Humanity’s attempts to study the state of society have stretched back throughout the ages. From forefathers such as Socrates or Aristophanes to the great enlightenment philosophers of Locke or Voltaire, all have grappled with the questions of how humanity best functions as a collective. John Stuart Mill, hailed as a paradigmatic liberal political philosopher, continues this tradition of thought in his work On Liberty published in 1859. Mill’s major argument made is that the individual is sovereign in their actions insofar as they do not impeach upon the rights of others.
His justifications centre strongly on the principles of utilitarianism, providing a model he believes to offer the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Through specific analysis it can be seen that he optimizes societal benefit by placing import on individuality but conversely justifying exactly when governance and restraint need to be exercised. Overall, his conclusions are an attempt to unify two competing social factors, individual liberty against circumstances in which power can be exerted over another, articulated in what has become known as the ‘harm principle’.
The first and most fundamental principle Mill holds is outlined in the introductory chapter and describes the necessity for man to be free over “Over himself, over his own body and mind” (Mill, 1859: 31). Individual liberty is not only considered personally fulfilling, but also beneficial to the progress of civilisation for “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest” (Mill, 1859: 33).
It is important to note that Mill does not endorse freedom of expression for its own sake but for the greater purpose of stimulating discourse “His argument for liberty of expression is in fact an argument for liberty of discussion” (Larvor, 2006: 3) To support his claims, he highlights three primary freedoms in order of importance. Firstly, the freedom of thought itself should be unrestricted; second we should have the freedom to pursue ‘tastes … to suit our own character’ (Mill, 1859: 33) regardless of whether social convention deems otherwise; lastly, the freedom for citizens to unite, providing such action will not harm others. This idea of the ‘harm principle’ is prominent in On Liberty for each of these freedoms are subject to the overarching rule that liberty is complete so long as it does not “without justifiable cause, do harm to others” (Mill 1859: 72). He also notes that it is obvious that freedom of thought and of the mind does not directly correlate to freedom of action, for “No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions” (Mill 1859: 72).
He bases this on the logic that if ones free actions impinge upon another’s happiness, then the affected party’s own freedom is violated, outweighing the benefits of the first individual’s liberty. His conclusion is therefore “that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself” (1859: 73). This reasoning is fundamentally based in utilitarianism, which Mill is a eminent proponent of, as the key deciding factor needs to be maximum pleasure for minimum harm. The harm principle is the primary restraining factor on an individual’s calculus of liberty however Mill is not so blindingly liberal that he does not acknowledge the importance of government in maintaining social stability. In fact, Mill’s definition of liberty itself is intimately linked with authoritative intervention for he “takes liberty to be the absence of human interference with the individuals actions” (Crocker, 1980: 1). Again, utility becomes the object of question in deciding how pervasive governing bodies ought be. Mill contends, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection…
His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant”. It is here where Mill refers to the idea of ‘tyranny of the majority’, that pressure from the masses can be as pervasive as an oppressive state for there is more intangible a difficulty in arguing “against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” (Mill, 1859: 7) Yet here it is apparent that Mill defends the use of public pressure to control offensive opinion. Where then is the line drawn regarding what is unique, individual and valuable thought, and what is deemed inappropriate? While Mill’s consistent self-criticism often enriches his argument, there are contradictory moments wherein his “expressions are not only ambiguous, but contradictory” (Parker, 1865: 5).
The idea of utility is once again at play, however Mill’s contradictions destabilise his main point being that the use of outside force can be used defensively against another’s individuality if it would cause another’s liberty harm. As well as discussing and arguing Mill offers a number of disclaimers in his argument including the inapplicability of children or those who require the care of others and also “backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage” (Mill, 1859: 14).
He also notes that a person “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction” such as failing to help save a person when they are directly able to but choose against it. This idea has been argued against extensively in modern debate, particularly on a legal level. Many states, Australia amongst them, require no duty or obligation to act in such a way, the “rationale [being] the protection of the autonomy” (Edelman, 2011: 2).
Liberty is irrevocably violated if one has no choice in a matter, even if that matter may be for social good. In an attempt to promote utilitarianism and provide an argument that supports social wellbeing, Mill has contradicted his own seemingly inviolate idea of individual sovereignty. Another hole in his discourse is that “There seems then no obstacle in principle within utilitarian morality to a policy which indeed prevents harm but at the expense of the most basic interests of a minority” (Gray, 2003: 7).
Once more the tyranny of the majority is at question and Mill’s regard for individuality is destabilized by the conflicting interest of utilitarianism. It is apparent that Mill’s account is not watertight and this is acknowledged with the criticism On Liberty has received. In essence Mill concerns himself with the “struggle between authority and liberty,” (Mill, 1859: 3) as the essential factors to be balanced in order to maintain stable society. On an individual level, liberty is restrained by the harm principle and on a social plane; governance and public pressure control it. Beyond these factors, individuality is considered a sacred thing, which should be embraced for the good of progress. His entire theory is grounded solidly in utilitarian ideals, whereby social progression and greatest satisfaction is the primary goal. While a number of contentious arise throughout Mills’ discussions, overall the arguments are logical and coherent. On Liberty will continue to be an iconic if not contentious piece in political literature, as will most social theory which has been and will come in the future.
Edelman, James. 2011. ‘Change of position: A defence of unjust disenrichment’ (presented at the launch of the Restatement (Third) Restitution and Unjust Enrichment, Boston University Law School 16-17 September 2011) Gray, John and Smith, G.W., eds. 2002. ‘JS Mill’s On Liberty In Focus’. London: Routeledge Gray, John. 1983. ‘Mill: On Liberty. A Defence’
Gray, John. 1979. ‘John Stuart Mill: Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations’. Literature of Liberty 2(2): 7-37
Hayek, F.A. 2011. ‘The Constitution of Liberty’. New York: The University of Chicago Press. Larvor, Brendan. 2006. “Mill on Liberty of Thought and Discussion” in John Stuart Mill: On Liberty Discussions (British Humanist Association). Mill, John Stuart. (1859). On Liberty. London: Cambridge University Press.