Published in 1859, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty presented one of the most eloquent defenses of individual freedom in nineteenth-century social and political philosophy and is today perhaps the most widely-read liberal argument in support of the value of liberty. Mill’s passionate advocacy of spontaneity, individuality, and diversity, along with his contempt for compulsory uniformity and the despotism of popular opinion, has attracted both admiration and condemnation.
About the Author:
John Stuart Mill was born in a suburb of London on May 20, 1806. By the age of ten he was reading classical authors in the original Greek and Latin, was proficient in history, algebra, and geometry, and soon after began to study logic, political economy, and law. He was elected to Parliament in 1865 and held the Radical seat for Westminster for the next three years. Mill died in Avignon, France, on May 7, 1873.
JOHN STUART MILL was born in London on May 20, 1806, the son of noted Scottish economist and philosopher James Mill, who held an influential post in the powerful East India Company. Mill's natural talent and physical stamina were put to the test at a very young age when he undertook a highly structured and individualized upbringing orchestrated by his father, who believed that the mind was a passive receptacle for human experience. His education and training were so intense that he was reading Greek at the age of three and doing independent writing at six.
Mill's education broadened considerably after 1823 when he entered the East India Company to commence his life's career as his father had done before him. He traveled, became politically involved, and in so doing moved away from the narrower sectarian attitudes in which he had been raised. His ideas and imagination were ignited by the views of such diverse personalities as Wordsworth, Saint-Simon, Coleridge, Comte, and de Tocqueville.
During his life, Mill wrote many influential works: System of Logic (1843); Principles of Political Economy (1848); On Liberty (1859); The Subjection of Women (1861); Utilitarianism (1863); Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865); and Autobiography (1873).
As a defender of individual freedom and human rights, John Stuart Mill lives on as a nineteenth-century champion of social reform. He died on May 7, 1873.
The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. A question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is likely soon to make itself recognised as the vital question of the future. It is so far from being new, that in a certain sense, it has divided mankind, almost from the remotest ages; but in the stage of progress into which the more civilised portions of the species have now entered, it presents itself under new conditions, and requires a different and more fundamental treatment.
The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government. By liberty, was meant protection against the tyranny of the political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in some of the popular governments of Greece) as in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled. They consisted of a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest, who, at all events, did not hold it at the pleasure of the governed, and whose supremacy men did not venture, perhaps did not desire, to contest, whatever precautions might be taken against its oppressive exercise. Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as a weapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, it was needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying on the flock than any of the minor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws. The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks; by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power. To the first of these modes of limitation, the ruling power, in most European countries, was compelled, more or less, to submit. It was not so with the second; and to attain this, or when already in some degree possessed, to attain it more completely, became everywhere the principal object of the lovers of liberty. And so long as mankind were content to combat one enemy by another, and to be ruled by a master, on condition of being guaranteed more or less efficaciously against his tyranny, they did not carry their aspirations beyond this point.
A time, however, came, in the progress of human affairs, when men ceased to think it a necessity of nature that their governors should be an independent power, opposed in interest to themselves. It appeared to them much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed, could they have complete security that the powers of government would never be abused to their disadvantage. By degrees, this new demand for elective and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party, wherever any such party existed; and superseded, to a considerable extent, the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. As the struggle proceeded for making the ruling power emanate from the periodical choice of the ruled, some persons began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of the power itself. That (it might seem) was a resource against rulers whose interests were habitually opposed to those of the people. What was now wanted was, that the rulers should be identified with the people; that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannising over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made. Their power was but the nation's own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise. This mode of thought, or rather perhaps of feeling, was common among the last generation of European liberalism, in the Continental section of which it still apparently predominates. Those who admit any limit to what a government may do, except in the case of such governments as they think ought not to exist, stand out as brilliant exceptions among the political thinkers of the Continent. A similar tone of sentiment might by this time have been prevalent in our own country, if the circumstances which for a time encouraged it, had continued unaltered.
