John Stuart Mill, On Liberty – A Summary

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.

Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

Mill begins by stating that a free press is an important counterpoint to a corrupt or tyrannical government. A government who challenges a free press is a government who fears insurrection: in attempting to control public opinion, they are attempting to determine their own legitimacy. It is out of principle, therefore, that no government should have this power of coercion, for any reason, for:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Silencing anyone hurts not just the individual, but society as whole. If that one person’s opinion is right, society is deprived of exchanging their error for the truth; if that person is wrong, society is deprived of a clearer perception of the truth by their exposure to this error. Thus lays the basis for Mill’s argument.

If society, or the government, attempts to suppress an opinion, which could potentially be true, they are assuming themselves to be infallible. Who has the authority to make that final judgement on any opinion? Any certainty on the matter is derived from an accident of birth – you may believe something to be true because of the circumstances and timing of your birth. Were you born at a different time, you would have been exposed to a different prevailing opinion, which you would equally hold to be true. 

Mill anticipates the counter arguments: would some not say that we are given our critical faculties so that we may establish truths? Should we accomplish this, given the tools we were handed by God and nature, would we not be within our rights to make bold statements about what is and is not true? Our duty is to be careful in forming our opinions, and thus be certain of them, but still to act.

Perhaps, Mill says: but if we do not allow opinions we believe to be untrue to exist, we cannot be sure of the truth of our own opinions. Having our opinion challenged can make us more sure that it is right, and thus give us greater certainty. Criticism is necessary for the exercise of human judgement. It helps us see different viewpoints through different lenses; rather than seeding doubt, it creates a strong foundation. Even the Catholic Church has someone to advocate on behalf of the devil when canonising a saint. Indeed, we need different viewpoints to help us understand our experiences, for facts alone do not tell their own story: we must learn from each other through discussion.

So the process of discussion, with competing opinions, is how certainty can be established. But this is not the only counter argument Mill presents. Some people would protect opinions for their usefulness to society, rather than for their truth; some opinions, given their value, should be above criticism. This Mill rebuts thusly: first, the usefulness of an opinion is an opinion in its own right, and is itself subject to criticism. Secondly, the truth of an opinion is part of what makes it useful. No opinion contrary to the truth can be useful.

To illustrate his argument, Mill proceeds to give some examples of when men were put to death for their opinions, and in this way the world was denied some truth. Socrates was one, killed for his atheism: even something about which society could be so sure (the existence of God and the afterlife) should not be defended from critics, for society may lose another Socrates. Jesus himself was persecuted for his belief, as society tried to prevent the spread of Christianity. Even Marcus Aurelius, one of history’s wisest thinkers, and someone whose values aligned with Christian teachings, persecuted Christianity. Some might defend such persecution, believing that this is the challenge through which truth must suffer to prove itself as truth. Mill is unconvinced. Such persecution would put anyone off from challenging the prevailing order, and thus the world would lose out by it. Such is the strength of persecution. The only saving grace is that a truth “may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it”.

Yet even if society thinks itself evolved beyond such persecution – they may no longer put heretics to death – there are still barriers and impediments that Mill identifies. Atheists, for example, (at the time of Mill’s writing) may not give evidence or serve as jurors. On this basis, they are excluded from being protected by the state, if their case rests of the proof of their evidence. Further still, it supposes that atheists are liars, but in screening them in this way, only those that lie about their atheism are allowed to take part, and any honest atheist is excluded. As for Christians, it supposes that the only reason for their honesty is the fear of hell – an insult to their conscience! And even if there is no legal impediment, or the law is not enforced, there may still be social stigma. The majority may still tyrannise. People may lose their job for a belief or opinion: one must be completely financially independent to have the freedom to hold and share an opinion that they will be ill-judged for. The stigma itself prevents people from coming forward with potential truths. Such suppression would be nevertheless ineffective, for heretical opinions would “continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate”. This narrows the range of opinions people are exposed to; it prevents an active consideration of first principles, and narrows the ability of people to think broadly and critically. Indeed, it is not the heretics who are harmed, but those who are afraid to pursue a “bold, vigorous, independent train of thought” for fear of being labelled as heretics. Freedom to discuss opinions creates an “intellectually active people”; and it is better to have people thinking for themselves than passively accepting even true opinions. In societies which are free to discuss, the intellects of ordinary people are raised; these societies flourish.

