Philosophy Classic On Tolerating Stupid But Harmless “Mormonites”

One of my favorite books is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a mid-19th century British work of political philosophy, and still an influential classic of libertarian thought.  This very short book is really just an extended essay showing how government authority can only be exercised when people’s actions harm the safety or property of others. 

Right at the end of chapter four of this five chapter work, Mill gives a fascinating example of what he’s talking about: consider the Mormons.  Deluded practitioners of an intellectually baseless religion (Mill says), they are nonetheless hurting nobody other than themselves, and that voluntarily.  His dismissal is pretty funny in its absolute sanctimony; alas, more than a century and a half of further history has failed to train otherwise bright and fair people to analyze religion objectively.  Anyway, to Mill, “Mormonites” are exactly the kind of problem that regulation-happy do-gooders would love to rush in and solve by government fiat, but Mill says that this is precisely the sort of stupid but harmless thing (to society in general) that we need to tolerate. 

Here’s the paragraph in question, and I’ve highlighted some passages I think are especially intriguing, and added one critical thought.  I also split it up into several smaller paragraphs–in Mill’s text, this as all together.  Besides the grotesque illustration of a solid principle–allowing Mormons the freedom of individual liberty–there’s another great idea here: at the end of the passage, Mill warns about the attitude that many conservative commentators say we are now seeing, and which Mark Steyn has dubbed “civilizational exhaustion,” the collective lack of will to preserve that body of identity that has always been called “civilization,” resulting in the slow erosion of that identity by, as Mill puts it, “energetic barbarians.” 

I cannot refrain from adding to these examples of the little account commonly made of human liberty, the language of downright persecution which breaks out from the press of this country, whenever it feels called on to notice the remarkable phenomenon of Mormonism. Much might be said on the unexpected and instructive fact, that an alleged new revelation, and a religion founded on it, the product of palpable imposture, not even supported by the prestige of extraordinary qualities in its founder, is believed by hundreds of thousands, and has been made the foundation of a society, in the age of newspapers, railways, and the electric telegraph.  [So this religion is so obviously wrong that it doesn’t even warrant explaining why it’s so obviously wrong.  Nice.  What makes it even worse, apparently, is the rise of such a religion in our modern age, when we’re supposed to be too evolved and refined for such crude crap.]  Continue reading