John Stuart Mill thought long and hard about the theoretical and practical problems connected with liberal democratic government. Actual service in the British Parliament brought him into intimate contact with applied politics. Beneath the surface of nineteenth century British political experience, Mill came upon the one problem he considered central to everyone’s long-range interests. The clarity with which he stated this problem in On Liberty earned him a justified reputation as defender of the basic principles of liberalism. “The struggle between Liberty and Authority,” he wrote, “is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England.” The individual’s relation to the organized power of state and popular culture requires that people draw the line between what in principle rightly belongs to each. The liberal task concerns how people are to meet the necessary demands of organized life without destroying the rights of the individual.

Mill mentions two ways in which people gradually subdued sovereign power after long and difficult struggles. First, select groups within a given political domain worked to compel the rulers to grant them special immunities. Second (and historically a later phenomenon), people managed to win constitutionally guaranteed rights through some political body which represented them. These historical tendencies limited the tyrannical aspects of sovereign power without raising questions about the inherited right of the sovereign to rule.

Guarding the Individual’s Rights

A later European development involved the replacement of inherited rulers by people elected for periodic terms of governing. This was the aim of popular parties in modern European affairs, according to Mill. People who once wanted to limit governmental powers when such government rested on unrepresentative principles began to put less stress on the need of limitation once government received its justification by popular support—for example, through elections. “Their power was but the nation’s own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise.” However, Mill criticizes European liberalism for failing to understand that popularly supported governments may also introduce forms of tyranny. Mill’s essay refers to this phenomenon as “the tyranny of the majority.” Earlier thinkers asked who could protect people from the tyranny of an inherited rule, but modern Europeans asked who would protect people from the tyranny of custom. The individual citizen’s independence is threatened in either instance. Individuals need protection from arbitrary rulers and also from “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” Even a democratic society can coerce its dissenters to conform to ideals and rules of conduct in areas that should belong solely to the individual’s decisions.

The chief concern of modern politics, then, is to protect the individual’s rights from governmental and social coercion. Mill argues that the practical issue...

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Expression of Opinion

The first argument against repression of open expression of opinion is that the repressed opinion may be true. Those who silence opinion must act on the dogmatic assumption that their own viewpoint is infallible. However, if a given opinion happens to be true, people can never exchange error for its truth as long as discussion is curtailed. On the other hand, if the controversial opinion is false, by silencing discussion of it, people prevent more lively truths in existence from gaining by the healthy collision with error. No government or social group should be permitted to claim infallibility for the limited perspective that any given group must inevitably hold toward events. “The power itself is illegitimate,” Mill argues, insisting that “the best government has no more title to it than the worst.”

Mill lists a number of possible objections to his first argument in defense of free discussion: One should not permit false doctrines to be proclaimed; people should never allow discussion to be pushed to an extreme; persecution of opinion is good in that truth will ultimately win out; and only bad individuals would seek to weaken existing beliefs that are useful. None of these objections proves persuasive to Mill. He answers by asserting: A difference exists between establishing a truth in the face of repeated challenges that fail to refute it and assuming a truth to prevent its possible refutation; open discussion holds significance only if it applies to extreme cases; many historical instances show that coercive error can interfere with the spread of true opinions; and, finally, the truth of an opinion is a necessary aspect of its utility. Mill reminds people how very learned persons joined with those who persecuted Socrates and Jesus for holding opinions that later won many adherents. Such persecution often involves the bigoted use of economic reprisals, about which Mill says: “Men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their...

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Curbs on Individuality

What concerns Mill is that society shows a threatening tendency to curb individuality. The pressures of social opinion lead to a deficiency of individual impulses, a narrowing of the range of human preferences, and a decline in spontaneity. At this point, Mill, who usually speaks favorably of Protestant resistance to earlier orthodox doctrines, singles out Calvinism for harsh criticism. Modern society evinces dangerous secular expressions of the earlier Calvinist insistence that people perform God’s will. The emphasis was on strict obedience. So narrow a theory of human performance inevitably pinches human character. As an ethical teleologist and a utilitarian, Mill holds that the value of human action must be determined by its tendency to produce human self-realization. Obedience can never be an adequate end of human character.

