Although John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty” was published in 1859, it continues to influence our thinking today. This is particularly true of the idea that human beings are essentially good. “Don’t tell me how to live!” essentially sums up Mill’s view of liberty. Yet in his essay, Mill not only tells us how we should live, but who we are. Human beings are essentially good, he declares, and his view of liberty hinges upon this idealistic perspective of human nature.
Many theologians and philosophers of Mill’s era were skeptical of the individual’s passions and one’s willingness to choose what is right over what is pleasurable. As historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed, “[Mill] took for granted that those virtues that had already been acquired by means of religion, tradition, law, and all the other resources of civilization would continue to be valued and exercised.”
Today these structures of tradition and authority no longer hold sway in our culture, whereas the idea of the essential goodness of humanity has taken on a life of its own and is now embedded in our modern psyche. Moreover, the assumption held in Mill’s day—that truth is knowable and should order our lives—is no longer believed by many, who instead would agree with the words of Nietzsche: “Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses.”
In what has been a difficult teaching for every era, the Scriptures witness to the reality of sin and our need for God. Likewise, the experience of our world undeniably witnesses to the reality of darkness in our hearts. If this experience has not inspired a change in philosophy, perhaps it is because the illusion of human goodness brings us greater comfort. Yet, does it really? Do we not find it incomprehensible how one could abuse or torture a child? And do we really believe that given time and progress we will learn to love our neighbor as ourselves? Surely the horrors of the present century alone have proven the idea of the essential goodness of human beings to be false.
Jesus himself said in Mark 10, “No one is good except God alone.” But just before declaring this, Jesus showed us how we may know the power to love and to do good—by coming to him in humility, as children aware of their need for a Savior. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,” he said, “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth: anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Stuart McAllister is global support specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.