Essay: John Stuart Mill and Sigmund Freud

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The relationship between man and society has interested philosophers for millennia. On one hand, the structure and institutions of civil society can be viewed as necessary, largely because they provide protection to every individual from the unrestricted desires and behavior of others, and of the masses. On the other hand, some of the worst examples of human behavior might be substantially attributable to the social and psychological dynamics inherent in group societies and communities.

The classic liberal perspective, such as that outlined in great detail by John Stuart Mill, regards the state as a protector of the individual but considers the inherent existence of oppositional ideas and social forces as a precondition of moral and political progress in society. To Mill, the development and evolution of moral and political progress are merely long-term reflections of the manner and degree to which civilized societies manage to recognize and balance the respective differences of ideas and social forces that exist within large communities of individuals. Mill argued that the existence of coherent moral codes, objective principles reflected in modern law, and the framework and operations of the modern political and governmental institutions only exist because their evolution was required and inspired by the natural existence of oppositional ideas and social forces in human communities.

Meanwhile, the contrary view, such as that espoused by Sigmund Freud, suggests that civilization does not confer exclusively positive benefits on the individuals in society. On one hand, formal institutions and social structure and hierarchies provide certain social controls and protections; on the other hand, they do so only at a very substantial price to the individual. To Freud, much of the psychological angst and the serious problems it generates in human life are direct consequences of the same social structure and institutions that form the bases of civilized societies.

Analysis of Mill's Position

In 1859, John Stuart Mill authored his classic treatise, on Liberty, and also expressed his position justifying Western imperialism in a Few Words on Non-Intervention. In the former, Mill attempted to outline objective principles to distinguish the justified exercise of government authority over individual rights and autonomy from the unjustified interference with those rights. Arguably, Mill's analysis failed to achieve at least one of its objectives because it merely reframed the existing issues in various formulations, but without ever resolving the underlying dilemmas that generated them in the first place.

For example, Mill does succeed in providing a philosophically flexible and nearly comprehensive view of what types of "harms" every person in society deserves to expect protection from by the state. In that sense, on Liberty advanced political philosophy because it expanded the notion of what rights are entitled to protection. However, Mill fails to propose any conceptual approach for recognizing the limits of what kinds of harm justify protection and fails to define concepts such as offensive, ultimately providing no help in understanding what standards (or whose standards) justify interference with individual liberty.

One might argue that in the latter work, a Few Words on Non-Intervention, Mill's analysis of the supposed justification of Western imperialism is plagued by the same problem. Specifically, Mill relies on his arbitrary pejorative classification of certain peoples as "barbarous" and then uses that convenient characterization to argue that Britain was not bound by any moral restrictions in exerting control through force on foreign lands occupied by "barbarians." Mill suggested that restrictions on foreign powers based on national sovereignty were necessarily dependant on the concept of reciprocity. Mill recognized the sovereign rights of other "civilised" societies and expressly acknowledged that only "defensive" purposes justified interference in foreign affairs and never "aggressive" purposes. But Mill strictly differentiated the respective rights of any peoples against foreign intervention by virtue of his notion of civilization.

His first rationale for suspending the ordinary restrictions on foreign intervention in sovereign territory was that without the expectation or hope of reciprocity, there was no corresponding moral rule against interference. Uncivilized societies could not participate in the international dynamic upon which reciprocity depended. Mill's second rationale was the extremely ethnocentric and patronizing belief that so-called "barbarous" peoples could only benefit from conquest by more advanced societies. To justify that position, Mill cites the Ancient Roman conquests of Dacia, Gaul, Numidia, and Spain and asks, rhetorically, whether it can be argued that any of those civilizations suffered for having been taken over by superior civilizations that shared their culture with them and ultimately inspired and made possible their ascension from barbarism to civility as nations and peoples.

According to Mill, these barbarous nations "… have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government are the universal rules of morality between man and man." Presumably, that means "superior" nations such as Britain were justified in invading and asserting authority on foreign soil occupied by societies that failed to meet the criteria defined by Britain for what constituted "civilized society." So long as they refrained from slaughtering those populations in the manner perpetrated by Columbus and the other Spanish conquerors, no moral principles prevented Britain from superimposing her concept of society on foreign peoples.

This position is, of course, substantially dependent on Mill's conclusion that social and political progress grew as a response to oppositional ideas and social forces. In Mill's view, modern nations such as Britain had already developed the necessary social structure and institutions to resolve the natural "barbarous" impulses of human beings that exist in the wild. Meanwhile, the peoples still living in those barbarous conditions elsewhere had simply not yet evolved sufficiently to reap all of the benefits of civilized society. Since there can be no question that civilized society in preferable to uncivilized society and that life for the individual living in a civilized society in incomparably better that life for the individual living in a barbarous society, the ancient Romans and the modern British alike were equally morally justified in imposing their respective social order on foreign peoples who still lacked civilization. Therefore, to Mill, not only is civilization beneficial to mankind, but it is so beneficial that its delayed development in any region necessarily justifies its acceleration, even through the imposition of foreign nations at their whim.

Analysis of Freud's Position

While Sigmund Freud's life work focused on a different sphere from Mill's his insights into the relationship between the individual and society nevertheless provide a stark contrast. Whereas Mill believed that civilization is such a beneficial structure that less civilized peoples have no autonomous rights against more civilized societies that desire to control impose their civilization on them, Freud maintained that civilization actually exerts a tremendous price on the individual. According to Freud, modern society is the source of personal angst or discontent by virtue of the many pressures and obligations imposed on individuals by society.

According to Freud, human societies represent the "renunciation of instinct" of the individual and result in the establishment and search of "false standards of measurement" such as the "power, success and wealth [that they seek] for themselves and admire & #8230; in others, and that [as a result,] they underestimate what is of true value in life." Fred suggested that the obligation to live up to the standards and expectations set by society generates "too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks" and that "to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures" by which he means psychological mechanisms, substitutions, and escapes that present acute problems and that represent specific obstacles to human happiness. These notions introduced by Freud of the psychological price on the individual of living in society would later be incorporated by various 20th century sociological theorists in connection with concepts such as anomie and strain theory; they consider individual disappointment and the unequal access to resources necessary for economic success and upward social mobility as major factors in understanding social and class conflict in modern society.

Freud also questioned the utility of the so-called "Golden Rule" upon which much of Mill's political and philosophical positions relied. Specifically, Freud argued that "the commandment, 'Love thy neighbour as thyself', is the strongest defence against human aggressiveness…" but also suggested that this commandment is impossible to fulfill because it requires"… such an enormous inflation of love [that it] can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty. By that, Freud seems to suggest that the main pillar upon which Judeo-Christian societies depend provides only an illusory standard that merely deflect the instincts it was intended to control.

More importantly, Freud goes on to argue that "…anyone who follows such a precept in present-day civilization only puts himself at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the person who disregards it." The implication is that the base instinct of human beings to be selfish and self-centered and to do only what they perceive as being in their own interests is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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