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On Liberty

On Liberty: An Introduction

Helen McCabe introduces John Stuart Mill on his own free will.

John Stuart Mill himself believed On Liberty would be one of the works for which he was best remembered. It has certainly proved the most influential. Published in 1859, it caused an outcry, and interest in it has not died. From the rise of totalitarianism in the early twentieth century, through the debates about censorship and privacy in the 1960s, right up to contemporary discussions about free speech and surveillance, events continue to bring the book back into the limelight as answers are sought from its pages.

Mill the Man

Mill was born in 1806, a child both of James Mill and of the Utilitarian project. The experimental education devised by his philosopher father and Jeremy Bentham rendered him, like forced rhubarb, mature before his time – intellectually at least. By the time he was twenty Mill was working at the East India Company; writing articles for radical newspapers; campaigning for universal suffrage, women’s emancipation and economic and legal reform; trying to educate people about contraception and family planning, and sparring with a wide spectrum of opponents at the London Debating Society. In his ‘spare’ time he was editing his father’s and Bentham’s works; teaching his siblings, and studying economics and psychology. Mill was fundamentally committed to Bentham’s utility principle: we ought to act so as to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He also supported ‘classical’ economic theory; representative government elected by universal suffrage, and a theory of psychology known as associationism, which amongst other things argued that all our ideas come from outside our selves, and that therefore our characters are moulded entirely by external circumstances. Based on these commitments, Mill identified his happiness with the radical reforms proposed by his father’s friends, and everything he did was intended to aid their achievement.

In the winter of 1826/7, the foundation on which this busy hot-house of radical thought and campaigning was built collapsed. Mill was plunged into a depression brought on by the dreariness of the season. In the midst of it he realised that even if all the reforms he championed came about, he would not be happy because his over-rational education had rendered him incapable of emotion. His life appeared to have no purpose, and he seriously considered ending it.

Although it returned at many other times in his life, Mill eventually pulled himself out of this depression, with the aid of poetry (especially Wordsworth and Coleridge, though he was also the earliest critic to appreciate Tennyson), music (Mozart was his favourite composer, and he also composed his own pieces on the piano), Romantic authors (especially Goethe and Coleridge), and falling in love with Harriet Taylor. After a difficult twenty-five years while her first husband was still alive, she eventually became his wife. On Liberty is dedicated to her.

Importantly for understanding On Liberty, much of Mill’s core political thought changed as well. In particular, he embraced a wider understanding of happiness, and a Romantically-inspired concept of the self.

Happiness and Individuality

Mill was still a utilitarian in many respects, and he certainly still believed that the right moral action is that which tends to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Yet he now believed that many more things could contribute to our happiness than in Bentham’s conception – including loving, being loved, admiration, the pursuit of aesthetic and personal perfection, sympathy, a thirst for knowledge, self-respect, integrity, and virtue. In short, happiness is the knowledge that we’re living as much as possible in accordance with our own conception of a good life, where ‘good’ means morally admirable, enjoyable, full and fulfilling.

This conception of happiness involved a much more active idea of the self. Rather than seeing the self as an essentially passive bundle of connected ideas, Mill adopted Coleridge’s idea of a self which was self-conscious and which could also be self-developing and self-creating. Thus, Mill no longer saw people as being entirely moulded by their environment, but believed that they might also help form their own characters in keeping with their own ideas about what was good, right, noble, beautiful, perfect and sympathetic. The founder of associationism had argued that if it was possible to ensure two people were subjected to exactly the same external stimuli up to a certain event, they would have exactly the same responses to that event. Mill now believed that if two people had been subjected to the same external stimuli their responses would be different, depending on how they had reflected on these stimuli and what their ideas were about the right response. This creation of a character by a choice-making and reflective self as well as by outside circumstances, is what Mill calls ‘individuality’.

For Mill it is this self-created individuality which allows us to pursue all the things that make us happy. Firstly, because it is through reflecting on circumstances and on our own ideas and feelings, making choices and building our own character, that we know what makes us happy, and hence what we want to pursue. Secondly, because it is through a similar process of self-creating reflection that we know what we think is right, and Mill did not think we could ever really be happy if we were not doing what we fundamentally thought was right (as opposed to what we want, which can be a very different thing). Lastly, because in creating and perfecting our characters to the best of our ability, we gain the sympathy, admiration and affection of others, and feel sympathy, admiration and affection for others, all of which are also very important for happiness.

Therefore, happiness – that most important ethical goal for Mill – lies in the free development of individuality, that is, in our free ethical self-createdness. It is this that Mill is championing in On Liberty. It is also what Mill is trying to protect, because he believed that we can only develop our individuality if there was some space in which we’re free from coercion.