But, in political and philosophical theories, as well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which failure might have concealed from observation. The notion, that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves, might seem axiomatic, when popular government was a thing only dreamed about, or read of as having existed at some distant period of the past. Neither was that notion necessarily disturbed by such temporary aberrations as those of the French Revolution, the worst of which were the work of a usurping few, and which, in any case, belonged, not to the permanent working of popular institutions, but to a sudden and convulsive outbreak against monarchical and aristocratic despotism. In time, however, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth's surface, and made itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations; and elective and responsible government became subject to the observations and criticisms which wait upon a great existing fact. It was now perceived that such phrases as "self-government," and "the power of the people over themselves," do not express the true state of the case. The "people" who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the "self-government" spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. This view of things, recommending itself equally to the intelligence of thinkers and to the inclination of those important classes in European society to whose real or supposed interests democracy is adverse, has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations "the tyranny of the majority" is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.
Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.
But though this proposition is not likely to be contested in general terms, the practical question, where to place the limit — how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control — is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done. All that makes existence valuable to anyone, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says, a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first. The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary. The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person's mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathises, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person's preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people's liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that. Men's opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason — at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves — their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority. The morality between Spartans and Helots, between planters and negroes, between princes and subjects, between nobles and roturiers, between men and women, has been for the most part the creation of these class interests and feelings: and the sentiments thus generated, react in turn upon the moral feelings of the members of the ascendant class, in their relations among themselves. Where, on the other hand, a class, formerly ascendant, has lost its ascendancy, or where its ascendancy is unpopular, the prevailing moral sentiments frequently bear the impress of an impatient dislike of superiority. Another grand determining principle of the rules of conduct, both in act and forbearance, which have been enforced by law or opinion, has been the servility of mankind towards the supposed preferences or aversions of their temporal masters, or of their gods. This servility, though essentially selfish, is not hypocrisy; it gives rise to perfectly genuine sentiments of abhorrence; it made men burn magicians and heretics. Among so many baser influences, the general and obvious interests of society have of course had a share, and a large one, in the direction of the moral sentiments: less, however, as a matter of reason, and on their own account, than as a consequence of the sympathies and antipathies which grew out of them: and sympathies and antipathies which had little or nothing to do with the interests of society, have made themselves felt in the establishment of moralities with quite as great force.
Published in 1859, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty presented one of the most eloquent defences of individual freedom in nineteenth-century social and political philosophy and is today perhaps the most widely-read liberal argument in support of the value of liberty. Mill's passionate advocacy of spontaneity, individuality, and diversity, along with his contempt for compulsory uniformity and the despotism of popular opinion, has attracted both admiration and condemnation. While his most vehement contemporary critic, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, was appalled at the prospect of increasing the liberty of the general population, another of Mill's contemporaries, Thomas Arnold, Jr., warmly praised Mill's commitment to providing guidance to those seeking a life of personal freedom. Appropriately enough, though, Mill would have been pleased by these divergent assessments of his essay, and even more so by the fact that the ideas contained therein continue to spark intense debate across the whole of the political spectrum.
Born in Pentonville, a suburb of London, on May 20, 1806, John Stuart Mill was the eldest son of James Mill (1773-1836). James Mill was a Scottish historian, economist, philosopher and, along with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), cofounder of the British utilitarian movement. So great was the elder Mill's fidelity to utilitarianism, it was decided that John would be educated exclusively by his father to ensure his rigorous training in only the most useful of intellectual disciplines. By the age of ten he was reading classical authors in the original Greek and Latin, was proficient in history, algebra and geometry, and soon after began to study logic, politicaleconomy, and law. In 1823 Mill followed in his father's footsteps and secured a position in the examiner's office of the East India Company, where he worked for the next thirty-five years. He was elected to Parliament in 1865 and held the Radical seat for Westminster for the next three years. Mill died in Avignon, France, on May 7, 1873.
