15. J. S. Mill’s On Liberty

“The line between matters that are affected with the public interest and the private concerns of individual men is a difficult one to draw. What part of anyone’s life or conduct is nobody’s business, and what part is everyone’s business because it affects the lives of others and the welfare of society as a whole? There may be no satisfactory answer to this question, but some determination of what is private and what is public is necessary to determine the proper scope of government and the sphere of individual liberty. “This is the problem John Stuart Mill undertakes to solve in his essay On Liberty.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, volume 2 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959)

In introducing my last post, on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, I said that although I didn’t share the antipathy that some hold of it I was tempted not to include an article on it in this series of posts at Bob’s Corner on the writings considered in The Development of Political Theory and Government because I found it difficult to read. I have no such problem with On Liberty, finding it easy to read. Additionally, although J. S. Mill’s discussion of where to draw the line between conduct that affects others and conduct that affects the individual’s personal life was published over one and one-half centuries ago, it seems quite contemporary to me.

In their guide to On Liberty Adler and Wolff consider Mill’s view of its importance, the meaning of “liberty,” the importance of individuality, and two other questions about On Liberty. Here I’ll give  the sketch of J. S. Mill’s life that I included in my earlier post on his Representative Government and summarize and comment on what Adler and Wolff say.

The Life of Mill

John Stuart Mill was born in Pentonville, London, on May 20, 1806, the oldest son of James Mill, an outstanding philosopher, political thinker, and practical statesman. He was educated exclusively by his father, a strict disciplinarian. He began to study Greek and arithmetic at the age of three; by the time he was eight he had read the whole of the historian Herodotus, six dialogues of Plato, and considerable history; and before he was twelve had studied Euclid and algebra, the Greek and Latin poets, and some English poetry. At twelve he was introduced to logic, and his thirteenth year (the last under his father’s direct supervision) was devoted to political economy under his father, who was working on his Elements of Political Economy. He furthered his studies with his father’s friends, studying law with Austen and economics with Ricardo.

In 1826, at the age of twenty, Mill suffered what he later called “a crisis in my mental history.” He became greatly depressed, asking himself, “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you were looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness and happiness to you?” and answering with “an irrepressible self-consciousness” with “No.” This depression lasted several months and affected him for three or four years. He finally emerged from it with a new appreciation for the value of the emotions and a realization that philosophical analysis was only part of life. (The quotations in this paragraph are from Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 181.)

From the time he was seventeen, Mill supported himself by working for the British East India Company, where his father was an official. Like his father he worked in its examiner’s office and rose (on his father’s death in 1836) to be chief examiner. He spent thirty-five years at it, retiring in 1858 when the company was dissolved and its functions were taken over by the British Government. In addition to his regular employment, he took part in many activities tending to prepare public opinion for legislative reform; for example, he wrote often for newspapers friendly to the “radical” cause. However these activities didn’t present him from pursuing his own intellectual interests, his studies resulting in the publication of System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848).

Mill attributed the development and productivity of these years to his relationship with Mrs. Harriet Taylor, who was the wife of John Taylor when he met her in 1830. They were married in 1851, two years after the death of her first husband. Mill later wrote that his friendship with her “has been the honour and chief blessing of my existence, as well as the source of a great part of all that I have attempted to do, or hope to do hereafter, for human improvement.” Although in the seven years of their married life he published less than at any other period of his life (because of his increasing absorption in the work of India House), he thought out and discussed with her such important works as On Liberty and Representative Government (published in 1859 and 1861, respectively).

Mill died on May 8, 1873, in his cottage at Avignon which had been built so that he might be close to the grave of his wife, who had died there on November 3, 1858.

Mill’s View of the Importance of On Liberty

Mill thought that On Liberty would be his most lasting work and attributed its high quality to his wife’s help with it. In the Autobiography he says:

“The ‘Liberty’ was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name,  for there was not a sentence of it that was not several times gone through by us together, turned over in many ways, and carefully weeded of many faults, either in thought or expression, that we detected in it. It is in consequence of this that, although it never underwent her final revision [because of her death], it far surpasses, as a mere specimen of composition, anything which has proceeded from me, either before or since.…

“The ‘Liberty’ is likely to survive longer than anything else than anything else that I have written… because the conjunction of her mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth, which the changes progressively taking place in modern society tend to bring out into ever stronger relied: the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions.” (New York, 1948, pages 176-77; quoted in Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 209-10)

The Meaning of “Liberty”

“Liberty consists in doing what one desires” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 313).

As indicated in the following statement, On Liberty assigns both a positive and a negative aspect to liberty:

“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our only good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 273).

