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E. Moral Philosophy: 2nd Student Essay

Vasco Kunft

What light does the ethics of dialogue shed on the problems that Mill was grappling with in his essay On Liberty?

This is more political then ethical question, or is it?

Divorcing political philosophy from ethics is a trick used by some authors to find an alibi for unethical or ethically controversial conduct. Both ethics and politics stem from the same basic root, survival, survival of an individual or society. Both determine the quality of the survival i.e. the quality of our life. Politics of lately however sometimes resemble more the art of survival of a separate species, the politician.

The main motivation for entering politics is the hunger to control, decide, general desire for power, the fulfilment of self-importance, hardly the moral equipment required for the management of public affairs. Every budding politician should therefore reed Mills essay On Liberty to remind him/ her why he/ she should have sound advisors. Most of the social ills Mill criticised are sill prevalent today. This would indicate that his trust in the 'maturing' of society was misplaced and his contention that reason have very little to do with peoples decision making well founded.

It is difficult for somebody who was exposed to harsh oppression by the state to discuss liberty without an emotion and see it only as a just concept and not a basic necessity. However bearing in mind the men limitation posed by unwillingness to reason, dependency on habit, susceptibility to doubtful leadership, the concept as outlined by Mill can be misused and can lead to absurd situations. This brings us back to the question of politics versus ethics. Do we strive for the absolute moral ideal or do we try for the achievable with the material at hand? Combination of both sounds like the pragmatic answer. Politics should not concern itself with the ideal society as it inevitably leads to forming of an ideology. Politics should serve and be subservient to the needs of society as it evolves. However politicians should be reminded that there is somebody searching for the moral ideal against which they will be measured. The ruling word is searching, forming an ideology implies that the search is finished and we should be led to the final bliss. Ideology because of its final goal towards which is marching is inherently intolerant.

Tolerance, intolerance, again both can be traced to the same root, self-protection.

The tolerant is hoping that his/ her opinion will be respected and tolerated and therefore his/ her life will be easier. The intolerant is endeavouring for his/ her opinion to prevail thus ensuring that his/ her life is easier. Intolerance demands outer and enforceable discipline, tolerance demands inner voluntary discipline and acute perception of the border, which it cannot overstep. Both can be quite reasonably defended, but intolerance requires more blind faith then reason and tolerance fine judgement.

Mill put great emphasis on discussion and education. The later is usually very much influenced by the government of the day. By discussion can be achieved a lot, but discussion have certain prerequisites. Usually the participants, the topics, agenda and certain rules are pre-selected thus limiting the possible outcome.

Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

'We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.'

'He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience.'

Those two quotes shows how close Mill comes to the principles of a dialogue. It also shows that he is full aware of the danger of unrestricted tolerance.

'The claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society.'

This quote on the other hand shows how far utilitarianism is removed from the liberty of an individual. The whole chapter shows haw much faith Mill put in what he calls best man. True, it is more of political then ethical guide and one will anticipate the best man to be in politics, after all we voted them in and they were human before they become politicians. As such they practiced dialogue from early childhood (e.g. what game are we going to play) and if they were leaders already then and they opinion prevailed then they were open to criticism if the game was not a success. Opinions and political opinions in particular are very much influenced by the media. Lately the newsman are trying to be more of a opinion makers then news reporters, news served with pre-made opinion arrived at with out any discussion or dialogue lead to apathy, only lively discussion with the criteria we apply to dialogue where the last voice is heard is meaningful.

Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being

Dialogue is the easiest and most spontaneous form of communication and can be therefore the cure for the lack of spontaneity Mill laments about. To develop responsible individuality the mode of teaching should sway towards a dialogue at school level and not to the ineffability of the teacher and the material he teaches.

Mediocrity is something to be feared as it lower the standard for everybody. The acceptance that we are different, that we can learn something form each other and if we respect the view of the other, then he/ she may (not to be taken for granted) respect ours and we may reach acceptable compromise is promising more progress than any other form of coexistence, coincidentally they are also basic ingredients of a successful dialogue.

Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual

How can we arrive at clear definition of harm, who will determine what harm is, those are very dangerous and murky waters, the power to determine if falling in the wrong hands can result from free for all to absolute regimentation in the name of good for the whole. The disapproval of fellow man is also losing its power, a lot of things, which were scorned, are today tolerated by society. They are still regarded as morally doubtful, but who cares if they bring success. Authority of society represented by the elected government is slowly changing to the authority of the unelected bureaucrat and laws are bypassed by various rules and regulations. The more is the power centralised the less is any meaningful dialogue possible. The only solution is a maximal decentralisation of power and harmonising laws on the feedback from local authorities.


'Here we are again, who form the opinion of the society, who speaks for the society, is it the representation of the majority? But we know that majority can be seduced to wrongdoing. Are we just hoping that the voice of reason will prevail? If we take the moral dialogue as a tool to moral life, than the freedom to engage in such, free from any restriction must be guaranteed and the best we can hope for is that the results of such a free engagement between individuals and groups will permeate upwards.