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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1336

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...

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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 actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself,” and the second is that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of the opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

It would be an error of interpretation of Mill’s intention to suppose that he is explicitly objecting to all efforts of government to improve the condition of its citizens. What Mill objects to is the restriction of human liberty for the sake of human welfare; he has nothing against welfare itself. On the contrary, as a utilitarian, he believes that a right act is one that aims at the greatest happiness of the greatest number of persons; and it is precisely because the restriction of human liberty is so destructive to human happiness that he makes a plea for a judicious use of restrictive power, justifying it only when it is used to prevent harm, or unhappiness of whatever sort, to others than the person being restricted.

Restricting personal liberty for one’s own good, for one’s happiness, is not morally justifiable. Mill permits, even encourages, “remonstrating” and “reasoning” with a person who is determined to act against his or her own best interests, but he does not approve of using force to keep that person from such actions.

After reviewing some of the acts a person may rightfully be compelled to do—such as to give evidence in court, to bear a fair share of the common defense, and to defend the helpless—Mill asserts that society has no right to interfere when a person’s acts concern, for the most part, only that person. This statement means that a person must be free in conscience, thought, and feeling, and that the person must have freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects. This latter freedom involves freedom of the press. In addition, people should be free to do what they like and to enjoy what they prefer—provided what they do is not harmful to others. Finally, each should be free to unite with others for any purpose—again, provided no one is harmed by this action.

This theme is pertinent, because there exists a present or possible danger of government interference in human affairs. Mill admits that his principal thesis has the “air of a truism,” but he goes on to remind the reader that states have often felt justified in using their power to limit the liberty of citizens in areas that Mill regards as sacrosanct. In the context of Mill’s philosophic work, On Liberty remains one of his most important essays.

In perhaps the most carefully articulated part of his argument, in chapter 2, “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” Mill considers the consequences of suppressing the expression of opinion if the suppressed opinion were true; and then, having countered a series of objections to his arguments against suppression, he continues by considering the consequences of suppressing opinion if the opinion were false.

Suppressing true opinion is wrong, particularly if the opinion is suppressed on the claim that it is false. Silencing the expression of opinion on the ground that the opinion is false is a sign of an assumption of infallibility. A moment’s thought shows that the assumption may be mistaken, and that suppressing opinion may very well make discovery of error impossible.

In response to the objection that it is permissible to suppress opinion, even true opinion, because the truth always triumphs, Mill answers that the idea that truth always wins out is a “pleasant falsehood” proved false by experience. To the objection that at least in some parts of the world people no longer put others to death for expressing their opinions, Mill counters with the argument that other kinds of persecution continue to be practiced, destroying truth and moral courage.

If the opinion suppressed be false, Mill continues, the prevailing and true opinion, lacking opposition, becomes a dead dogma. When ideas are not continually met by opposing ideas they tend to become either meaningless or groundless. Beliefs that at one time had force and reasons behind them may come to be nothing but empty words.

The argument in favor of freedom of opinion and the press closes with the claim that most opinions are neither wholly true nor wholly false, but mixtures of the two, and that only in free discussion can the difference be made out. To reinforce his central contention—that it is always wrong to hinder the freedom of an individual when what the individual does is not harmful to others—Mill devotes a chapter to an argument designed to show that development of individuality is essential to one’s happiness. Since there is nothing better than happiness, it follows that individuality should be fostered and guaranteed. Mill supports Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt’s injunction that every human being aim at “individuality of power and development,” for which there are two prerequisites: “freedom and the variety of situations.”

There is a refreshing pertinence to Mill’s discussion of the value of individuality, which recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s defense of nonconformity. Mill states, “Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of,” and “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” Mill argues that only if uncustomary acts are allowed to show their merits can anyone decide which mode of action should become customary, and, in any case, the differences among people demand that differences of conduct be allowed so that each person may realize what is best within.

In his discussion of the harm that results from a state’s interference with the rights of an individual to act in ways that concern only the individual, Mill reviews some of the consequences of religious intolerance, prohibition, and other attempts to restrict liberty for the common good. In each case, he argues, the result is not only failure to achieve the goal of the prohibitive act but also some damage to the character of the state and its citizens.

Mill closes On Liberty by saying that “a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can be accomplished.”

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