Positively, liberty means that a person can think, express himself, and do as he pleases. Chapter 2, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” deals with why people should be free to form and express opinions without reserve, and Chapter 3, “Of Individuality, as one of the Elements of Well-Being,” deals with why people should be free to act on one’s opinions without hindrance from others. (For more on Chapters 2 and 3, see respectively the first question in “Questions about On Liberty” and “The Importance of Individuality” below.)

Negatively, liberty has only one restriction on it‒the exercise of one’s freedom must not interfere with a similar freedom on the part of others. Chapter 4, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual,” deals with the extent to which society is justified in interfering with the individual’s freedom. (For more on Chapter 4, see the second question in “Questions about On Liberty” below.)

(Chapters 2-4 constitute the main body of On Liberty, with Chapters 1, “Introductory,” and 5, “Applications,” introducing and concluding it.)

The Importance of Individuality

Throughout Chapter 3 Mill tells us that most people don’t appreciate the value of individuality. For example, near the beginning of the chapter, he says:

“Individual spontaneity is hardly recognized by the common modes of thinking as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account. The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are…cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everyone.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 294)

In the chapter Mill gives an assortment of reasons why individuality should be highly regarded. Adler and Wolff identify three:

(1) Although a person should learn from the experiences of others, their experience might be suitable for their circumstances but not suitable for him. Nor can he rely on customs.

“Customs are made for customary circumstances and customary characters; and his circumstances or his character may be uncustomary” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 294).

(2) Only by choosing and acting for oneself can a person develop fully as a human being.

“A person whose desires and impulses are his own‒are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture‒is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.” (J. Mill, On Liberty, page 295)

(3) People’s preference for the uniformity and customariness of routine lives leads to a depressing sameness in tastes, desires, and actions.

“Comparatively speaking, [all people] now read the same things, listen to the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Great as are the differences of position which remain, they are nothing to those which have  ceased. And the assimilation is still proceeding.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 302)

In light of the many things in society endangering individuality, Mill encourages unusual thought and behaviour.

“Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 299)

Questions about On Liberty

What are Mill’s arguments in favor of liberty of thought and discussion?

In Chapter 2 Mill says that everyone’s opinions, whether right or wrong, ought to be allowed to be expressed, discussed, and disseminated.

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, [men] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 275)

Adler and Wolff’s consideration of the question consists mainly of the posing of several follow-up questions. Although I’ll give only a few of them here, I’ll add my answers to them. I invite you to also share your answers to them, in the Bob’s Corner and/or Facebook discussions of this article. (The questions quoted below are from Adler and Wolff, The Development of Political Theory and Government, page 215-16.)

“In this view [the view expressed in the quotation above], should free discussion of any opinion put forth (in public discussion, in the newspapers, etc.) be permitted? Or are there any opinions the suppression of which Mill would think justified?” Yes to both questions. An example of the latter is:

“An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but they may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 293)

“Does the freedom of opinion which Mill advocates extend to all subjects? Or are any excepted? For instance, are theological matters to be excepted in a country‒like England‒where there is an established church?” Yes, no, and no, respectively. Mill even argues that doctrines being challenged gives life to them. For example, he says:

“There are many reasons, doubtless, why doctrines which are the badge of a sect retain more of their vitality than those common to all recognized sects, and why more pains are taken by teachers to keep their meaning alive; but one reason certainly is, that the peculiar doctrines are more questioned, and have to be oftener defended against open gainsayers. Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 287)

“It is sometimes said that ‘the public business must be public,’ that is, that there must be no closed sessions of legislatures, city councils, etc. Would these bodies sometimes not function more efficiently and more courageously if their deliberations were not subject to public scrutiny? Is the loss in efficiency made up for by a gain in liberty?” Yes to both questions.
As I read Chapter 2, I wondered what Mill would say about the current attempts in my country, Canada, of the BGLT community to censor public objections to homosexualism on the grounds that the objections display intolerance. What do you think?

Are there any restrictions on freedom of action?

Actions should not be allowed which harm or threaten to harm other people.

“Acts, of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the most important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 293).

In Chapter 4 Mill sums up his view of the relation of society and the individual thus:

“As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like.” (J. S. Mill, On Liberty, page 303)


2 thoughts on “15. J. S. Mill’s On Liberty

  1. Allison

    It would have been interesting to observe Mill and his adherents have discussions. Too many debates these days tend to rely heavily on name-calling and emotionalism. These type of discussions don’t benefit anyone. They simply cause hard feelings and divisions, often to the detriment of whatever cause or issue the discussion was about. It would be enlightening to know how Mill and his adherents were able to form strong beliefs, but also remain respectful and even open-minded in their discussions.

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      I agree with your criticism of “too many debates these days” and would like to be able to listen to J. S. MIll’s discussions with his wife in hopes of improving my discussions with Leonora (and with others).


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