This point is important, because On Liberty is often quoted in discussions on the nature, size or justification of government, but it is not primarily the government that Mill is concerned with in On Liberty: Mill is not just talking about personal liberties in the legal sense. Mill is aware that social pressure, through public opinion in particular, is every bit as coercive as state power, and can be even more insidious, since it makes us our own oppressors. After reading about America, Mill felt that democracies had to be especially aware of this type of coercion, where there’s almost continual pressure for everyone to conform to the majority’s idea of what’s right, good or respectable. He insists that although democracies have historically been formed by those fighting for political liberties, they ought not to become complacent and think this is all the freedom their citizens need. Rather, we need to be protected from the coercive effect of public opinion operating in areas the law does not cover, and also from pressure to oppress minorities through the law, which is possible when a majority elects the government.

In On Liberty, then, Mill wants a ‘moral sphere’ of free choice around people, with which neither the state nor any individual or group may interfere. This sphere must protect the individual from the coercive power of public opinion, state power and individual interference. In particular, it is supposed to ensure the free development of that individual’s individuality, and to prevent their character from being warped, twisted or cropped by the ideas of government, society, or other individuals. Mill’s own metaphor is that of a tree which is allowed to grow freely, compared to being cut into topiary, or pollarded.

Harm and Coercion

Mill is only concerned with unjustified coercion. There are many things he thinks society and the state are completely justified in coercing people to do; and indeed, one of his tasks in On Liberty is to try and draw the line between what is and what is not justified coercion. The principle upon which he drew this line is perhaps deceptively simple: coercion is only justified if an action is causing or directly threatens to cause harm. For example, Mill felt it so harmful to an individual’s chance of happiness to prevent them from having an education that he thought society was completely justified in forcing parents to educate their children. Thus he supported free, nationally-provided schools; although he was concerned that if these were the only schools, then the government’s power over the curriculum would form an unwarranted threat to individuality.

Of course, this opens up a philosophical can of worms as to what ‘harm’ means. You may recall that Mill embraced the principle that right action was that which tended to cause happiness (or pleasure), and wrong action that which tended to cause pain. It would be wrong, however, to make the mistake of equating harm with pain. Harm may well be painful, but this is not its most important feature. Rather, for Mill, harm is something which prevents the free development of our individuality. Stubbing my toe on the bath definitely causes me pain, but it does not cause me harm: being tortured until I acquiesce certainly does. Mill was aware that pain can have a harmful effect on individuality, when it warps our actions and hence warps the development of our individuality. Thus Mill was heavily involved in the campaign against domestic violence, because as well as causing immediate pain (which is in itself wrong), it also warps the behaviour and so development of those who are abused. Mill also argued that an education which trains us to close off a vast number of possible actions as out-of-bounds is also harmful, although it may never have been attended by pain. Thus, women’s education, which trained them to believe they were inferior to men, and to place all their hopes and aspirations in marriage, was harmful, even if the women thus educated were contended, and lived well-fed, pampered lives.

Harm can be caused just as much through inaction as through action. But Mill believed that certain actions could never cause harm, even if they could be shown to cause pain. He called these self-regarding actions, because they are entirely concerned with our selves. Our faith, or lack of faith, in any particular religion; our code of ethics; what we read, listen to, watch or believe; and anything done in private with consenting adults, are all included in this self-regarding sphere.

A common objection to this idea is that no action is completely self-regarding – everything we do has some impact on someone else. However, this objection is misplaced for On Liberty, since here self-regarding actions are those pertaining to the very creation of our selves. Mill believed that actions consistent with the freedoms we need for this, for example, the freedom of conscience and thought, could never interfere with the free development of another person’s individuality. Hence, for example, no matter how unhappy a religious fundamentalist is made by the knowledge that other people do not believe what he believes or act in a manner he considers to be sinful or wrong, this unhappiness does not count as harm because it does not impede the free development of his individuality.

Freedom and Persuasion

Yet some things both are tightly bound up with the development of our individuality and have the potential to cause harm to others – freedom of speech comes under this heading, for example. If even an action (or inaction) which is important for the free development of our individuality can be shown to cause harm which is not outweighed by the harm of preventing that action, then society is justified in forcibly preventing it. The possible harm in the prevention is not only to the individual who is prevented from acting (or who is forced to act), but also to the rest of society. Mill believed that every person’s individuality, now and for future generations, is jeopardised by the censorship of opinions, even if those opinions were definitely wrong. Despite what we may now believe, those opinions might be true, and we would therefore be robbing both ourselves and future generations of the chance of realising the truth. Or they might be partially true; but then we’re robbing ourselves and future generations of the chance of working out which parts are true and so which parts of our own opinions are false. Mill thinks there is value even in the challenge of false opinions: if our true opinions are not regularly challenged, they become dead dogmas – things we believe, but passively, and thus without their having any real impact on our lives. Mill believed even very important ideas could degenerate into such shibboleths, to which we pay little more than lip-service, if they were not continually challenged. The very progress of humanity, then, depends on hearing potentially untrue opinions.

