In this paper, I will argue that John Stuart Mill’s theories are the most reasonable compared to Plato, Marx, Locke, and Machiavelli. Moreover, Mill’s theories allow mankind to exercise individual rights to a greater extent than the theories of the other mentioned philosophers. More than those of Plato, Marx, Locke, or Machiavelli, John Stuart Mill’s theories are compelling because they are the most logically sensible and provide for the welfare of the people.
As mentioned, my standard for judging these theories is the extent to which they make logical sense and promote the welfare of the people. A good political system promotes the welfare of the people, so it follows that a political theory would also support this same goal. As far as making logical sense is concerned, a political theory that is logically constructed with sound reasoning is more likely than not to be well thought, feasible, and true. I will start with explaining why I do not find the other theorists compelling, and end with explaining why I find Mill the most compelling in the bounds of the criteria just explained.
The philosophies of Marx and of Plato are inherently idealistic, which in itself does not necessarily discredit the theories. Idealistic visions of the most perfect type of government are helpful in testing the efficacy of a political theory in the theoretical realm. Moreover, political philosophies are not created with direct implementation in mind. It is wrong to expect a political theory to be intended for direct application in politics. A discourse on political theory is intentionally distinct from a law or a constitution. It is wrong to confuse a law or constitution, which is intended for immediate implementation in politics, with a political theory, which is intended usually to influence opinion and real political policies. Although I have offered this argument that suggests the theories of Plato and Marx are not to be judged by their implementation, it is worthwhile to note that their implementation would depend on an evolved type of human nature, one that would recognize one’s place in society and the benefit to society of fulfilling one’s duty. This evolved human nature simply does not exist even today, much less to mention during the time of Plato.
Plato maintains that democracy is one of the lowest forms of government, and that it can decay into despotism “is fairly clear” (Plato 288). Plato thinks the best government is aristocracy (Plato 267). Part of my criteria for judging these theories is how well it provides for the welfare of the people. Granted, Plato has a somewhat valid argument that a great amount of freedom in a democracy may lead to undisciplined behavior. But an aristocracy is much less likely to have the welfare of the people in mind than a democracy. While democracy is not perfect, it by nature follows the will of the greatest number of people. Assuming that the majority of people act in their own best interest, then at least the majority is ensured its own welfare. With an aristocracy, there is no such insurance of general welfare. The only thing that is certain is that the aristocrats will rule, presumably according to their own interests. Additionally, Plato is willing to censor artistic materials. This assumes infallibility in the republic’s ability to discern whether works are beneficial to the state. I will discuss later in this paper about this concept, in reference to Mill. Most of the autocratic elements of Plato’s philosophy depend on a fundamental assumption that the government’s judgments are infallible, which is logically incorrect.
Marx maintains that everything in society is based on economics and production. This also forms the theoretical basis for many of his other theories. But this is a generalization that has many exceptions. The religious and charitable elements of society are not driven by capitalist economy; they are based on unrelated concepts of giving and kindness. Granted, religious houses and charitable institutions are fueled by monetary donations, but the fact that people are willing to relinquish their capitalist earnings for which they have toiled demonstrates even further the existence of a charitable or non-selfish motive.
Additionally, as briefly mentioned earlier, both Plato and Marx have twisted views of human nature that don’t correlate with reality to the extent that Mill does. Plato’s theories depend on the idea that people will somehow fall into their duty in society, and if they dare overstep their bounds, they are committing an “injustice.” Marx’s theories depend on the assumption that people will not be disheartened by the prospect of never owning property. Mill formulated his theories with a view of human nature that seems more accurate. Mill believed that humans were individuals and respected the inherent individual nature of man. In his discussion on the fallacy of custom, he noted that man is “not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing” (Mill 114). This is most in contrast to Plato and Marx, whose theories rest on the assumption that people will fall into their positions in life without following any “inward forces” that may motivate them to want more. Mill said that impulses are equally a part of human nature as are restraints (115). This is a true statement of human nature; one cannot ignore the existence of human impulses and emphasize restraints.
Locke’s ideas are not very realistic. There are issues with Locke’s theory of property, namely the labor theory of property, and there are issues with Locke’s natural rights theory. With the labor theory of property, which states that man makes something his property only when he has used his labor to take it out of nature (Locke 11), there is an issue that arises from the fact that the majority of the labor today uses machinery, factories, and various means of production. Someone must own these means of production. Locke’s labor theory of property does not account for ownership of the means of production. Locke championed the theory of natural rights, rights endowed by God that are inalienable. The whole concept of natural rights is, as Jeremy Bentham said, “rhetorical nonsense” (“Anarchical Fallacies”). Natural rights never truly existed in the first place. Natural rights are imaginary, so it is impossible for an imaginary object to be taken away. The notion of natural rights may be useful to society, but the apparent usefulness of an idea is never enough reason to overlook the truth value of the idea. A political theory based on these unrealistic concepts are difficult to take seriously in political situations that affect many people.
