Criticism of On Liberty

The following is an excerpt from On Liberty by John Stuart Mill.

Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable.Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.

Mill clearly expresses in this passage that liberty only applies to some, and he later mentions that that “some” is determined by their capability “of being improved by free and equal discussion." "Until then,” he states, ”there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.”

The purpose of this short composition is to reveal a danger of the cited passage. The specific sentence that shall be focused on is the one in bold.

Even though Mill is a man of morality, his belief of despotism for barbarians merits both caution and restraint. The danger of his belief lies not in the falsity of its logic, but in the probability of its misuse. His belief in its foundation can be criticized in that there are no such barbarians that he speaks of. However, the benefit of the doubt shall be given to him for now. Let us assume that there are entire races of barbarians which have not yet “attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion.” For these societies, can despotism be “a legitimate mode of government”, “provided the end be their improvement”? The short answer is yes; it makes logical sense.

However, it should be stated again that the danger of his belief lies not in the falsity of its logic, but in the probability of its misuse. It is much more likely that his belief will be used unjustly to colonize other societies, that there will be an egocentric and greedy ruler, and that despots who truly believe themselves to be philosopher kings are, in reality, guilty of self-deception.