Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
John Stuart Mill, the English utilitarian, concerns himself in this work with the problem of defining the limits of the power of the state to interfere with personal liberty. The result is one of the most important statements in the history of Western democracy. The essay is distinguished by its clarity and the orderly arrangement of its persuasive argument. The work reveals Mill’s interest in the happiness and rights of all people and his serious concern that happiness may be threatened by governmental power unwisely used.
Mill states concisely that the purpose of his essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
Another statement of the author’s intention is found in the last chapter, “Applications,” in which Mill states that two maxims together form “the entire doctrine” of the essay. The first maxim is “that the individual is not accountable to society for his...
(The entire section is 1336 words.)
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