Machiavelli’s Prince was meant for distribution to those in positions of power. Accordingly, it deals exclusively with the interests of a single powerful person. Whereas the theories of Marx, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and Mill dealt with the welfare of all society, Machiavelli’s ideas have but one person’s welfare in mind. Granted, Machiavelli did advocate the prince to care for the welfare of the people, but Machiavelli makes it clear that this is a self-interested tactic aimed at perpetuating the Prince’s leadership. Caring for the welfare of the people in The Prince is about avoiding hatred of the Prince and maintaining good relations with the people (Machiavelli 64). Indeed, The Prince seems to be an accurate and probably very useful handbook for the autocrat. Benito Mussolini praised The Prince as “the statesman’s supreme guide” (Arditti). Although The Prince supports the welfare of the people, it only supports the welfare of the citizens as an auxiliary tactic for keeping the prince in power. The welfare of the people is not a primary objective of the prince. Therefore, as a mere tactic, the emphasis on the welfare of the people may be easily disposed of and replaced with another tactic. An ideal system of government would revolve around the welfare of the people as a matter of necessity.
The first part of my criteria for judging these theories is how much logical sense it makes. In this section, I will look at how John Stuart Mill’s theories make sense logically.
Mill’s comments about the flaws of democracy and republics are logical. A paradox of republics is that although they are often commonly referred to as exercises in “self-government” or “government by the people for the people,” the government does not always reflect the wishes of all the people. There are a few reasons for this that Mill wisely points out. Firstly, what seems to be the will of the majority is truly the will of only the most active part of society (Mill 66). These people are simply those who “succeed in making themselves accepted as a majority” (66). What is perceived as the “majority,” particularly concerning certain ideas about which people feel strongly, is often a false majority. Secondly, in a republic, those who exercise the power are not those over whom the power is exercised (65). Looking at the workings of a republic, this point becomes obvious as we see the political class making decisions that affect the rest of the public, without necessarily requiring the permission of those their decisions affect. Moreover, a democratic republic may give rise to a new kind of tyranny, which is what it was adopted to avoid. Democracies are apt to give way to a “tyranny of the majority,” a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville and repeated by Mill. This special kind of tyranny is practiced not by an authority acting independently, but by society itself. Although less threatening in terms of penalties than a dictatorial tyranny, the tyranny of the majority is more dangerous because it is the more difficult to escape. In this case, the party imposing tyranny does not live in a castle far away, but rather is your neighbors. Toppling this kind of tyranny would be more complex than assassinating a single dictator.
Mill’s harm principle as the basis for society taking action over the individual makes logical sense. We can start with a brief explanation of the harm principle. Society has jurisdiction over individual conduct only in so far as it affects the welfare of others. Accordingly, society can legitimately punish offenders after the fact, or place necessary restrictions on individual freedom as a preventative measure. But this does not apply to circumstances “when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like” (130). This is the essence of the harm principle. The harm principle generally relates to the justice system, a government’s institution for punishing people. The purpose of a criminal justice system is to prevent or at least minimize damage done to society. Damage done to an individual by the same individual, self-harm, is not within the scope of duty for a justice system; harm inflicted upon oneself is, under most practical circumstances, not harm inflicted upon society. Punishing the activities one does to oneself would require a separate institution from the justice system, and adding such a duty to the responsibility of a justice system would be a perversion of the justice system. In order for a government’s justice system to accomplish its goal of regulating harm upon society, it almost by definition has to follow the harm principle.
Issues regarding the harm principle necessarily arise when one thinks about how it may be applied. Mill’s answers to these issues are logical and consistent with his original theory. One issue is that there are some “bad social institutions” that necessarily involve harm being done to some party, such as in a contest, an “overcrowded profession,” or a “competitive examination” (Mill 148). Mill says the suffering these social institutions bring is unavoidable. When, however, the competition is won by cheating or force, is the only circumstance that allows for society to interfere (148). This view on necessary harm makes logical sense; there are no ways to mitigate the suffering of the loser without diminishing the prospect of reward in competition which brought the loser into the game in the first place, only ways to keep the competition fair. Mill has an answer to another issue that concerns the harm principle as it relates to restraint on trade of certain commodities. This also relates to that which is only potentially harmful to society, namely “how far liberty may legitimately be invaded for the prevention of crime, or of accident” (149). Although it is likely for the government to abuse their preventative role, it is a necessary one. It is within the government’s power to regulate, but not ban, the sale of poison. It is also within the government’s power to prevent accidents, such as by enforcing fire precautions. Mill notes that the government’s preventative measures against accidents do not infringe upon liberty. Liberty is the right to do what one pleases, and falling upon an accident most unlikely to be something one would wish to do (149). In regard to goods or services which can cause harm or evil, such as prostitution, gambling, or alcohol, Mill believes that the end users should not be punished, but instead the sellers, or those who profit from the activity perceived as evil. The profiteer has a vested interest in people committing this evil. Unlike the user, who is only harming himself, the profiteer might as well be instigating the harm upon others, making the actions of the profiteer under the jurisdiction of society. Mill is also in favor of sin taxes, because they limit the availability of an evil product to the very few without enacting full-fledged prohibition (153). In describing various applications of his harm principle, he brings the theoretical harm principle to life and clarifies common questions. They also logically follow from his original theory, so they make logical sense.
