Mill and Barry on the Foundations of Liberal Rights

The Philosophers' Magazine 46:78-82 (2009)
In On Liberty, Mill famously propounded a view of the good life as the autonomous life. On this view, it is crucial that people develop and exercise, to a high degree, their ability to reason independently about what to believe and what to aim at in life. It is also important that they be able to freely hold and express their beliefs and effectively act on their aims. As Mill put it: The mental and the moral, like the muscular, powers are improved only by being used. ... He who lets the world ... choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan of life for himself ... must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings.... It is possible that he may be guided in some good path ... without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? (p. 56). Two of Mill’s arguments for familiar liberal rights—which include children’s right to a decent education, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and freedom of association— appeal to this ideal of autonomy. First, these rights are generally crucial for establishing the conditions under which people can freely make up their own minds about what to believe and how to live, and to act accordingly. Second, a society that respected these rights would, Mill thought, be more likely to have a vibrant public culture, in which divergent opinions and lifestyles lead to a ‘generally high scale of mental activity’, which together ‘raise even persons of the most ordinary intellect to something of the dignity of thinking beings’ (p. 33).
Keywords John Stuart Mill  Brian Barry  Rights
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