John Stuart Mill defends the superiority of democracy over all other types of government by stressing the importance of participation in which all a society’s citizens partake. Thus, he argues that democracy is superior only when the active character predominates over the passive character. After all, it is in fact citizen participation that makes democracy work, and therefore, it is absolutely necessary that citizens are of the active type rather than the passive type.
Mill compares these two types of character to describe the reasoning behind why activeness is better than passiveness in a democratic society. First of all, it is important to understand what Mill means when he describes the passive character. For Mill, the passive character is the man who does not care about the improvement of human affairs. He is unwilling to take the energy to make society around him a better place. He is content with the way things are and will not take the effort to make change.
Thus, Mill argues that most men personally prefer that their neighbors are of the passive type. “The passiveness of our neighbors increases our sense of security…. A contented character is not a dangerous rival (49)”. It is therefore a popular desire that one’s neighbor is passive. For one is secure in one’s passivity when one’s neighbor is also passive, and this popular conformity is precisely what Mill criticizes. Conforming to this popular desire only hinders the thriving of democracy and human affairs.
However, though we may prefer our neighbors to be content, it is clear that “the improvement in human affairs is wholly the work of the uncontented characters (49). ” That is, Mill declares that human affairs cannot improve if the people take a passive, apathetic attitude. It can only be done through activity and a willingness to participate. For Mill, the active character is the man who has mental excellence and the drive to continually improve human affairs. He is always willing to take the energy to make society around him a better place.
According to Mill, “all intellectual superiority is the fruit of active effort (49). ” Since the improvement of human affairs depends a great deal on intellectual superiority, the active character is needed in society. He further develops this idea of the importance of activity when he states, “The self-benefiting qualities are all on the side of the active and energetic character: and the habits and conduct which promote the advantage of each individual member of the community, must be at least a part of those which conduce most in the end to the advancement of the community as a whole (49-50).
” It is therefore important to society as a whole that people adopt an active character. He clearly believes that all the benefits of society come from those who actively partake in creating them. Additionally, not only are there social benefits to this active character, but there are obvious individual self-improvements that arise as well. It is through the growth of the “energetic character” that gives individuals a greater sense of moral being.
Through thought and discussion, individuals are allowed to grow and learn more about not only the opinions of others, but also about themselves. Being active, therefore, enriches their lives and gives them a greater moral understanding of themselves through the power of intellect. Mill argues that passive characters work well in governments ruled by one or a few because such irresponsible rulers would rather be left unquestioned by their people; it is more than they can handle.
However, Mill argues that such a government is unjust, as he believes that a monarchy would cause its citizens to be “without any potential voice in their own destiny. They exercise no will in respect to their collective interests. All is decided for them by a will not their own, which it is legally a crime for them to disobey (47). ” It would rob them of intellectual growth and mental discussion, which he believes is a primary element of individual freedom.
Not only will monarchial rule restrict their intellectual growth, but also at the same time, refusing to use one’s intellect will in turn leave them subject to monarchial rule. For without active participation in political decision-making, then the freedom of thought and discussion is relinquished to a state where thought and discussion do not matter, and that state is a monarchial one. In the chapter entitled, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion” in his book On Liberty, he discusses the importance of thought and discussion.
It is, after all, intellect and mental exercise that provide the full potential for human development; that is what makes us free. He states, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (113). ” In other words, no one has the right to silence the opinions of others, which is the underlying reason for Mill that absolute governments restrict individual liberty.
According to Mill, individuals have the capacity of diverse opinions and beliefs, and such a discussion of beliefs is healthy. By “discussion,” Mill does not mean coercing one’s own opinion onto another; rather, “discussion” means openly conversing with one another in a healthy exchange of intellect and mental exercise, a principal element in human freedom. Such an exchange cannot be found in a society ruled by an absolute government, for there, the opinion of the people is inconsequential.
Because such a government is restricting and unjust, democracy is ideally the best form of government, for it allows for people to voice their opinions for the sake of their own interests and for the sake of improving their lives. However, democracy cannot thrive without the active character, and so people must be of the active type. When people are active, they exercise their intellectual abilities to improve human affairs, affairs, which will ultimately benefit them in the end. In a democracy, people are given this chance. In it, a man “is called upon…
to weigh interests not his own; to be guided, in case of conflicting claims, by another rule than his private partialities; to apply, at every turn, principles and maxims which have for their reason of existence the common good…. He is made to feel himself one of the public, and whatever is for their benefit to be for his benefit (52). ” Undoubtedly, it is through activity that democracy can thrive, and it is through democracy that the pursuit of the common good is able to flourish. However, is the mere opportunity to participate enough, or must there also be actual participation?
Mill certainly believes so. For being human is more than just being content with passivity. It is about being a part of something greater. It is about being a part of society and actively participating in it so that individual freedom may thrive not only for the good of the individual, but also for the good of society as a whole. Give people the ability to care for their country, and sure enough, they will care for it; and in the end, the participation of the people will prove to be beneficial for all individuals in a societal sense as well as in a moral sense.
Whether or not the mere availability of opportunity to voice opinions does enough to create such active characters is the question that Mill addresses, and it is clear to him that though it does not guarantee that active characters will arise, it is at least better than having no opportunity at all. It is clear that Mill makes the distinction between the passive character and the active character to prove the point that the latter makes for the effectiveness of democracy. Without an active character, then people are left without democracy.
Instead, they will allow for a single ruler to control them all, which will restrict their personal liberties of intellectual growth of thought and discussion. Democracy is ideal because it does not restrict the personal liberties of the individual, unlike that of absolute monarchy. Thus, democracy must be allowed to flourish. Only with active character can democracy flourish, as active characters of “public spirit” can provide the participation that is necessary in a democratic society.