So society may risk entrenching its ignorance by suppressing potentially true opinions. What if society holds the true opinion? What does it lose then?

In such a state, Mill argues, a truth that is not actively debated becomes stale: it ceases to be a “living truth”, and instead becomes a “dead dogma”. People may know the truth without knowing its basis, and they would therefore not understand the truth, or its meaning. They would not be equipped to argue or defend the truth; they would merely hold it as a prejudice independently of any evidence or argument.

Knowing the basis for truth is important for cultivating one’s intellectual faculties. It is important for any discipline, for “on every subject for which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons”. There are a variety of ways to explain facts in science, and more so in politics or moral philosophy. Furthermore, if you are to truly understand your position, you must study the opposing argument. You must know it better than you know your own, for until you can refute the other side, you have no grounds to hold either opinion. Until then, you must suspend your judgement, or else risk being led by authority or inclination. And you must encounter the best version of the argument, from its most passionate advocate, in its most “plausible and persuasive form”. You must be able to grasp the argument in all its complexity. Your opinion may be true, but, unless you engage with the opposing argument, for all you know it may be false.

Mill then presents further counter arguments. Might it not be enough, some suggest, that an authority can understand all this, and that common people can simply trust whatever conclusion that authority comes to? Surely no one has the knowledge or talent to resolve every difficulty? Perhaps, says Mill: but this does not mean that speech should be restricted. People must have the choice to engage with these ideas, or defer to an authority. Even those accepting of authority need to know that all objections have been raised, and that the authority has considered all angles. This can only be accomplished if speech is free.

Furthermore, Mill argues, without discussion, the grounds of the truth disappear, and with it disappears the meaning of the truth. Later generations, accepting it passively, do not get the full effect of understanding the opinion on their character or conscience. The truth must play on their imagination, feeling, and understanding. Christians, Mill argues, will passively accept the teachings of Christ, but without active debate they do not understand them. They respect the sound of the doctrine, but have no feeling for it. They are not charitable, as Christ taught they should be. Indeed, Mill suggests, the lack of debate is probably why Christianity had stopped spreading. Further still, people need debate and discussion of ideas to fully understand their experiences; understanding of previous debates may mean that they do not have to be taught by experience. It may help them avoid making mistakes.

Does this mean that a truth will perish as soon as it becomes universally received? As we know more will we understand less? If this is the case, and there truly is no one left to argue for an opposing view, then teachers must recreate it as best they can, and use it as a tool for teaching. By teaching the arguments for and against, by recreating the debate, they are able to make the difficulties of understanding apparent to the learner. They will develop the skill of being to point out flaws in an argument, a skill as important to understanding as being able to present one’s own argument. Thus their intellects will be trained: even a wrong argument is a good learning tool. Indeed, 

No one’s opinions deserve the name of knowledge, except so far as he has either had forced upon him by others, or gone through of himself, the same mental process which would have been required of him in carrying on an active controversy with opponents.

So if your opinion is false, free discussion will help you discover the truth; if your opinion is true, free discussion will reinforce it. Yet more common, Mill states, is that a truth will lie between two sides of a debate, and in silencing one, we lose part of the truth. In politics, for example, both a party of stability and a party of progress are necessary, and between them they will figure out what is best to preserve and what is best to change. Opposition from the other keeps both within the limits of reason and sanity. Both sides must argue with passion and vigour – and must be allowed to argue with passion and vigour – to retain the balance. Indeed, the view of a minority must be especially protected, because it represents neglected interests, for “only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth”. Dissentients, even if wrong, has something worth hearing to say for themselves. Even that which most would say is true – Christian teachings – is more poetry than precise law, and as such needs to be actively debated in order to uncover its truths – truths which complement secular standards. Mill is under no illusion that free discussion will eliminate sectarianism or partisanship. Yet suppression of either side is a greater evil.