Mill insists that democratic views tend to produce some conditions that encourage the loss of individuality. A tendency exists “to render mediocrity the ascendent power among mankind.” Political democracy often results in mass thinking. To protect human individuality, people must show a great suspicion of averages, for the conditions of spiritual development vary from person to person. In fact, Mill argues that democracy needs an aristocracy of learned and dedicated people who can guide its development along progressive paths. What Mill calls “the progressive principle” is always antagonistic to the coercive stance of customary modes of thinking and acting. Such a principle operates only in contexts that permit diversity of human types and a variety of situations. Mill laments that the latter condition seemed on the wane in nineteenth century England. He suggests, also, that the slow disappearance of classes has a causal relation to the growing uniformity in English society. His general conclusion, expressed as a warning, is that the individual increasingly feels the compulsions of social rather than governmental coercion.

Societal Interventions

To what extent may society influence the individual? Mill asserts that society can restrain people from doing damage to others’ interests as well as require people to share the burdens of common defense and of protection of their fellows’ rights. Society may rightfully establish rules that create obligations for its members insofar as they form a community of interests. Education aims at developing self-regarding virtues in individuals. Individuals who are persistently rash, obstinate, immoderate in behavior, and filled with self-conceit may even be subject to society’s disapprobation. However, society must not punish a person by legal means if the individual acts in disapproved ways regarding what that person thinks to be in his or her own good. “It makes a vast difference both in our feelings and in our conduct toward him,” Mill warns, “whether he displeases us in things in which we think we have a right to control him, or in things in which we know that we have not.” Mill rejects the argument that no feature of a person’s conduct may fall outside the area of society’s jurisdiction. A person has the right to make personal mistakes. Finally, Mill argues that society will tend to interfere in a person’s private actions in a wrong manner and for the wrong reasons. Religious, socialistic, and other forms of social censorship prove unable to develop adequate self-restraints. A full-blown social censorship leads, in time, to the very decline of a civilization.

Mill concludes his work by pointing out the circumstances under which a society can with justification interfere in areas of common concern. Trade involves social aspects and can be restrained when it is harmful. Crime must be prevented whenever possible. There are offenses against decency that should be curbed, and solicitation of others to do acts harmful to themselves bears watching. Mill writes: “Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling; but should a person be free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling-house?” The state may establish restrictions of such activities, according to Mill. Finally, Mill argues that the state should accept the duty of requiring a sound education for each individual.

On Liberty

Mill’s object in writing this essay was to assert the principles that should govern the relationship between individuals and the collective authority of church and state. Following the utilitarian maxim that a good society is one where the greatest number of persons enjoy the greatest amount of happiness, Mill sought to ensure that individuals would be able to think and act freely, thus creating the maximum of happiness.

Mill bases his argument for the usefulness of airing all points of view on three premises. First, an opinion that is suppressed can turn out to be valid, as in the case of the teachings of Socrates and Christ. Secondly, even if an opinion is false, its discussion will cause us to test the validity of...

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On Liberty

The Work

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill provided a powerful defense of individual freedom of thought and action. Mill’s ideas have been a source of inspiration for those concerned with civil liberty and individual freedom for more than one hundred years, but his assertions in this volume were not in accord with the rest of his substantial body of work. The popularity of On Liberty was the result of a combination of Mill’s substantial reputation and the work’s contents, which, while popular with the general reader, have been frequently criticized by professional scholars and reviewers.

Biographical Background

John Stuart Mill was the son of Scottish...

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Additional Reading

Berger, Fred R. Happiness, Justice, and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. A thorough evaluation of the moral and political contributions and implications of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.

Berlin, Isaiah. Four Essays on Liberty. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Essays on some of the issues raised by Mill in his On Liberty.

Brady, Alexander. Introduction and textual introduction to On Liberty. Vol. 18 in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Buffalo:...

(The entire section is 655 words.)