It may seem remarkably incongruous that such an influential defence of freedom as On Liberty was written in Victorian Britain, better known for prudishness than for celebration of individualism; however, the common depiction of the Victorian era as simply a period of emotional repression too easily conceals the fact that Mill lived in a time of remarkable changes, including sweeping social reform. Born shortly after the American and French Revolutions, and living during the rapid expansion of liberal democracy, industrialization, nationalism, and colonialism, Mill was truly a child of his age-an ardent advocate of social progress who was also acutely aware that radical change not tempered by justice can threaten the very ideals of collective and individual development. Indeed, Mill's own life embodied the bold, if controversial, events that characterized much of the nineteenth century. In 1823, for instance, Mill was arrested and briefly imprisoned for campaigning in favor of contraception. Several years later Mill suffered a mental "crisis" during which he carried on the routines of his life in a rather mechanical and joyless fashion. Mill recovered from this phase after nearly six months due in large part to his discovery of poetry, an experience which led him to conclude that his father's instruction had been too severe and neglected the importance of cultivating feelings as well as intellect. More significantly, when Mill was twenty-five he met and fell in love with Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), a young married woman and mother of several children. For the next twenty years John and Harriet maintained an intensely passionate-although reputedly platonic-companionship, spending a considerable amount of time traveling together even though Harriet remained married to John Taylor. The relationship was, of course, scandalous to some and it wasn't until 1851, two years after her husband's death, that Harriet and John were married. Yet Harriet exerted a profound influence upon Mill's thinking, in particular helping him to refine his consideration of the practical implications of expanding liberty across a broader range of society. Mill's devotion to Harriet and her egalitarian ideals are made manifest not only in the poignant dedication to her which opens On Liberty, but also in his actions in Parliament, where he vigorously denounced colonialism in Ireland and the West Indies, condemned slavery, proposed wider political rights for the working classes, and advocated universal suffrage.
Mill's desire to have a practical effect on social reform also provided a strong impetus for the writing of On Liberty. It was no accident that Mill was never an academic philosopher content to speculate within the secure confines of the "ivory tower." He was instead a genuine public intellectual, one whose scholarly writings no less than his public actions reflected a deeply personal allegiance to individual freedom and social reform. Nevertheless, Mill's passion was always guided by a, perhaps naïve, faith in rationality and the possibility of directing human progress by means of reasoned debate. Mill's reputation in this regard led the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, to commemorate him as "the Saint of Rationalism" following his death. In this way, at least, Mill's thought is somewhat dated by his adherence to the Enlightenment faith in the capacity of human knowledge to govern moral and political improvement, a faith severely shaken in the twentieth century by the horrors of genocide and total war. Still, Mill's impressive intellectual powers found a necessary outlet in his prolific and varied writings. Prior to On Liberty, Mill had published A System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848). Both of these works were extremely well-received, achieving canonical status as textbooks throughout Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and earning Mill fame during his lifetime. Two years after the publication of On Liberty, in 1861, Mill published Considerations on Representative Government, which argued for the superiority of representative forms of democratic self-government in maintaining the executive's "complete and ever-operative identity of interest with the governed." There followed, in 1863, Mill's own restatement of utilitarian principles in his Utilitarianism. In 1869, he would publish The Subjection of Women, a sustained critique of the legal, economic, and political disadvantages suffered by women under existing social conditions. Shortly after his death Mill's Autobiography was published, an arrangement carried out by his stepdaughter, Helen Taylor, with whom Mill had developed a loyal personal and working relationship. Mill also wrote a prodigious quantity of essays, reviews, speeches, and journalistic commentaries, all of which have appeared in numerous critical and collected editions.
Although On Liberty was regarded with hostility by many of Mill's contemporaries, it was also widely admired in the years immediately following its publication and helped to consolidate Mill's status as one of the foremost philosophers of his time. Its impact on modern thought has been so immense that generations of liberal thinkers, writers, and artists have come to regard it as nothing less than, in the words of Sir Isaiah Berlin, "the classic statement of the case for individual liberty." Among the many who took inspiration from Mill are notable figures such as the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952); the Nobel Prize-winning philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who was also Mill's godson; the British novelist and feminist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941); H. L. A. Hart (1907-1992), Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford; and Julius K. Nyerere (1922-1999), the former President of Tanzania.