Finally, Mill briefly discusses the objection that, while thought should remain free, discussion should be carried out in a way that is fair. This would mean silencing people who are offensive; it would mean silencing those who misrepresent their opponents. Yet this would not do, Mill argues. Offence is subjective. Misrepresentation may be an honest mistake, and even if it is not, it is a difficult thing to adjudicate by law. Further, rarely do people want these standards applied to both sides. Those in the majority will frequently decry those in the minority as immoral with impunity, and yet demand protection from such accusations themselves.

Chapter III: Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being

Mill begins by providing caveats from his last chapter. He had argued that people should be left free to believe what they want, and discuss what they want. However, he states, “no one” – not even he – “believes that actions should be as free as opinions”. More precisely, if words lead directly to actions that violate the harm principle, the means of expression, though not the opinion expressed, should be restricted, for 

Even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. 

This is not necessarily restricted to direct calls for violence. The example he provides is one of promoting anger against corn dealers (very relevant to his time of writing): people should be free to publish their opinion that corn dealers are starving the poor, but should not express this opinion in front of a mob of people. His opinion is thus that the press should be completely free, but that some speech, even of the same opinion, should be restricted. It is not, then, freedom of ‘speech’ per se, but freedom of publication. The freedom of the individual should thus be unrestricted, so long as he does not prove himself a nuisance to others. What it means to be a “nuisance” is to be defined in a later chapter. For now, Mill extolls the virtues of letting individuality roam free in order to improve people’s well-being.

Central to his argument that individuality will improve well-being is the idea that in acting as individuals, people will engage in “experiments of living”. This means allowing people to live as they wish, giving free scope for varieties of character, so long as people do not cause injury to others. Mill argues that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically. What is the impediment to these “experiments”? Mill argues that people who are content with the way their lives are going do not see the value in experimentation, spontaneity, or choice. Others who seek to reform society see individuality as an impediment to their reforms – that is, what they think people should do. This is a matter of degree: no one argues that people should copy one another completely, nor that they should totally disregard all established experience. Rather, Mill suggests, once at maturity, people should use their critical faculties to decide what part of recorded experience is applicable to themselves. They should not just accept custom simply because it is custom – this would not help train their minds. Indeed, 

The human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. 


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. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties.

Choosing one’s own path therefore exercises a range of critical functions; and it is this way of seeking self-improvement that separates humans from machines.

What of those who think that while our understanding should be our own, our impulses and desires must be controlled? As Mill argues, people’s impulses should similarly be free, for they are only dangerous if not properly balanced by a strong conscience. The impulse to do good can be just as powerful as the impulse to do bad. “Impulse” is simply an energy that must be trained and cultivated. Furthermore, these desires and impulses must be left alone in order for a person to have character: strong impulses guided by a strong will make for an energetic character. Society needs strong characters. If earlier societies struggled to contain spontaneity, that is, they found it difficult to induce men to obey rules that required impulse control, they resorted to despotism. However, society, at the time that Mill writes, is, in his opinion, able to control such impulses. The danger now is that it controls it too much. People should be permitted to reflect on their preferences and desires, and assess what modes of living would suit their character and disposition. Instead, they ask themselves what suits their position or circumstance. As he clarifies, 

I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.

This is expressed, at its most extreme, in the tradition of Calvinism, which teaches that it is man’s duty to follow and obey their teachings, and surrender himself completely to God. This is echoed in other religions. Yet, Mill argues, God gave humans critical faculties and impulses so that they might use them.

Furthermore, Mill continues, individuality of character is beautiful, and beautiful characters together constitute a beautiful society. However, the whole of society only becomes greater than the sum of its parts in this way when the parts are allowed to flourish. Within this, man being prohibited only from “gratifying his inclinations” which would lead “to the injury of others” will better develop the “social part of his nature”. If, however, he is restrained from acting in ways which do not cause harm to others, this will stunt his character, building only resistance against the restraints. In other words, restraint on anti-social (harmful) behaviour will breed social behaviour, while restrictions on individuality will breed anti-social behaviour. As he summarises, 

Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men. 

