Reflections on John Stewart Mill’s “On Liberty”

05Oct99

Comparative World Philosophies

John Stewart Mill, an Englishman, lived during the first three quarters of the 19th century. Although not a professional philosopher, he was a well-respected writer of his time, touching on many subjects. His essay On Liberty, is a good example of his ability to work through questions in a reasonable manner. At the center of Mill’s essay is an exploration of the entitlement of governments and society to assert power on the individual—to interfere “with the liberty of action of any of their number.” Mill asserts that the only time our liberty—both individual and collective—should be sacrificed or interfered with, is when not sacrificing our liberty would result in harm to others. Our individual well being is not reason enough for us to exert our power to limit someone else’s liberty. As Mill writes, “The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.”

According to Mill, this liberty does not apply to everyone, but only to those with well-developed mental facilities. He uses this argument to justify both racial inequality and autocracy. However, in keeping with his former assertion about curbing liberty, he writes that despotism is legitimate only when the end is bound to be an improvement, and the means actually work towards that end.

To Mill, no society can be considered free if human liberty is not respected. In speaking of liberty, Mill delineates what he calls “the appropriate region of human liberty.” This includes the “liberty of thought and feeling,” from which he draws freedom of the press. Educated people should also be permitted to act on their own accord even if others frown upon the act, providing that the act is not harmful to others. From the liberties of the individual, Mill draws the liberty of “combinations among individuals,” to act as a group, providing that all members possess mature faculties, and that their actions do not harm others.

Mill goes on to extensively discuss his view of, and the nature of, freedoms of thought and discussion. His discussion is used to illustrate the notion of tyranny of the majority. If the majority of the people hold a given position, and a small group thinks differently, silencing the position of the minority is just as bad as if the minority—say an elite class—had the power to silence everyone else.

Mill takes the discussion of silencing opinions further and points out certain dangers that could arise from such actions. He points out that nothing can be said with absolute certainty; still governments and individuals must form opinions with care, trying to make certain that their ideas are right. One way of testing our ideas is to hold a debate with someone in opposition. To do this test successfully, we must be willing to listen to views we may think are wrong, and we must know as much of the points in opposition to our views as we can—maybe even knowing the opposing arguments even better than our own. A clear head is also needed, for, as Mill points out, without one, both the grounds and the meaning of the opinions are often forgotten. What we may find is that it is not always the case that one argument is correct and the other one false, but both may be true in varying degrees.

It is at this point in his essay that Mill brings up the role of the individual in society. Mill states that although there is no contract with society stating our social obligations to it, we have all benefited from the protection of society, and we all owe it a return. This contract is essentially an unwritten code of conduct that all members of society should follow. At the head of this contract is respecting the rights or interests of others, and each person partaking in their share of the work involved in protecting society from harm.

Mill also points out that as individuals, we owe to each other “help to distinguish the better from the worse,” and help educate each other. No one, after all, lives an entirely isolated life. However, even in our education of each other, there are conducts that ought to be followed. As noted before, we should be free to do as we wish without hindrance, even if others think our acts are foolish, providing our acts are not harmful to others. What this means to Mill is that foolish acts should not be punishable until they get to the point of being reckless.

Ideally, however, those possessing mature sensibilities ought to know better than to let their individual extravagances turn into something harmful to society. Mill points out, though, that if society “lets any considerable number of its members grow up mere children…society has itself to blame for the consequences.” As such, the current generation must do its best to raise the succeeding generation to be better than itself.


I found some of Mill’s points and arguments to be quite interesting. I found many of them to be quite sensible and important, but in later looking at some of the implications of his writings, I occasionally cringed. In his justification for despotism, for example, there is no consideration to the possibility that the leaders may be wrong in their ideas of improving the “barbarians” they rule. Considering Mill’s association with the East India Company and the time he lived, 1806-1873, I guess it makes sense why he would want to justify such actions. I would love know just what he saw as “the opposite side of the case” presented by those who opposed colonialism, and hear the debate that would follow.

An interesting related question could be posed to Mill querying his views on the Opium Wars, which occurred during his lifetime. Considering his view on drunkenness—that it is not the extravagance which one should be punished for, that punishment is only due if some “risk of damage” arises—I would have to guess that he saw nothing wrong with the trade of the drug. I would assume that in his answer he would question whether the Chinese people were mature enough to practice self-government; and if, on the individual level they could not govern themselves, how could they on the societal level?

His passage on the conduct of a discussion reminded me of the Sophists. It seemed that although the purpose of the discussion was supposed to help arrive at the truth, his advice was one more of knowing the right questions to ask to belittle the opposing argument. Perhaps an alternate way of looking at it would be that in the process of knowing the argument of the opposition very well, we obtain a better perspective of the true nature of the problem. As such, we are probably better able to actually arrive at a solution and not simply get caught up in the battle of words.

One final thing that occurred to me while I was reading, was that Mill was writing something which I would have thought he really wanted many people to read. His essay does, after all, show us how we, as individuals, can have our liberties and also have a better society to show for it. Yet the language in which he writes seems to contradict this thought. It seems like he was simply writing for a select few who would be able to comprehend his analyses, and who would, hopefully, educate the other members of society, ensuring that, as Mill hoped would happen, each successive generation would be better than the previous.

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