Read with me: On Liberty, Part One

This is part one of our read-along of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. First published in 1859, On Liberty is the product of a bout of productive energy during a time when Mill feared his life was ending. Though this magnum opus has stood the test of time, it is a flawed and imperfect work. Its contributions are significant, however: it is a key text in the evolution of Western Liberalism and Liberal thought, sitting alongside Locke, Spencer, Green, and others. What follows is a reading of On Liberty through the lens of an intelligent, interested non-specialist. It may serve as an introduction to Mill for the uninitiated; for those familiar with Mill’s work, I will be making connections between his ideas and issues important to the moment in which I have read this. I don’t intend this to be comprehensive, or all-encompassing; I haven’t done a literature survey, and I have no claims to originality. This isn’t an academic work. Rather, I want to take part in a dialogue, encouraging the sharing of ideas and interpretations with other interested non-specialists. What follows is conversational and exploratory. With that in mind, let me know what you think. What have I got right, and what do I get wrong? What have I missed that you feel is important?

Chapter I: Introductory

On Liberty opens with Mill setting out the problem, as he sees it. While government was formed out of a need to protect the people from other “vultures”, the people would also need protection from the government (the “king of the vultures”). Their liberty is defined by the limitations of the government’s power. Early attempts to resolve this problem were, in Mill’s mind, insufficient. Revolution in Europe (and there had been several by the time of Mill’s writing) had led to a system whereby rights were created and defined. If these were infringed, this would lead to a justified resistance. These societies also created a body, representative of the population, to impose constitutional checks. They moved onto electing temporary rulers, whose interests aligned with the “will of the nation”. Given the supposed alignment of wills, they reasoned, no further check on power would be necessary; if a government’s will was that of the people, and if that government was made up of the people, then the people could not tyrannise over themselves. Yet this logic was not evident in practice. The will of the people, thus conceived, was merely the “will of the majority”, who could impose their opinions and practices as rules of conduct over others. As Mill argues, people need protection from this majority as much as they need protection from despotic rulers.

It is evident to Mill that some limit on people’s behaviour needs to be set – some restraint on the action of others – but how could it be practical? Early experiments with creating rules relied on feeling rather than reason; rules were created based on preference or opinion of the behaviour of others. This was guided by human emotion, superstition, or self-interest; it was embedded in class. As Mill emphasises,

The likings and disliking of society, or of some small portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion.

Any challenge to this framework has debated what society ought to like or dislike, rather than whether like or dislike should be the basis for law at all. People accept or condemn government action based on preference, rather than principle; they judge the government based on their sentiment, rather than on an idea of what it is fit for a government to do.

The problem thus outlined, Mill offers his solution: a principle upon which others may govern and coerce (through force, or through the “moral coercion” of public opinion). Force may only be justified if applied for self-protection, or to prevent harm being done to others. No one person may force another to do something for their own good. They may reason, persuade, or entreat, but they may not compel, for “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. There are caveats to this principle: it does not apply to children, or those “in a state to require being taken care of by others”. Another caveat (one less palatable to the modern reader): this does not apply to immature, “backward” societies. Despotism, according to Mill, is a legitimate means of ruling over “barbarians”. Liberty only applies to societies with individuals capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.

This principle is to be founded on the ethics of utility (though On Liberty was published first, Mill had begun writing Utilitarianism at around the same time). Society might only control actions which concern the interests of other people. They must punish actions which cause harm; they may compel positive actions, such as giving evidence at a trial, or taxation to pay for common defence; and they may punish those for not performing an action, if the lack of action caused harm (such as failing to save someone’s life when in a position to do so). Conversely, therefore, society should not care about actions that only affect the individual directly (Mill promises to deal with indirect effects later), nor about actions that affect others by their free consent and participation. Individuals therefore have liberty of conscience, of thought and feeling, of opinion and sentiment, of combination (as long as no one is forced or deceived), and of taste and pursuit. Given how closely the freedom of publication is entwined with freedom of thought and opinion, this is necessarily bound up with these. An individual may follow one’s path in life as they see fit, as long as they cause no harm to others. Without these elements, a society may not consider itself free. As Mill summarises:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.