Individuality will, in this way, elevate humans to the best they can be, and anything that prevents this must necessarily be immoral.

Society and the individual therefore benefit from experiments of living. With a diverse array of experiments, only a few need to be successful for others to learn from. Further, just as free discussion of ideas keeps the ideas alive, so too does free experimentation of modes of living keep understanding of customary practices alive. Within this environment, where people are free to discuss ideas and experiment with how they live, genius is free to breathe. Geniuses are less able to fit “into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character”. If forced into a mould, they will not grow, and society will not benefit. There is a danger, however, for “unoriginal minds” to constrain genius, because they believe they have no need for original thought. The individual therefore becomes “lost in the crowd”.

There are further implications, too. Without individual brilliance, government becomes responsive only to the tendencies and instincts of the masses. Mill sees this for himself: he notes how “public opinion now rules the world”. This is true in England, where he argues that the government is swayed predominantly by the middle class, who all form the same opinions, and share in a “collective mediocrity”. They form their opinions from middle class writers writing in middle class newspapers. A government who represents this mediocre class becomes a mediocre government. Better governments are ruled by a sovereign, himself gifted, or guided by a gifted one or few (though no strongman or dictator). In order to have men capable of leading others in government, they need to have the freedom to deviate from popular opinion; people must dare to break the tyranny of opinion by being eccentric.

Returning to his earlier theme, Mill goes on to argue that a person can choose how to live their life better than anyone else, and that there is no real need for custom. This is because people require different climates for their spiritual development. They have a wide array of inherent likes and dislikes. Yet “the man, and still more the woman” will be reprimanded for doing, and he quotes, “what nobody does”. Indeed, they’ll be treated as if they are insane. They are made, by a supposedly moral movement operating under the guise of philanthropy, to conform to what others regard as improvement. But they are made to conform to something dull, which desires nothing strongly, and therefore “instead of great energies guided by vigorous reason, and strong feelings strongly controlled by a conscientious will, its result is weak feelings and weak energies”.

This spirit of improvement is toxic, and especially so because the spirit of liberty will lead naturally to improvement, and much more so than those improvements which are forced upon others. This despotism of custom leads to no history, given that there is no change. While “a people, it appears, may be progressive for a certain length of time”, they may stop. Why? Because this people “cease to possess individuality”. Mill’s example – and this is an example which betrays the nature of the period when Mill was writing – is of the East, and specifically China. There is potential for what happened there – stagnation – to happen in Europe. Fashion may still change every year or so, but people must still dress the same as others. Yet the change is for change’s sake, and all people change together. People still seek better in machines, politics, education, and morals, but there is still a desire for conformity. People think the object of progress is to become the same. Yet it is only by comparing different individuals that we can see the flaws and good in each, and conceive of characteristics better than in either. Returning to his example, Mill argues that China found good customs, imposed them upon everyone, and then stagnated. The only way they can be improved, he asserts (again betraying the nature of the period) is by “foreigners”. Europe has so far been preserved by its diversity. The attempts to force conformity upon each other, driven by the European’s intolerance for one another, have so far been unsuccessful. Yet the “variety of situations” is diminishing as people assimilate: 

Comparatively speaking, they [Europeans] now read the same things, listen to the same things, have their hopes and fears directed by the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them.

This assimilation is being driven by several factors. Education is bringing people under common influences. More communication and more migration is bringing different people together, who then become the same. Politics is raising the low and lowering the high to bring people to a similar level. Commerce has given everyone the same desire to rise, and the same access to products that bring “easy circumstances”. Worst of all in eradicating difference is the ascendency of public opinion to the level of the state, making more it difficult to resist the will of the public. Forces are therefore encroaching on individuality, increasing assimilation, and limiting the range of experiments of living. All this conspires to reduce the chances of people to improve their own well-being in ways that they see fit.

