On Liberty Summary
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....
(The entire section is 1,336 words.)