John Stuart Mill’s Defence of Liberty.

The Oracle of Insight
7 min readMay 2, 2020


John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) is one of the most influential political philosophers of liberalism and his ideas continue to shape the intellectual horizons on the debates on liberty and representative government. Isiah Berlin famously noted that Mill’s work is ageless because it primarily deals with the fundamental goals of human society and his theorisation is not just based on simplistic analysis of human nature. Although he inherited the legacy of classical utilitarianism, he attempted to develop the synthesis of rights and utility completely changed the governing principles provided by classical utilitarianism.

Intellectual context of Mill’s Ideas

John Stuart Mill was born to a James Mill, a disciple of Bentham’s ideas of classical utilitarianism which provided scientific principles of governance. In his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham outlines the principle of utility; that is, the principle that all men are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. However, Mill rejected the simplistic deduction of principles of pleasure and pain. And he tried to modify classical utilitarianism by examining qualitative difference to the principle of pleasure and pain and synthesising rights and utility to frame the ideas within the philosophy of history provided by Auguste Comte.

Mill rejected the early enlightenment view of the certainty of knowledge and ideas and it shaped Mill’s ideas on freedom of thought and action. Methodologically, Mill rejected apriori theories of philosophical radicals and developed his ideas based on the synthesis of concrete deductive or physical method and the historical method which was influenced by the French philosophies of reform.

Mill was guided by the idea of the progressive view of history provided by Comte’s three-stage development of Mankind from Theological, metaphysical to the experimental stage which was buttressed by Tocqueville’s idea that the march of democracy is inevitable. Mill was also influenced by the works of Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle and Harriet Taylor.

Mill’s Ideas on Liberty

In On Liberty, Mill provided a defence of important tenet of liberalism that individuality is the foundation of a healthy society. In On Liberty, Mill laid down his central argument in the following paragraph

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 rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or to 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’s desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he’s 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.

Mill’s ideas need to be contextualised in the rule utilitarianism that he has developed synthesising rights and utility. For Mill, Social progress was part of stagial development of history in which the society progressed from

pre-civilised barbarism to civilised self-government. Mill argued that based on the level of civilization from slavery to self-government, society needs to learn the lessons of Obedience, labour and liberty for the three stages respectively.

Since the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the cardinal principle for governing society, the utility of the society in the stage of self-government can be collectively maximised only when there is the liberty of thought and action. Mill argued that the ultimate value that humans can derive under self-government is the pursuit of their interests, which in Mill’s opinion requires enhancement of their talents with the support of education.

However, Mill faced the dilemma of society being crept into dogma if democracy as popularly understood leads to Tyranny of Majority. The challenge was imminent with the expansion of democracies and representative government in the west. He said that the elected government distils the views of the majority, and this majority might end up wanting to oppress the minority. This “tyranny of the majority” meant that there was a risk that interference by even elected governments would have harmful effects. At least as serious as political tyranny was the risk of the social tyranny of public opinion, which tends to lead to the conformity of belief and action. These forms of tyranny were all the more serious, argued Mill, because people’s opinions were often unthinking, rooted in little more than self-interest and personal preference. Ultimately, the received wisdom is then nothing more than the interests of a society’s most dominant groups

Thus, for Mill, the utility can be achieved only through liberty. Hence Mill attempted to set out a clear principle to define the right balance between individual autonomy and government interference. He argued that society could only justifiably interfere with individuals’ liberties to prevent harm to others. Concern for the individuals good might justify an attempt to persuade him to take a different course of action, but not to compel him to do so: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign,” Mill said. This principle of individual liberty applied to thought, to the expression of opinions, and actions.

Mill argued that if this principle is undermined, the whole of society suffers. Without freedom of thought, for example, human knowledge and innovation would be restricted. To demonstrate this, Mill put forward an account of how humans arrive at the truth. Because human minds are fallible,

1. The truth or falsity of an idea only becomes known by testing opposing ideas. By stifling ideas, society might lose a true idea.

2. It might also suppress a false idea that would have been useful to test and potentially reveal the truth of another idea.

3. Mill rejected the argument that some ideas are more socially useful than others irrespective of their truth. He believed that this argument assumes infallibility in deciding which beliefs are useful.

4. Although heretics were no longer burned at the stake, Mill believed that the social intolerance of unorthodox opinions threatened to dull minds and cramp the development of society.

Mill used his principle of liberty to defend the individual’s freedom to act. However, he acknowledged that freedom of action would necessarily be more limited than freedom of thought because an action is more capable of hurting others than a thought. Like freedom of ideas, individuality — the freedom to live an unorthodox life — promotes social innovation: “the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically,”

Mill’s Three Basic Liberties

· The liberty of thought and ideas: absolute freedom of opinion of sentiment, and the freedom to express them in speech or writing.

· The liberty to pursue one’s tastes and pursuits: to live our lives exactly how we see fit, as long as this does not harm others in society.

· The liberty of combination among individuals: the right to unite with others for any non-harmful purpose, as long as members are not coerced,

Critical Examination

Mill’s harm principle faces problems as Mill allows restrain of liberty to prevent harm to others, However, the line separating self and other-regarding actions are never clear in many human actions. Moreover, liberty limitation based on Utilitarian calculation assumes measurability and transitivity of utility. Thus, the appeal to a utilitarian calculus when attempting to assess the bounds of liberty seems to be arbitrarily applied.

Mill celebrates a kind of romantic subjectivism in which everyone knows their

source of utility, there are no interpersonal comparisons of utility, and the full

flourishing of a person’s potential can freely develop. However, Mills Harm principle falls into trouble in many cases as the utilitarian calculation is not possible for all types of harms and the line between self-regarding and other-regarding actions delves into the sphere of political choices. Moroever, Mill does not attempt to deal with the question of who will calculate the utility.

Positive liberals in the 20th century like Ernest Barker criticised Mill for his emphasis on Negative liberty and the hierarchical view of human societies which was partly influenced by the Victorian empire.

On the one hand, Mill argues for the representative government as an ideal polity but on the other hand, he even attempts to limit democracy by introducing government by experts and through the idea of plural voting.

Despite limitations, Mill’s ideas of freedom of thought and action have played a significant role in the fight for free speech in the modern world, an ideal which humanity is striving for till today.



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