Chapter IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual

The key principle guiding Mill’s argument here is that the part of life that interests and affects the individual should be governed by the individual, while society should govern the behaviours that affect society. Mill rejects the idea of a ‘Social Contract’, something which citizens agree to and draw obligations from. But, he argues, everyone who receives protection from society owes for the benefits they receive, and each should be bound by rules regarding their conduct towards others. People should not infringe on the rights of others, and all should share in labour and sacrifice (fixed on an “equitable principle”) for defending society and its members from injury and molestation.

Mill establishes two tiers at which society may become involved in the affairs of the individual. First, if an act is hurtful to others, or lacks consideration for their well-being, but does not infringe on their rights, the individual may be punished by opinion, but not by law. In other words, if their actions are prejudicial to others, society will think badly of that person (and they should be reminded that this is a consequence of their actions). This is because others have the freedom to disassociate themselves with people they don’t like, and they should be free to warn others about that person. This is just the natural consequence of people seeking to avoid behaviours that they don’t like. These inconveniences are not a restriction on the freedom of the offending party. Or, in Mill’s words,

If he displeases us, we may express our distaste, and we may stand aloof from a person as well as from a thing that displeases us; but we shall not therefore feel called on to make his life uncomfortable.

Second, if the person encroaches on the rights of others, inflicts loss or damage through actions beyond exercising their own rights, if they trick someone into harm or loss, if they exercise unfair or ungenerous advantages over someone, or if they fail to defend someone against injury through some selfish action, then they are fit for punishment. If they are driven by greed, lust for power, wickedness, and so own, and this leads them to cause harm, they are fit for moral reprobation, retribution, or punishment.

There is no point in punishing someone whose behaviour we simply don’t like, or worse, whose behaviour we think is not good for them. If they are spoiling their own life with their actions, then there is no need to double down on the punishment. Instead, we should do what we can, without infringing on their rights, to alleviate this self-inflicted punishment. They are not an enemy to society; the worse thing we should do to them is leave them alone. Yet society should intervene if the consequences of someone’s evil actions fall on others. Society must administer a punishment in proportion to the crime.

So far, so simple. But how are we to distinguish between the part of one’s life that concerns only oneself, and the part that concerns others? We are all connected, are we not? To harm oneself is to inevitably harm others, is it not? It is true, Mill says, that one’s actions may render a person unable to provide services that others rely on them for. It may even make them a burden on others. Furthermore, they may be injurious by example. If, so the counter-argument continues, we protect children from themselves, might not we also protect those of “mature years” who are equally incapable of self-government from themselves? If vices are known to cause unhappiness, should law or opinion not regulate against it? We have conducted these experiments of living, and we have found that some experiments fail: should we not stop others from repeating past mistakes? Mill sets these questions up, anticipating them as counter-arguments, and continues to address their collective implications. 

If a person fails to fulfil an obligation, for whatever reason, it is the failure to fulfil the obligation that should be punished, not whatever vice led to it. If a person fails to repay a debt, say, because they gambled away their money, it is the failure to repay that should be punished, not the gambling. The harm or the failure is judged, not what led to it. If there is no perceptible hurt or violation of a specific duty, then society can afford to bear it “for the sake of the greater good of human freedom”. Further, society has full control over people in the early stages of their lives: children have no freedom. The best means to prevent harm, Mill therefore argues, is a good education and a good upbringing. The duty of society, in its wisdom from experiments conducted, is to make the next generation better than the current. With the power over children, guided by the authority of the “received opinion”, and the ability for adults to disassociate with one another, does society need greater powers to force upon others an adherence to particular behaviours? Yet the greatest argument against societal interference in private matters, Mill asserts, is that when society interferes it is often wrong. People know what’s best for themselves better than others.

Importantly, your offence at someone else’s practice doesn’t trump their right to do it. As Mill states, 

There is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it.

