On Liberty | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty | Chapter 4 : Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual | Summary



Chapter 4 starts with several questions about the relationship of an individual to society. Specifically, given the picture of expansive freedom presented in the previous chapters, what then is the proper limit of individual sovereignty? What constitutes legitimate action by society? What are the proper spheres of individual and society's action?

Given that individuals benefit from the protections of society, they are obligated to "observe a certain line of conduct," including not harming others and bearing a proportionate share of social obligations and responsibilities. If individuals fail to live up to these terms, society is justified in enacting punishment and persecution to rectify the harm. According to Mill, this is not to say that no individual should consider the interests of anyone else; on the contrary "human beings owe to each other help" to exercise "higher faculties" and mutual benefit. This, of course, excludes any action primarily impacting the individual. And further, by "action of society" Mill does not mean personal feelings of admiration or disapprobation or other forms of group social pressure regarding individual action. These feelings and relations can hardly be avoided, and people are firmly within their right to disassociate with those they find distasteful. Numerous "odious" personal qualities may be chastised in this way, but they do not fall into the category of actionable social effect which is the basis of this chapter. However, if the "evil consequences" of an action fall primarily on others, then society is justified in taking punishment—in Mill's phrase, "must retaliate"—as part of the responsibility of society to protect its members.

Mill poses a counterargument in the form of a question: given that people are social animals, how can one differentiate between actions that primarily impact the individual versus those that primarily impact society? Furthermore, does society not also have an obligation to protect those it is punishing, and if they are unfit for self-governance to act to protect them from vice or other actions harmful to themselves? Mill insists that only when others are hurt may society act to punish. For example, if immoral behavior leads a man to default on his debts, he may be punished for harming others by not paying what is owed but not for the immorality of actions that led to his condition. If those actions had impacted only himself, then society would have no recourse. In this case it is a cost that "society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom." One cannot compel individuals to moral or virtuous behavior. Inevitability it will produce the opposite outcome: resentment and hostility to the ideas imposed.

Mill argues that ultimately the strongest case against social action on individual moral affairs is that such action is often "wrong." While society can properly judge harm to itself and its members, it cannot judge harm to an individual, because this raises the problem of a majority compelling action on a minority. Mill uses a religious example to illustrate: Christians and Muslims disagree about whether one can eat pork. He argues that Muslims may be able to properly ban pork against a religious minority of Christians because it is no one's duty to eat pork, although this would be a violation of individual freedoms. There are other examples from Puritans, Catholics, and Mormons, like mandatory observation of religious holidays and so on. One other important example is American efforts to impose temperance laws. Mill finds faulty the argument that the prohibition of alcohol is just because excessive drinking creates public disorder and nuisance and therefore impinges on the "social rights" of others. Mill argues that we do not have the social right to compel everyone to act as they ought or as we would prefer. If this means that civilization succumbs to barbarism, then so be it. If society has become so "degenerate" as to fall to barbarity, then "the sooner such a civilization receives notice to quit, the better."


In Chapter 4 Mill for the first time explores the limits of individual and social action, with an emphasis on disabusing notions of proper social interference, especially around questions of personal morality, like temperance or religious mandates. Again, he highlights that only if individual action harms others may society take action against an individual, and that most of the moral questions of the day—drinking, observance of the Sabbath, and the like—should be left to individual moral choice rather than compulsory action. Mill's focus throughout is to limit social action and provide as much individual scope as possible.

Interesting in this section and throughout the book is Mill's use of the word "society" rather than state or government to refer to collective action and the individual. This is likely in part because Mill hopes to emphasize that democracies too, not just state tyrannies, impose strictures on the individual that should be avoided or undone. It is not just authoritarian states that impose individual harm but also democratic states expressing the will of society, or at least its majority. This is part of Mill's general antidemocratic argument throughout the book and related to his notion of the "tyranny of the majority" as a major caution of modern politics.

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