promoting the unwanted, redheaded stepchild that is individual liberty

John Stuart Mill and ‘social tyranny’

In Individual Sovereignty, liberty and rights on March 10, 2010 at 1:35 am

I haven’t studied John Stuart Mill since high school and vaguely recall something about utilitarianism. But the other day a friend of mine gave me a copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Now I’ve only delved into the first chapter so I’m not exactly well-versed on Mill’s philosophy.

However, I was introduced to his concept of “social tyranny.” Basically, social tyranny is the collective “voice” of the people drowning out that of the individual. It is majority rule or rule by the loudest.

Mill contends that social tyranny is more dangerous than government tyranny because “it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the souls itself.”

Social tyranny is the reason I fear socialism. It is the reason I fear conservatism. Both ideologies mean well. They see problems within a society and try to remedy them through the “collective voice of the people” otherwise known as government and law.

But too often, the good-intentioned ideologues forget about the individual. Too busy envisioning the society they consider fair and just, they lose sight of liberty and inherent rights. Such is the case with legislation that attempts to define marriage, affirmative action and drug laws.

Is there a balance to be reached between individual rights and the collective good? I’m not sure. Perhaps Mill will enlighten me.

  1. Jessica,

    The last time I checked the balance was called a Democracy. Maybe there is something better but I have not read or heard about it.


  2. Jessica,

    Culture determines how we value social influence. Japanese folks, for example, have been shown to have different patterns of brain activity than both other orientals and westerners. Our cultures (including language) objectively differentiate how we think.

    It is a common trait of oriental cultures to have a different emphasis (compared to western cultures) on the group vs. the individual. This blog, if written from stereotypical Japanese values, would have suggested that JSM is a subversive who seeks to destroy valuable cohesion in society.

    – Jim

  3. Jim,

    I agree. Sometimes I wonder how much of my individualism is a result of my being American.


    Democracy is what allows for “social tyranny.” If the people did not have a voice, only authoritarian tyranny would be possible. Democracy, without safeguards and representation, is mob rule.

  4. Anson, you would have been very individualistic even if you have been reared as a Japanese. Americans and other westerners are socialized to make their individuality overt and comparable in priority to relationships with others. Japanese are still very much individuals, but socialized to express it obliquely and to give the group priority over themselves. Japanese folks even have enough individuality to get into fights and to assimilate democracy. Jim

  5. Oh – Jessica – I was confused! It looked like Anson signing off.

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