Personal taste for a practice of behaviour is as much one’s own as an opinion or a purse. Even if the practice is shown by generations of experience to be detrimental to the individual practising it, allowing society to interfere in these cases will lead to overreach. Society cannot be trusted to limit itself to regulating ways of life proven to be harmful to one’s self. Mill goes on to give some examples that demonstrate that this is no “imaginary evil”. They are specific to the context of his writing, but are worth referring to. 

In his first example, he refers to the practices of Islam. His audience is a Protestant nation: how would they feel if Muslims, should they be the majority, banned the eating of pork? As Mill explains, Muslims are offended by the practice, seeing it as unclean; it would not be religious persecution on their part, because no religion makes it a duty to eat pork. The only grounds of objection is the preference of non-Muslims to eat pork, and their only justification is that whether they eat it or not is no matter for public concern. A second example, and one closer to home for nineteenth-century Britain, concerns European Catholics. They might interfere in private life, for example regulating whether or not one might be allowed to marry. Would a Protestant people want that? Why should that be a matter for regulation? Third, and closer still, the Puritans, who controlled Britain following its Civil War, and who set up colonies in the Americas, would seek to repress public amusements. Even if the Puritans were less powerful at the time of writing, there were people in the middle class, Mill asserts, who still think like this; they may become a majority in Parliament. These examples demonstrate Mill’s principles: if we say we can persecute others because we believe we are right, “we must beware of admitting a principle of which we should resent as a gross injustice the application to ourselves”.

There are other, nonreligious cases too. At the time of writing, the Socialist movements were gathering steam. Mill warns of those hostile to people with large incomes, who would seek to restrict incomes not earned by manual labour, and who would want all incomes to be the same. “It is known”, Mill states, “that the bad workmen who form the majority of the operatives in many branches of industry, are decidedly of opinion that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as good”, and that no one should earn more by superior skill. Mill was also aware of the growing temperance movement that sought to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol. They would restrict what is a private and personal affair, and though they argue that trade is a social act, forbidding the sale of alcohol as a social act is as bad as forbidding its private consumption. What of the restrictions of trading laws that prohibit work on Sundays? While this is done to ensure that people are kept on equal footing with those who observe the Sabbath for religious reasons, some should be permitted to work, even if just in amusements. This would give people something to do on their day off.

Finally, society is not just at risk of persecution, but actively persecutes others. The Mormons, for example, were driven from their land into the desert for practising acts that others find abhorrent, namely polygamy. Mill doesn’t like it – it is unfair for women, amongst other things – but people should be free to practice it if they choose. People should be allowed to establish religious communities, or other kinds of communities where they observe particular rules, as long as those living there are given “perfect freedom of departure”. In this way, experiments of living become not just individual affairs, but group experiments. To those who argue that society must persecute practices which are uncivilised, like polygamy, Mill asserts that “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilised”.

Chapter V: Applications

Mill offers in this final chapter to illustrate the main principles of his theory in practice. He recaps his two key maxims: firstly, that the individual is not accountable to society for actions that concern only himself – society can advise or instruct, but not forcefully interfere; secondly, the individual is accountable to society if his actions are prejudicial to the interests of others. For the latter, they can be punished socially or legally in order to protect society. In clarification, Mill points out that there are times where an individual’s pursuance of self-interest will harm others, such as when they are competing for a job. No one is owed immunity from this kind of suffering; they are, however, owed protection from fraud, treachery, and force. Another example is trade – one person buying something means that someone else cannot buy that same item. Even still, Mill asserts that the general good is maximised when people are allowed to trade freely (the economic system of Free Trade is justified on similar, but different grounds). With this clarification out of the way, Mill begins to discuss how his principles could be applied to particular cases.

