The tyranny of common sense

“We may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtle and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy…”

– John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

We are reading John Stuart Mill (1806—1873) in my political philosophy class now, a walk in the park after finishing Hegel’s Philosophy of Right not too long ago. Mill’s work includes Utilitarianism – a philosophy concerned with the idea that contribution to the greatest common good defines the fundamental ethic principles by which all people should live, even as they pursue their own individual happiness – as well as On Liberty, which, up to the point where I’ve read it, explores the concept of social or civil freedom granted in a political society in which the freedom to have and express one’s opinions is valued. Mill argues that the “tyranny of the majority,” a concept he borrowed from Tocqueville, can act to oppress even a single person’s beliefs, thus robbing humanity of its right to a rich exploration of all possibilities in human thought.

Mill’s move away from the despotism of a political regime is meaningful first in his challenge to the definition of a ruler’s power, which he says derives directly from the people – not as a mandate as in the case of Locke’s or Hegel’s view of political authority, but rather as “the nation’s own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient of exercise.” (7) Mill then identifies the continuation of political control over the masses which, rather than through the system of government, occurs via the fear of “social stigma” (32), causing even the most powerful inchoate intellect to quail and withdraw into territory safe from recrimination by others. The human mind can only be expanded, Mill argues, through questioning, challenging the existing dogma, an exercise that can lead to greater understandings and truths for our species; however, it is this universal “battle of conscience and reason with orthodoxy” (33) that can defeat the prospects of the intellect.


An overused word in grad school is hegemony, and yet in this case, it makes sense to refer to this idea now, especially in light of the applicability of Mill’s ideas of how morality serves to limit the intellect of anyone not belonging to the “ascendant classes” as he calls the elites. The web page I linked to the above term “hegemony,” developed by Gramsci, contains a meaningful quote:

“’[Cultural] hegemony’…means the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as ‘common sense’.”

The tyranny of common sense seems to tie in easily with what Mill was trying to express; when the masses are no longer dominated by an autocratic force in the form of a monarch, societal forces in the form of a coherent and widely accepted worldview – a dominant ideology – continues to maintain control over behavior, values, and perceptions. It is in fact no longer necessary to require external political force in this case, except perhaps to bear out the legalistic requirements of the ruling classes, once social controls are put in place to govern people’s actions and self-view in the day-to-day, thus fulfilling society’s imperative to replicate itself.

So then how does freedom exist in such a prescriptive social environment where one’s liberty to act and believe in certain ways is subject to controls that are in fact internalized in most members of society? Such a relevant question to today’s world, and one for which I hope to find a bit more of the answer through Mill’s insights.


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