On Liberty

From Academic Kids

On Liberty is a philosophical work in the English language by 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, first published in 1859. Composed just after the death of his wife, it is the culmination of part of a plan to record their entire philosophical conclusion. To the Victorian readers of the time it was a radical work, advocating moral and economic freedom of individuals from the state. Mill was not opposed to government intervention in economic affairs; as a liberal, he believed that while property owners' rights needed to be protected -- he supported private ownership of the means of production -- he considered himself a socialist, for he believed that the state had a role to play in the redistribution of wealth.

Perhaps the most memorable point made by Mill in this work, and his basis for liberty, is that "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign". Mill is compelled to say this due to what he calls the "tyranny of the majority", wherein through control of etiquette and morality, society is an unelected power that can do horrific things. Mill's work could be considered a reaction to this social control by the majority and his advocation of individual decision-making over the self.

On Liberty was an enormously influential work; the ideas presented within it remain the basis of much political thought since. Aside from the popularity of the ideas themselves, it is quite short and its themes easily accessible to the non-expert reader, even nearly 150 years later. It has remained in print continuously since its initial publication.


Mill opens his book with a discussion about the "struggle between authority and liberty" describing the tyranny of government, which needs to be controlled by the liberty of the citizens under said government. Without such limit to authority, the government has (or is) a "dangerous weapon". He divides this control of authority into two mechanisms: necessary rights belonging to citizens, and the "establishment of constitutional checks by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power". As such, Mill suggests that mankind will be happy to be ruled "by a master" if his rule is guaranteed against tyranny. Mill speaks in the aforementioned section in terms of monarchy. However, mankind soon developed into democracy where "there was no fear of tyrannizing over self". "This may seem axiomatic", he says, but "the people who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised". Further, this can only be by the majority, and if the majority wish to criminalise a section of society that happens to be a minority — whether a race, gender, faith, sexuality, or the like — this may easily be done despite any wishes of the minority to the contrary. This is in his terms the "tyranny of the majority".

Tyranny of the majority is far worse than tyranny of government simply because it is not limited to political function. Where one can be protected from a tyrant, it is much harder to be protected "against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling". As such, people will be subject to what society thinks is suitable — and people will be fashioned as such. The prevailing opinions within society will be the basis of all rules of conduct within society — as such there can be no safeguard in law against the tyranny of the majority. Mill soon goes on to prove this as a negative: the majority opinion may not be the correct opinion. The only justification for a person's preference as to their moral belief is that it is their preference. On a particular issue people will align themself either for or against this issue; the side of greatest volume will prevail, but is not essentially correct. As with every rule, there must be an exception:

"That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

This is the first mention in On Liberty of the so-called harm principle. The only limiting factor of liberty in Mill's view should be harm, although not just any harm, but specifically physical harm. If a person is harmed then their sovereignty over self no longer exists since sovereignty is after all the foundational position of power; this is Mill's justification of the harm principle. Children and those who cannot take care of themselves are allowed to be interfered with beyond the harm principle as they may well harm themselves unintentionally; such children and those who cannot take care of themselves do not, and cannot, have sovereignty over self. Furthermore, Mill states that one may accept despotism over barbarians if the end result is their betterment; this implies that barbarians are of "nonage" and cannot be sovereign over self. As soon as people are capable of deciding for themselves they should then be given liberty from authority. To illustrate his point Mill uses Charlemagne and Akbar the Great as examples of such compassionate dictators who happen to control, or even "help", "barbarians".

At this point he divides human liberty when in private into its components or manifestations:

  1. The freedom to think as one wishes, and to feel as one does. This includes the freedom to opinion, and includes the freedom to publish opinions known as the freedom of speech,
  2. The freedom to pursue tastes and pursuits, even if they are deemed "immoral," as long as they do not cause harm,
  3. The "freedom to unite" or meet with others, often known as the freedom of assembly.

Without all of these freedoms, one cannot be considered to be truly free.

It is important to note, however, that Mill makes it clear throughout On Liberty that he "regard[s] utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions." This he inherited from his Utilitarian upbringing under his father James Mill, a follower of Jeremy Bentham. Because of this, the specific justifications he gives for each of the freedoms listed above rests not on any form of natural rights but rather on the fact that he believed these freedoms would bring positive consequences for society. He has been criticised on this basis (by, among others, the 20th century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, famous for his distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty) for not truly valuing liberty, and prizing above it diversity, equality and social progress.

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