It is never appropriate to assume infallibility. This is a theory of Mill that is well founded and rational. Here is the line of logic that rationalizes the notion that we must always assume fallibility. Few will deny that they are immune to mistakes, that their judgment is absolutely impeccable (Mill 78). If one is liable to make an error in judgment, then it is reasonable to say that all of their judgments are equally liable to this possibility for error; that is, every opinion held to be true has a probability, however small, to be false. Consequently, it is never correct to maintain an opinion or an idea to be absolutely true with no possibility for it to be false. To say that one’s opinion can be absolutely true is to say that one’s judgment is absolutely infallible. So this leads us to the conclusion that we can never be absolutely sure that an apparently false idea is indeed false. Besides, as a further proof of the subjectivity of opinions, people in different geographic regions of the world hold starkly different views on the same matters. It is the same accident which makes one “a Churchman in London [that] would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Peking” (78). Thus we have the sound basis for assuming infallibility.
Following from the notion of assuming fallibility, it is equally wrong to assume a particular way of life as wrong. In so far as it does not affect others, the right to individuality of action is just as important as the right to individuality of thought. People should be permitted to try various modes of life and various experiments of living (Mill 112). Diversity, in contrast to homogenous adherence to custom, is good for society. Diversity is especially beneficial because mankind is imperfect and incapable of fully realizing all sides of the truth (112). In the absence of a superhuman ability to recognize truth, it is necessary for there to be a broad pool of choices in ways to conduct one’s life, gathered through experimentation. For there to be such a pool of choices, needless to say, there must be liberty of action.
The second part of my criteria for judging these theories is the extent to which it promotes the welfare of the people. In this section, I will show that Mill’s theories are more likely to lead to a high level of human welfare.
Mill’s harm principle is the antidote to tyranny. If government is permitted to interfere with individual rights only in cases where harm to others is involved, then under such a doctrine, it would be hard for a would-be tyrant to justify infringing upon the rights of the citizens. Assuming that the harm principle is enforced in its truest form, all incidents of government interference would be justified. So Mill’s harm principle naturally gives way to individual rights. Individual rights is inextricably tied to well-being of the citizens, because individual rights allows people the freedom to carry out the activities associated with happiness. Consequently, the harm principle leads to the welfare of the people, making it a very beneficial political theory.
Moreover, the harm principle directly benefits the welfare of people by preventing people from being harmed by a person’s actions. This is a benefit of Mill’s harm principle, although it is not exclusive to Mill since punishment of offenders was a practice long before Mill wrote down this theory. To be precise, the harm principle was intended to place limits on the punishment system already in place. Nevertheless, the harm principle sets a rather specific and appropriate standard for the use of punishment-for the purpose of preventing damage and thus promoting the welfare of general society.
Mill’s theory that infallibility should never be assumed is conducive to liberty. It allows for liberty of thought, liberty of discussion, and all other liberties which follow from these two. When a government never assumes infallibility in opinions, then it will permit free discussion of all topics, even of its policies. A society that understands the fallibility of its opinions would tolerate opinions to the contrary of the established opinions. In this ideal state, the government and society at large would necessarily grant equal rights to all opinions in terms of their permission to be voiced. “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary 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” (Mill 77). So a consequence of assuming infallibility is to never stifle an opinion, however false it may appear. Since one may never truly be confident about the truth value of an opinion, the truth or falsity of that opinion is equally likely. Every opinion has a likelihood of being either true or false, so no opinion is exempt. If one stifles a true opinion, then the damage is obvious: one loses an opportunity for truth (Mill 77). If one stifles a false opinion, then one loses something just as important: the opportunity to illuminate the truth by its contrast with error (Mill 77). Thus an adherence to the constant assumption of infallibility would insure liberties to free thought and discussion. A great part of the welfare of a people is securing their liberties to free expression, so this theory is beneficial to the welfare of the people.
All of Mill’s arguments are further strengthened by his apparent rigorous evaluation of his arguments. Fitting with his philosophy which discusses this point itself, Mill carefully examines all sides of his statements and arguments. He even makes strong arguments for the opposing side that are nearly as convincing as his own side of the argument. The discipline with which he examines his arguments makes them seem highly likely to be true. Almost all, if not all, of the major points that Mill makes in On Liberty are preceded or followed by a counter argument. Neither Plato, Locke, Machiavelli, or Marx use this extent of rigorous detail in their arguments. Mill also explains various aspects of his arguments at great length, although he isn’t the only theorist among this group to do so.
In conclusion, Mill’s theories are the most compelling compared to those of Plato, Locke, Marx, and Machiavelli. Mill’s theories make logical sense and provide for the welfare and individual liberty of the people. The theories of Plato, Marx, Locke, and Machiavelli either do not make logical sense or do not provide adequately for the welfare of the people. Thus the theories of Mill prevail as the most compelling according to this criteria for judging the theories.
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