His first point regards crime prevention. Mill agrees that governments may take precautions to prevent crime, as well as detect and punish it. This power may be subject to abuse, however – any action can be said to contribute to some delinquency. Things should be banned if their only use is to cause harm: “if poisons were never bought or used for any purpose except the commission of murder, it would be right to prohibit their manufacture and sale”. Other things, however, with “innocent” or “useful purposes” may be abused, but one would have to question whether or not to ban or control their use. A better method of crime prevention for these items would be the collection of “preappointed evidence”, which would be some contract or record of sale for reference if some crime was committed. This would include the name and address of the purchaser, and the quality and quantity of the item purchased. This process would indicate that there would be consequences if a crime were to be committed; there would be no impediment to obtaining the items, but it would discourage misuse.

The government or individuals might also take measures for accident prevention. You could forcibly prevent someone from walking on an unsafe bridge, for example; you can assume it’s not their desire to fall in the river. For most cases, however, it would be better, unless they are a child, delirious, or otherwise without full use of their faculties, for them to be warned, rather than forcibly prevented from performing an action. The government can force producers to label goods indicating they have a poisonous quality – giving people more information is not an infringement of anyone’s liberty. Indeed, giving more information is better than restricting the use of substances, for example by prescriptions from doctors, which may make drugs or medicines overly expensive to obtain for legitimate uses. The consumption of some articles, such as alcohol, might be banned for specific people if they prove themselves liable to commit crimes under the influence. Their decision to drink, with a known history of, say, acting violently under the influence, would put others at risk. In a similar fashion, while idleness would not be illegal, if through inaction one harms others, such as a parent through refusal to work leaves their children hungry, they may be forced to act. In this case, the parent may be forced to perform compulsory labour.

A second point of discussion concerns the right of people to advise others on what they might do. Under Mill’s principles, people would be free to perform an action that harms themselves, but which does not harm others. Should, however, they be free to advocate that others perform such actions? This issue is complicated further when the person takes money for such advocation. They become a class of person with an interest in undermining or diminishing public well-being. Gambling might be legal, for example, but should one be able to run a casino? Mill identifies this as a grey area between the two principles, and offers arguments both ways. In favour of toleration of such advocacy, Mill presents the argument that the act of taking money for that which would otherwise be admissible should not make it criminal: it should be constantly permitted or constantly prohibited; people should be as free to persuade as dissuade. Against tolerance, Mill presents the argument that the state, while not restricting individual action, should restrict actions that affect others if the action is partial, rather than disinterested, especially in a question where the state sees the action as wrong. The individuals are thus able to make a freer choice because they are not influenced by the self-interest of another. It would mean that private gambling and private gambling clubs would be allowed, but not public casinos open to all. Yet, indicating that Mill sides more closely with the former, he points out that all goods bought and sold have dangers in excess, and all sellers have an interest in encouraging excess; further, such a principle may encourage the state to intervene in other cases, too.

Mill’s third example concerns what are now referred to as ‘sin taxes’ – the use of taxation to dissuade certain behaviours considered to be harmful. Should the state be allowed to do this? Mill argues no: taxation to prohibit is only justifiable if total prohibition were justifiable, for this would be tantamount to a prohibition for the poorest. Some indirect taxation is, of course, necessary to help the state earn its revenue. This may be targeted at luxury goods or stimulants, but only in proportion to what the state actually needs. Connected to this, should the state be allowed to use licences to control the sale of goods? Yes, but only under particular conditions, so Mill asserts. Licences in public settings are useful. They help with monitoring sellers, and they can be revoked for indiscretions. No further restriction is justifiable, however: they should not be used to limit consumption.

The fourth topic of discussion is contracts and their limits. Here, Mill argues that contracts should not be completely binding. While people should keep the agreements they enter into, they should not do this at all costs. They should be permitted to withdraw from an agreement if keeping it would violate the rights of a third party, or become injurious to themselves. Further, a voluntary release should be present in all contracts (though those regarding money would be managed differently). His example here is marriage, where divorce should be permitted at any point, to be triggered by the declared will of either party to end it. Conditions would be put in place where children are involved – to have children is an obligation that must be fulfilled. Beyond that, however, individuals should be free to join together and disassociate as they wish. Further to this, Mill argues that no contract should supersede any legal rights. A person cannot sell themselves into slavery, for example: one cannot be free to not be free. Within this discussion of marriage and slavery, Mill confronts the issue of women’s rights (something he tackles in his later The Subjection of Women). He argues that husbands should not act for their wives as if they are acting for themselves, and that wives should have the same rights as their husbands.

