Freedom of Knowledge

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Freedom of knowledge

Johannes Gutenberg took the idea of printing by moveable type and turned it into a publishing system. In doing so he changed the world. If you told him in 1468 – the year he died – that the Bible he had published in 1455 would undermine the authority of the Catholic Church, power the Renaissance and the Reformation, enable the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, create new social classes and even change our concept of childhood, he would have looked at you blankly. But there lives among us today a man who has done something similar, and survived to see the fruits of his work.

He is Tim Berners-Lee, and he conceived the system for turning the internet into a publishing medium. Just over 15 years ago – on August 6, 1991, to be precise – he released the code for his invention on to the internet. He called it the world-wide web, and had the inspired idea that it should be free so that anyone could use it.

(John Naughton, Observer published in New Zealand Herald, 21 August 2005, A8)


The Historical Context

15th – 18th Century

• The spread of literacy and printing
• Freedom of thought and speech
‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties'. John Milton (1644) Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty on Unlicensed Printing

18th Century Enlightenment
• the ideas of liberalism led to democratic politics

Enlightened intellectual periods
• Greece in the 5th and 4th C BC
• Cairo, Damascus, Constantinople, Baghdad A.D. 7-9th C
• China and India at different times in the first millennium

• Why didn't these periods of enlightenment produce democracy?
• What else is needed to ensure that democracy becomes the political system?

Liberalism's Role
Expanding economy not sufficient
Democracy requires commitment to freedom of thought and to the toleration of that freedom

19th Century Classical Liberal ideals

(John Stuart Mill)

• Social contract government
• Parliamentary institutions
• Citizenship
• Freedom of speech and the press
• Tolerance
• Impartial law
• Human rights
• Merit and hard work rewarded
• Reason not superstition
• Individual freedom
• Human agency
• Public – private division
• Separation of church and state

Influential Writers
• John Locke (1689) Second Treatise on Civil Government
limits to the authority of the ruler

• Adam Smith (1776) An Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations
restrictions on government cause economic prosperity

• John Stuart Mill (1869) On Liberty
The individual is sovereign

• Alexis de Tocqueville (1833) Democracy in America
Civil society (1831) – see Gustafson, pp16-7
The actions of individuals acting together for their own interests and in the interests of the community creates a workable relationship between individuals and society.

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MLA Citation:
"Freedom of Knowledge." 23 Mar 2018
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John Stuart Mill's Concerns about Democracy

1. Liberty and Tyranny

• The tyranny of the autocrat
Replaced with
• The tyranny of the majority
• The tyranny of public opinion

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
On Liberty, Chapter One

2. Reason and Debate

• Reason must be tested not merely asserted
• ‘Reason that puts itself on trial' (Kant)

It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right.
There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. 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.

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.
On Liberty Chapter 2 ‘On the liberty of thought and discussion'

A Liberal critique of the New Zealand Draft Curriculum, 2006

‘Relating to Others
Relating to others is about interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. The competency includes the ability to listen actively, recognise different points of view, negotiate, and share ideas.' p. 11

3. Individual Liberty

• No liberty without reason
• Danger of conformity

He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one. It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm's way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
Mill, J. S. (1869) Chapter 3 ‘On Individuality, as one of the elements of well beings' On Liberty

Kant, I. (1784) What is Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! (Dare to know - Horace). "Have courage to use your own reason!" – that is the motto of enlightenment.

Critical Thinking (ie scientific thinking)

Critique of the New Zealand Curriculum, 2006

‘Current scientific knowledge has its origins in many different cultures and periods of history.' P.20
This statement can be challenged. In fact, while a number of technologies, eg gunpowder, and knowledge, eg. Algebra, originate in non-Western countries, the majority of technologies and, more importantly, the scientific method itself – of subjecting everything to doubt and criticism, - owes most to the processes of change that occurred in the West: the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. It is argued (Landes, 1998; Nanda, 2003) that attempts to ‘edit out' the contribution of the West to modern knowledge and progress is part of the anti-Western movement of the past few decades.

Ongoing classical liberal ideas
1. Individual liberty

The relationship between the individual and society?

• Ontology of the individual
• Individual prior to social groups
• Celebration of the individual (Whitman)
• Liberal individual - free citizen
• Self-directed, autonomous, self-creating
• Responsible for his or her own life
• Primary aim of freedom -develop individuality
• Free individual - energetic
• Opposed to fatalism
• Eccentric individual valued
• Individualism ‘rich, diversified and animating'
• Increases the value of life itself
• Leads to change & progress
• Opposed to uniformity and conformity
• Equality not sameness

‘The mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom is itself a service'. (Mill reading)

‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others'.
(J. S. Mill Reading)

• Limits of individual liberty? (Self-inflicted harm)
• Extent of state authority? (Social cost, school lunches, zoning)
• Harm and offence (eg. pornography)
• Liberty of action & consequences

2. Role of government

Rejected statism and centralisation.
Freedom - limiting the power of government,
Government's task - protect equal liberty of citizens
Political authority restricted by the law
Use private services to curtail central government
Problem with too much devolution
Public-private separation
Extent of devolution of education (Mill)

New Zealanders – more statist than liberal?

‘To doubt the power of the state is very rare in the Colonies, and when a Colonial finds himself face to face with some difficulty it is almost always to the State that he first appeals. To what else indeed should he turn? In the early days of a colony there is usually little cooperation between the immigrants; the Government is often the only bond which unites them, and some time is necessary before natural groupings are formed. The Government is thus brought to perform functions which in the old countries would lie within the province of private initiative. (p.54).
‘What would you do for us? What would you do for me? This is the classic question of the voter to the candidate.' Siegfried quotes Robert Stout (1899) - ‘Individualism, in the old English Liberal sense, is at a discount in our Colony. The Government is no longer deemed an enemy of the people, but, on the contrary, it is believed to be the benign father and mother whose every care is for the people, who are not considered capable of regulating their affairs without such assistance'. (Siegfried, [1914] 1982 p. 55).
Critique of the Strategi Plan and the Draft Curriculum
• Imposing values
• Imposing equity

3. Rule of Law
• protection of individual freedom,
• not for the control of people
• ‘negative freedom'
(Immanuel Kant, David Hume)

4. Freedom of expression
• Freedom of thought, of speech, of the press
• Intellectual freedom – testing of opinion
• Freedom of religion and freedom from religion (secularism)
• Importance of disagreement
• New ideas vital for progress
• Need for ideas to be scrutinised debated
• Idea of dialectics – thesis v antithesis)

5. Freedom to be equal
• Freedom needs to be used
• Equality of opportunity
• Equality doesn't mean sameness.
• Rules of the game are equal
• Universal system of education
• Not up to the state to provide equality (equity)

• Opportunities need to be real
• Will individuals use opportunities?
• Individual responsibility

6. Economic freedom
Adam Smith (1776). The Wealth of Nations
• Capitalism-wealth creation? exploitation?
• Private vices and public benefit (Liberal paradox -J. S. Mill)
• Liberal view of private business
• Importance of competition
• Education: Public good or private profit?

7. Justice
• Individual justice not distributive social justice

8. Social cooperation
• Social contract
• Civil Society
• Agreed cooperation
• Not mindless conformity or custom.
• Association & interdependence - recognition of equality
‘the desire to be at unity with our fellow creatures'. (Mill, Reading p.400)

9. Liberalism and Education
• How to educate people for freedom?
• Unique energetic individuals
• Critical thinking

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