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On Liberty | Main Ideas



A major undercurrent of the text is Mill's philosophy of utilitarianism. Other than On Liberty, Mill's best-known work is about utilitarianism, a system of philosophy that seeks to establish social, moral, and political right based on "usefulness" or utility, often equitable with general happiness. In On Liberty as well, Mill seeks to use the philosophy of utilitarianism to justify his social principles. This emphasis is partially a response to conservative critics who disagreed with the theory that free speech was a "right." This theory had its roots in the Enlightenment and was one of the pillars on which the revolutions of France and the United States rested: the principle that free speech was an "inherent" human right, inseparable from the integrity and dignity of each individual. Conservative critics of the notion argued that there was no justification for the concept of "rights;" that, in fact, the theory was made up for political purposes, for example, in struggles against monarchal rule.

In response to these arguments Mill tries to establish liberty on the basis of something more defensible than the airy notion of "rights." For this he turns to utility. Mill's basic argument is that individual freedoms, for example the freedom of thought or discourse, is not based on individuals' inherent right to think what they please, but that when individuals are allowed to think, speak, and act how they wish, without harming others, the best results are produced not only for that person but for society in general.

Simply put, Mill believes that societies are propelled forward into prosperity, inventiveness, and creativity when individuals are allowed to develop the full scope of their talents and interests without fear of persecution or dogmatism. That atmosphere is only possible when people have free exchange and open discourse. An environment of free speech is the foundation on which other benefits like individual genius and social prosperity flourish. The philosophical justification here is the result—the happy and prosperous society—not a claim to moral, social, or political rights as fundamental to human existence. Hence "liberty" and the relations of free people in society are highly useful for general success; this is the essence of utilitarianism, that the ends justify the means.

There are many possible grounds on which to object to this notion. For example, utility tends to turn people into instruments, using them for someone else's purposes. This tendency obviously could lead to many ethical and moral problems. It is possible that Mill's emphasis on the individual, in particular individual achievement and liberty, is meant to check this concern. But utilitarianism and liberty are in tension throughout the work, the two arguments developing together in the text.


Another major theme Mill uses as justification throughout his work is to appeal to "truth" as justification for free speech. Mill's discussion and use of truth is complex, but in short he uses the pursuit of truth as a major buttress for his argument. Mill's basic argument about speech is developed in three steps in Chapter 2, each one involving an appeal to truth. Whether dissenting speech is false, true, or partially true and partially false, Mill argues, in all cases it should be allowed to progress free from interference because it allows for the refinement and development of greater social "truth" to improve society and benefit all. However, Mill never defines what he means by "truth," what its source could be, or how he envisions it benefitting society.

In this line of argument, Mill was likely influenced by British positivism, the notion that empirical science and insights through human cognition can generate known truths about the world and human existence. The entire framework of his chapter on speech, for example, has this character: that through the process of debate and argument truth can be discovered and refined. Indeed, throughout the work Mill seems to argue as if there were a fixed truth to which humans are slowly progressing in their quest for greater knowledge. This is one perspective about the world and our knowledge of it that has since been questioned by other philosophical movements such as deconstructivism and postmodernism.

At some points, Mill appears to have a complex notion of truth that foreshadows ideas that will emerge later in the 20th century. At times, he seems to find that truths contain partial falsehoods and that even when established need to be continually challenged to retain their vigor and meaning. But that Mill even entertains the notion that truths can be definitively established speaks to his positivist notion of fundamental truth.


From the outset Mill makes it clear his goal is to properly highlight the relationship of the individual to society. Mill establishes individual human freedom and scope of activity in tension with human social organization, rather than fundamentally in harmony with it. This tension is what drives the entire work, as Mill sets out to discover the proper limits of both individual and social action. His principle that individuals should be allowed the broadest possible scope of freedom while society should be limited as much as possible highlights these tensions. This discussion contains a number of interesting points.

First is Mill's use of the word "society" rather than "state" or "government" to define and delimit social action. This choice is curious, since Mill addresses himself to social democracies, where popular will ostensibly is at the helm of the state and therefore would presumably serve Mill's purpose. It is likely he uses the word "society" not to limit himself to just government action but to speak broadly about a whole scope of social institutions including the church or other forms of social authority that could limit individual freedom in the interest of conformity. In this sense Mill unquestionably sees individuals in tension with all of society rather than just state or government authority, and his argument is much more about a full range of human expression, rather than simply political freedom.

Part of the tension that Mill posits between the individual and society stems from his distrust of even the best form of government rule—democracy, in his opinion—to properly protect the principle of liberty. Here Mill was writing in a political context in which liberal democracies had emerged as the preeminent form of government organization, firmly established through, and despite, a series of revolutions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With democratic governance coming into its own, Mill saw possible dangers, specifically what he called the "tyranny of the majority"—the tendency of even a democratic government to inflict limitations on individual liberty. It is also important to note that Mill saw these notions of individual liberty as applying to property, and that here his ideas should also be as a response to the socialist challenges of the mid-19th century. Here Mill's defense of individual liberty served as a bulwark not just for personal expression but against political philosophies and social movements gaining credence in mid-century.

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