be possible to design a society with the goal of reaching progress or happiness, Mill chooses to prefer a society which merely avoids ills. Simultaneously, I think it is obvious that all human culture is based on co-operation. All progress humanity has made, has appeared because we have specialized and thus become dependent on each other. Still, it seems to have been always implicitly obvious that avoiding ills is not enough. Classic American quotes like "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" seem to confirm this. It is not about what the country can do for the individuals, but what the individuals can do for the common good. Naturally the element of the government protecting its citizens persists, since in the context of the quote the question was about protecting the citizens against a foreign military force, but that does not eliminate the common good aspect as a contrast to avoiding ill. Simultaneously it is interesting that such a central quote is also clearly against individualism and for socialism. The question is How can individuals contribute to the society? In this context, it is also interesting to observer how Mill, already in the introduction, notes that there will always be those who think that the government should intervene less, and those that think it should intervene more. This problematic could not be more current as it seems that the republicans are today more dogmatic than ever about reducing government, while democrats try to look at the big picture and strive for progress. I feel that the problem is a consequence of Mill's philosophy, which takes liberty as an axiom, without further elaborating why liberty is important. Republicans accept that axiom as the ultimate objective without question, whereas democrats implicitly understand that we can achieve more than "just" liberty. This leads to my main observation regarding the insufficiency of Mill's proposition. Mill only states that liberty is desirable, but fails to specify why liberty is preferable. Is liberty an ultimate goal in itself, which does not require further elaboration, or is liberty a proxy for some other fundamental objective? Choosing axioms is always a difficult question, since an axiom is by definition a truth accepted as obvious without argument. A good axiom can thus not be explained. Liberty, on the other hand, can be explained at least as a prerequisite for happiness. Happiness research has shown that people need to feel like they are in control of their lives in order to feel happy. It is not the only requirement for happiness, but it is important. Since liberty can be seen as a tool for reaching happiness, perhaps happiness is the ultimate goal? Personally, I do believe that happiness is the ultimate goal, but if you are not convinced, for the sake of argument, you can choose to see it as an hypothesis. With the happiness-goal as an axiom, liberty becomes merely a subordinate tool for reaching that goal. It is an important tool - that is why it has so long been confused for the ultimate goal - and that is why the strict pursuit of liberty leads to so much problems. I have not yet found any similar arguments why the pursuit of happiness would lead to problems. The happiness-goals thus looks at least like a valid axiom. A consequence is that the dogmatic treatment of liberty should be softened. It is not the ultimate goal. Simultaneously, observe that for happiness, strictly speaking, we do not need freedom, but only a feeling of freedom. In other words, an illusion of freedom is sufficient for happiness. Ethically, a Matrix-like world with an illusion of freedom within absolute control is naturally extremely problematic, but demonstrates how liberty cannot be treated strictly. The film Matrix does, though, demonstrate how problematic a freedom based on illusion is. Another observation is that people need only an feeling of liberty, but I think that after some level of liberty, more liberty does not improve happiness any more. That is, there is a threshold level, after which people feel in control and after which increased liberty does not bring added improvements. In contrast, happiness is a measure were more is always better. I do not think, however, that absolute happiness is possible, because, for example, overcoming challenges is a good way to achieve happiness, but impossible without the risk of failure. It this an eternal goal, where improvement is always possible. Still, I do have to admit that happiness is a problematic concept. For one, happiness cannot be easily defined or measured. But in that sense, happiness is no different from liberty. An unambiguous definition of liberty as the absence of restrictions requires specification of which restrictions we are liberated from - an impossible task. In addition, it will be difficult to decide how to weigh the happiness of the majority over the minority. But again, this is a problem shared with the concept of liberty; how important is the liberty of the majority in comparison to the liberty of the minority? Mill solves this by asserting that people should be free only insofar as that their liberty does not harm other people. In the same spirit, we could require that the pursuit of happiness is allowed only when it does not diminish the happiness of other people.

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