On Liberty | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty | Chapter 1 : Introductory | Summary



Mill begins the chapter by explaining that this book will not be about the "liberty of the will," of what philosophers refer to as the freewill problem, or questions of internal cognition or agency. Instead, Mill's essay is a work of political philosophy, of the relation of the individual to society, of what he calls "civil or social liberty." Mill then states that the "most conspicuous feature" of human history is the "struggle between liberty and authority," and tells readers that the history of England and of ancient Greece and Rome is a struggle between the rulers and the ruled to set limitations on the power of the ruler. These limitations he calls "liberty," and argues they developed over time two structures for the protection of liberty: first, creating "certain immunities" from power, what are today known as "political rights," that give subjects a degree of formal protections. The second is constitutional protections that check and limit the actions of the executive through other institutional sources of power.

This struggle against the tyranny of "a governing One," however, was radically transformed in the era of popular sovereignty and democratic practice. With this development, many in the tradition of "European liberalism" believed that struggle against authority was no longer significant. If through democratic practice the will of people was exercised through government, how then could there be any tension or conflict with illegitimate authority? Mill argues that in practice over the half century of representative republics two sets of problems arose. The first is that government is populated by people, those "who exercise the power," but they are "not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised." Further, in popular democracies the "strongest party," usually the majority, often rules over the interests or inclinations of the minority. He calls this in a famous phrase the "tyranny of the majority." This type of tyranny is more insidious because it requires not only the protection against the power of authority but also against the "prevailing opinion and feeling," that is, of ideas and discourse. Where and how to define these limits and protections Mill calls the "principal question in human affairs."

These limits are occasionally worked out through custom, but this is a tricky matter. Custom, for example, rarely is consciously articulated, and therefore often lacks reason. Further, custom often masks individual personal interest, or "class interests," and feelings of "superiority," and these go on to provoke hostility, what he calls the "impatient dislike of superiority." While hierarchical arrangements such as these can lead to resentment, they can also produce "servility," equally harmful if the goal of society is to produce the greatest fruition of the individual. These types of standards therefore cannot be the basis for principles of governance. Rarely are the standards of freedom and tolerance practiced on "principle" and from a "moral high ground." Occasionally this is done in the sphere of religion, but rarely, and usually only after dogmatic conflict has led to attrition, as even religious insurgents often revert to constrictive dogmatism once in power. The result of all of this is that the application or restriction of state power is deployed willy-nilly, without guiding principles for its use or limitation, and often based solely on the opinions, feelings, or sentiments of those with power.

The purpose of Mill's book therefore is to provide principles, philosophic justifications, and standards for the uses and limitations of government power. His guiding 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." Mill argues that the scope of activity for liberty is only checked "to prevent harm to others."

There are exceptions to this principle. For children or others who cannot take care of themselves, restrictions on freedom are merited. This is true for whole "races," Mill argues, groups of people or nations in their "nonage," and not "in the maturity of their faculties." Mill makes it clear that this is not an argument from "abstract right," from the principles of the Enlightenment, but from "utility": adhering to this principle of liberty will produce the best society for all. He is also clear that this is not an argument that limits any type of compulsory action of the state, for example, paying taxes or providing for collective defense.

Therefore, Mill argues, "the appropriate region of human liberty" has three components. The first is the complete liberty of thought and belief, the "inward domain of consciousness," in all aspects. This might be applied to speech, and often is "practically inseparable from it," but not always, because speech has the ability to impact society at large. The second is what he calls the "liberty of tastes and pursuits": the ability to live one's live to its fullest and in complete personal satisfaction and to bear the personal consequences, though others may disapprove. And finally, Mill argues that this type of individual liberty should also extend to voluntary collective action and association, again so long as such action does not harm others. The will to forcibly extend one's beliefs onto others is ever present in ancient as well as modern times and is often only absent for "want of power" to make it so. Therefore defenses of liberty, particularly liberty of thought, must be made now as ever.


The introduction gives readers both the overall plan of the book, as well as the foundation of the argument and Mill's singular principle of liberty for modern society. Mill argues that individuals should be granted the greatest extent of personal liberty in every way so long as doing so does not cause harm to others or negatively impact the responsibilities of society. Mill is doing several things in his introduction. He sets up two types of tensions that guide his argument and undergird the entire book: the first is between the individual and society; the second is between liberty and authority. Mill's assumption is that a person's activity, if left unchecked, inevitability conflicts with those around them, and that for the management of such conflict certain cultural norms and institutions, like government are needed. Secondarily, once government is involved, from ancient to modern times, the central tension of politics and history is that between authority, the state, and liberty, or those subjected to it. Mill calls this a "struggle," and it is hard to not read this portrayal as a direct response to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who just a decade earlier, had argued that the central force over all previous history was the class struggle. Mill is arguing something different. He contends that matters of the state are routinely those of the accretion of power and that the central struggle of history has been the resistance to the power and the gradual progression of liberty.

The core idea is that despite this progress of liberty into the modern era and the construction of modern democracies liberty is just as much under threat as ever and that to protect it requires the best practice of government based on sound philosophic principles, which On Liberty hopes to establish. Importantly, Mill seeks to distance himself from the "abstract rights" of the Enlightenment for justification of this type of social relation. Where the notion of "rights" was often critiqued by conservatives for lacking any philosophic justification or rigor, Mill tries to base his conception of liberty not on rights but on "utility."

In short, Mill's idea of utility is the principle that the best course of action is that which provides the greatest benefit to the most people. He then goes on to argue (in later chapters) that this type of a defense of liberty produces a society that is happy, prosperous, and successful. This is not an argument based on "rights" for the sake of morality, but one based on the success of outcomes and accomplishments. Of course, this stance is also one of the greatest criticisms of capitalism: that it is a purely utilitarian social model designed for the good of the individual and divorced from moral considerations. Mill tempers this criticism through his focus on social, rather than individual, good, but his work admits of a tension between the two.

It is important to note that Mill holds these standards only for people and groups who have reached a certain level of maturity. Obviously, for children and those who cannot care for themselves, Mill's principles of liberty do not apply. In today's society, we have extended the concepts of personal liberty to the elderly and the disabled and even in some cases to juveniles. In Mill's time, those people would all have been excluded from his notions of liberty, as would have been women, blacks, colonial subjects, and other non-Christian racial and ethnic groups. Even certain male members of the working class who were not sufficiently educated or did not own property would have been considered outside Mill's philosophical insights. In other words, many of Mill's contemporary readers would have interpreted this exclusion to mean that Mill's philosophy really only applies to well-educated white male landowners.

Mill himself would have been the first to disabuse his contemporaries from this notion and fought for the rights of many of these groups, including women and the working classes. However, in another forum Mill used this position to justify British colonialism and other blatant violations of the ideas laid out in this work.

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