His firth concern is education. He argues that, given that it is the duty of the parents to educate their children (and, further, that it would be a harm to the children should they not be educated), then the state should compel education. This would not mean that the state had to provide education – rather, the state should pay for the education of the poorest, but allow parents to send their children to an institution that teaches in whatever manner they like. This is important: drawing on his earlier arguments about individuality and diversity, Mill argues that diversity in education is important for diversity of individuals. A state education would make all people alike; it would cast them in the mould of the majority who had power, allowing them to assume a despotic position over the mind, which would allow them a despotic position over the body. If there is to be a state education, it should be one of many “competing experiments”, serving to raise standards and provide competitive stimulus. At any rate, a state education would be better than no education at all. The state could provide exams, and fine parents of underperforming children, and use the money to pay for education. This would set a minimum for the general knowledge that people need to know (though this should be restricted to “facts and positive science exclusively”). It would establish the facts upon which opinions are based. A student of philosophy, for example, should know Locke and Kant irrespective of who he agrees with. The same should be true of religion, and other matters.

Mill ends the chapter, and the book, by considering the numerous other ways that the state may, or may not, become involved in matters of life. The state may not, Mill asserts, exclude people from particular occupations because of a lack of qualifications. The state may prevent marriage if people cannot prove that they can look after a child; the state may prevent people from having children if the country is at risk of becoming overpopulated and draining society’s limited resources. To have too many children in this case is to injure others; to have children one cannot afford is to injure the children. There are issues of government interference that do not directly affect liberty, for example the provision of public services for public benefit. Opposition to this may be raised, however, if the activity is likely better performed by individuals, for example in the case of industry. Secondly, even if it may not be done better, if in attempting to do it it would benefit the individual then the state should step back. This would pertain, in this case, to citizens acting in juries, local governments, or voluntary associations for industry or philanthropy. Even if the state might do these better, communities would benefit because people would be drawn into public service, and join together. Keeping such institutions and businesses local would help promote individuality and diversity. The state should drawn on this diversity of experience and diffuse it, enabling experiments and sharing the results.

Indeed, it would be unwise to add unnecessarily to the government’s power. People would become overly dependent – if government controlled all aspects of life, people would cease to be free. The most talented people might be drawn into civil service, further increasing the people’s dependence on government. With talent concentrated, people outside the bureaucracy may be ill-equipped to criticise or improve it. Further, the bureaucracy may be able to prevent the exercise of government by refusing to do what they are told to by ministers, for they would be too powerful to be done away with. This would lead to dissatisfaction and revolution – a revolution that would not lead to change, because even if there is a change in government, there would still be the same bureaucracy. People become slaves to the order; progress stops because the bureaucracy becomes mired in routine. The bureaucracy, if it is to exist, must be lean, and not encompass all so that it leaves room for diversity of enterprise and innovation.

Where does the legitimate power and role of government end? This, Mill states, is an art. It should, however, function

with the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information, and diffusion of it from the centre.

The central organ will know all that is done, and their advice would carry authority. It would, however, be limited in power to enforcement of general rules. In short, Mill concludes,

a government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and, upon occasion, denouncing, it makes them work in fetters, or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them.

The state needs the individuals of the nation to be “more than docile instruments in its hands”, for otherwise it will find that “with small men no great thing can really be accomplished”.

This is drawn from 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. 5-128.


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3 thoughts on “John Stuart Mill, On Liberty – A Summary

  1. Really good and clear summary – thanks for sharing! I’ve studied this book before but it was a good reminder to read over the key points.


    • Thank you for your kind words! I’ve just finished reading it (for the second time), and I’d written this to help my own understanding so I thought it was worth sharing. I’m glad you found it useful!

      Liked by 1 person

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

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