In his Autobiography, Mill described On Liberty as "a kind of philosophical text-book of a single truth," namely, that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." This "very simple principle," as Mill portrays it in the book itself, is now commonly known as the Harm Principle, and it serves as the basis for his defence of individual freedom. According to Mill, every individual adult should be free from constraint or interference except to the extent that his or her actions might harm others. While society may legitimately restrict the individual in that which "concerns others," each individual should be otherwise free in that which "concerns himself." Isaiah Berlin famously characterized this conception of liberty, whereby freedom consists of doing what one reasonably desires without harming others, as "negative" liberty or freedom from interference. While Mill was concerned about the intrusive powers of government he was also alarmed by the pernicious effects of what Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as "the tyranny of the majority," namely, the despotism that arises when popular public opinion is wielded to silence those holding different ideas. Thus paternalistic intervention is unwarranted, in Mill's estimation, and the individual's liberties of thought and expression, "of tastes and pursuits," and of association are to be free of public control in any civilized society.
Mill's view of liberty has inspired many, yet detractors point to several problematic aspects of his theory. Most obvious is the vagueness of the word "harm" and determining what sorts of things are to be regarded as harmful. Mill was less troubled by such definitional difficulties and suggested that a plain and practical distinction can be made between actions that are physically harmful and opinions that are merely offensive. Unless an opinion is used to incite violence against someone, the views of other people cannot literally cause harm to us no matter how offensive we take those views to be. Rather than resort to censorship, Mill advises, we must learn to practice tolerance. A somewhat more tenacious problem is to be found in Mill's assumption that we can distinguish clearly the self-regarding and other-regarding actions of human beings. Some critics, such as James Fitzjames Stephens, have challenged this assumption by claiming that most if not all of what a person does has the potential to affect and possibly harm other people. If this is so, then the scope for state intervention into the "private" lives of individuals is much broader than Mill was prepared to concede. All the same, Mill was not unaware that it is often complicated to draw a line between what affects only oneself and what might potentially affect others. For this reason he admits that even if an individual's action affects no one else "directly and in the first instance," it may still "affect others through himself."
As a professed utilitarian, it might come as a surprise to learn that Mill's account of liberty also has been criticized for allegedly being inconsistent with the tenets of utilitarianism. The central concern of this doctrine is to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals, the good being defined as happiness or pleasure. For the utilitarian, the ultimate measure of any action must be its tendency either to maximize happiness or minimize pain. To be consistent, then, critics have charged, Mill must regard liberty as having merely qualified value, conditional upon whether it tends to promote happiness or, conversely, cause pain in the case of any given individual. Liberty cannot be treated as something good in itself for it may be the case that it will produce detrimental consequences for some people. While this criticism may be justly leveled at Benthamite utilitarianism, it disregards a crucial transformation in utilitarianism advanced by Mill. In Mill's opinion, happiness cannot result from seeking pleasure as an end in itself, but must result from the pursuit of other, higher goals. In particular, Mill asserts, the appeal to utility must be "grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."
It is on this last point especially that Mill's celebrated contribution to moral and political thought must be confirmed. For Mill, the indispensable value of liberty consists of the benefits derived from allowing individuals to make their own choices as to which paths in life to take. In making their own choices in life, individuals are able to develop to the fullest extent possible their human capacities and in doing so achieve personal self-realization. By experimenting in how we live and asking questions about what is best for ourselves, we nurture our mental and moral powers and improve our quality of life. What secures the very possibility that we are able to make ourselves "noble and beautiful objects of contemplation," Mill recognizes, is liberty. Liberty promotes individual and social progress, which leads to fuller, happier lives. While Mill's conception of liberty might take too lightly the sometimes harsh realities of political being, it also expresses a stirring vision of the well-developed life which speaks to some of our deepest human yearnings. For that reason On Liberty exerts a compelling influence upon our time, and will surely remain of enduring value to moral and political thinking.
Patrick Hayden is Lecturer in Political Theory at Victoria University of Wellington. His recent publications include the books John Rawls: Towards a Just World Order and The Philosophy of Human Rights, as well as numerous essays on liberalism, social justice, and political morality.
On Liberty 3.9 out of 5based on
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Perhaps this would be a happier world if more people subscibed to the philosophies of Mill. In this work Mill puts a high value on the concept of liberty and has many enlightening ideas on economics and Christianity. Mill is a little wordy and his chapters are long, but he is an accomplished writer and a great defender of liberty. I hope that more will read and adopt the philosophy of Mill in this generation and value liberty as much as Mill.
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