On the other hand, Mill was not unaware that the expression of some ideas can cause harm outweighing even the benefit to society of being able to hear them. Where the balance lies depends on the context. For example, when there is a risk of violence following their expression, the censorship of opinions may be justified. Mill’s example is the opinion that corn-dealers starve the poor because they keep prices high for their own benefit. Writing this in a newspaper or book, or expressing it in most circumstances, is completely warranted, however much such an accusation upsets the corn-dealers. However, expressing such opinions to a hungry and angry mob massed with fire-brands outside a corn-dealer’s house is not justifiable. In short, Mill is attempting to draw a line between expression, which should always be tolerated, and incitement, which by no means need be. He demands society’s toleration for all expressions and actions which are primarily self-regarding and which do not cause harm to others. Mill believes this is the only way in which we can secure the freedom necessary for the protection of individuality; and without individuality, no one can be happy.

Mill has been accused of desiring that we should all be completely unengaged with the other individuals around us, pursuing our own conception of the good life with no consideration for others, merely tolerating their existence, and allowing them to do whatever they think best so long as it does not harm us. Yet this is by no means what Mill desires. It is an exercise of our own freedom and individuality to engage with the beliefs of others: to learn from them, to help them learn from us, and to do our best to see that they live a good life, up to the point of using force. In On Liberty Mill is concerned with protecting individuality from unjustified coercion. However, he was well aware that there are many, many ways of influencing people besides coercion – and all of these methods he wholeheartedly embraces. Unless harm is concerned we may not force, but we can do a great deal up to that point, and Mill wants us to. In On Liberty we are actively encouraged to argue with people, cajole them, beg them, plead with them, attempt to persuade them, debate with them, and in extreme cases, avoid and ignore them; we may even counsel others to abjure them, although not to the extent that this forms some kind of social punishment amounting to coercion. As far as Mill is concerned, we ought to care what our fellow-men believe, and how they live.

That is the crux of On Liberty: we ought to care about other people’s happiness, hence we have to care about the free development of their individuality. Thus, we must strive to ensure that there is an inviolable sphere of freedom around them, protecting their self-regarding actions. When it comes to other-regarding actions, society is justified in coercing individuals to prevent harm to others, so long as that harm is serious compared with the harm caused by preventing the action, and is sufficiently directly linked to that individual’s actions. Society is never justified in coercing either action or inaction when it comes to self-regarding action, or actions which are other-regarding but non-harmful, but that does not mean that society is not justified in engaging with the individual in other ways. Indeed, if we do care about other people’s happiness, we have to engage with them.

Mill rules out from this analysis those who are incapable of freely developing their individuality, either through age or natural inability. He also allows coercion even for self-regarding action in certain extreme situations. His example is of a man whom we witness running onto a bridge we know to be unstable. It is rational to presume he does not want to kill himself or risk injury: therefore, if there is no time to warn him by shouting, we are justified in tackling him to physically prevent him from crossing. These provisos aside, however, Mill’s assertion that “over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” is the core of On Liberty. We must respect this sovereignty, but also have regard for the well-being of the individual who wields it. Coercion is ruled out – engagement is most certainly not.

After Liberty

The period surrounding the publication of On Liberty was blighted for Mill by the death of his much-beloved Harriet. He wrote the book at a time when he was beginning to return to an active engagement in politics, after spending much of the 1850s with his wife in seclusion and illness. He would shortly become the MP for Westminster, introducing an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act which would have given women the vote on equal terms with men. However, his parliamentary career was most famous for his attempt to bring Governor Eyre before an English court of justice. Eyre’s rule of Jamaica had been particularly brutal, though he was considered by many to be a national hero. Mill was also involved in the campaign for women’s education and other economic, social, political and legal reforms. He died in 1873, and is buried with Harriet in a quiet graveyard in Avignon, beneath a tombstone engraved with the eulogy he wrote for her just as On Liberty was being published.

That the arguments of On Liberty still need making would probably have disappointed but not surprised Mill: he was well aware that in throwing down such a gauntlet to society, he made a challenge it would take a great number of generations to achieve. It was, however, one he believed it would always be worth striving to meet.

© Helen McCabe 2009

Helen McCabe is doing a DPhil on Mill at Oxford University.

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