* * *

Within this first chapter, Mill introduces a number of concepts important to liberty. He lays out the individual, the final unit of analysis – the indivisible atom who, with others, constitutes a society. He juxtaposes this against the “majority” – the largest, faceless mass of like-minded people who can claim power through the democratic institutions set up to represent the ‘will of the people’. This concept is important and timeless: an obvious modern example here is the Brexit vote, and indeed the infatuation with referenda more generally. No matter which way the vote goes in a binary referendum, the loser can claim to be subjected to the “tyranny of the majority”. This is such an important concept, and one foundational to liberal philosophy, for it underscores the problem with majoritarian democracy. In one phrase, it shows the importance of separation of power, and highlights why we need the checks and balances that are now a mainstay of liberal democracy (and which autocratic and populist powers, in all their forms, seek to undermine). Thwarting ‘the will of the people’ in this way is to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. 

Mill further establishes the different means through which the individual can be subjected to power: from the government, and from society more broadly. It is not just physical force to which people can be subjected, but moral coercion. Opinion and custom is just as powerful at curbing individuality as legislation and the rule of law. What this might mean in practice is unclear: would a modern example of this be refusing someone a service based on some immutable characteristic? While the business owner has a clear and justifiable claim to run their business how they see fit, refusing a service in such a way might be construed as a means by which this “force of opinion” is exercised. I wonder if this principle might be useful in helping resolve the debate surrounding the treatment of gay people by bakeries, which pits one person’s freedom of conscience against the other’s. This may be one way in which to power of a majoritarian opinion is imposed upon a minority – and if so, it matters whose opinion is in the majority. If the majority of people side with the baker, then it should be the gay customer who gets the right to be served; if the majority side with the gay customer, then the baker should have the right to refuse service. This might be a convoluted and counterintuitive solution, one that perhaps strays too far from the text. So let me know – how would Mill resolve this argument, based on what we have read so far?

Mill is graceful and dexterous in his prose. The ideas he proposes are undoubtedly beautiful in the abstract. Yet while he introduces many important concepts, he leaves them undefined. The harm principle, elegant in its simplicity and unbearably obvious at its core, is difficult to put into practice, especially for edge cases. How can we define ‘harm’? Can it be both mental and physical, and what is the threshold at which it becomes unlawful? How can we calculate or detect when harm is caused? How can be measure it? There is no easy answer to any of these questions. Likewise, his caveats are vague: the principle of liberty does not apply to children – understandably – yet who qualifies as a child? Who gets to determine this? A society seeking to control others might arbitrarily redefine childhood to someone much older, could they not? If the brain keeps developing until 25, say, might anyone below 25 be considered a ‘child’? Likewise the caveat regarding the governance of “barbarians”. While this is an obvious justification of Britain’s imperial ambitions and paternalistic approach to Empire, it raises the issue of who gets to define people as ‘barbarian’. Finally, Mill seeks to prevent others from being subjected to the “force of opinion”, as well as legislation. It is not immediately clear, however, what this actually means. If people have the freedom to hold and publish their opinion, at what point does this expression constitute ‘force’? Mill purposefully – and rightly – separates this concept from that of legislation. Yet in separating it he leaves it undefined.

Yet this chapter is only the introduction, where Mill lays out the problems he sees, and a potential solution. To understand his ideas more fully, we must follow him through his exploration of the freedoms of thought and discussion. Join me next week for a read-along of Chapter II of On Liberty

Please let me know what you think in the comments.

The copy I’m reading is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, with a forward by John Gray, published first in 1991, and reissued in 2008:

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 5-19.


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6 thoughts on “Read with me: On Liberty, Part One

  1. Pingback: Read with me: On Liberty, Part Two – Bucky's Book Reviews

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  4. Pingback: Read with me: On Liberty, Part Five – Bucky's Book Reviews

  5. Pingback: Five Key Take-Aways from JS Mill, On Liberty – Bucky's Book Reviews

  6. Pingback: Read with me: The Social Contract, Part I – Bucky's Book Reviews

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