On Liberty | Study Guide

John Stuart Mill

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On Liberty | Summary



On Liberty argues that society should be founded on the principle of providing the maximum scope of individual freedom for its peoples, and it seeks to define the proper set of limitations for freedom, ultimately finding that there should be very few restrictions except for when a person's exercise of liberty does harm to others. Mill defines freedom in contrast to two types of social organization, authoritarian states and what he calls the "tyranny of the majority," the notion that in modern democracies majority rule could produce a social order inimical to individual freedom.

From this general principle provided in the introduction the book develops in four chapters. The first seeks to demonstrate how there is virtually no proper restriction to free speech and free thought. In a lengthy discussion Mill finds that on three grounds free thought should be allowed to proceed in public discourse. Mill pairs the expression of free thought as challenges to established wisdom and argues that critiques are often true and their expression therefore benefits society. Even if the new idea presented is not fully true, it may contain elements of truth or be partially true, in which case it is only through debate and discourse with the offending idea that a greater truth may be obtained. And lastly, even if the new idea is completely in error, it is only through "vigorous and earnest" contestation that established wisdom remains fresh and vital. Without intellectual contestations even the soundest truths become mere "prejudice" or "dogma" and lose their original meaning.

Having defended free speech of all types in this way, Mill goes on to extrapolate from his single example of freedom of thought the freedom of being—of free individuality as a fundamental "element of well-being." Free individuality is a necessary precondition for higher orders of happiness; additionally, it is the foundation of genius, and individual fruition cannot be achieved in conditions of stifling conformity. Instead, individual human diversity is akin to diversity of thought and opinion, in which benefits of individual fulfillment benefit society at large.

Given this expansive definition of freedom, what are the proper limits to place on individual liberty? Again, Mill finds there should be very little. If a person's activities are confined to themselves, there should be no limit whatsoever. Only if the scope of activity harms others may proper restrictions be placed, and in that instance the justification for the restrictions or punishment falls on the cause of harm, rather than the moral or ethical character of the actions.

Mill concludes his work by restating the principles outlined above, and looking for practical applications for them. He considers functions of the economy, of divorce, of suicide, or other socially harmful acts. In this section Mill is much more circumspect, arguing that there are no clear and universal codes that apply. Instead he reiterates his general argument that actions that primarily impact the individual, even when harmful to themselves, should not be limited.

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