John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): The Case for Liberty and Law

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): The Case for Liberty and Law

John Stuart Mill is known for his work in such areas as morality, logic, the emancipation of women, and political science. In On Liberty (1859), he defends Humankind’s freedom against the encroachments of governments.

Civil, or Social, Liberty

Mill’s subject in On Liberty is civil, or social, liberty — that is, “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” As part of the background of this topic, he traces the history of struggles of the individual (for Liberty) against government (Authority). Liberty here means “protection against the tyranny of the political rulers.”

In the early history of society, Humankind was much afraid of the power of governments, although this power was regarded as necessary. (Hobbes believed that the Commonwealth should have power to make sure everyone obeys the rules.) However, individuals were afraid of this power. To limit the power of the government, individuals wanted certain rights recognized and constitutional checks on the power of the government.

In recent history, however, the focus has changed. At one time kingships were hereditary. Now we are governed by politicians whom we can vote out of office. These representatives are supposed to identify themselves with the people and represent their interests.

The result, however, is a “tyranny of the majority.” In a democracy, the groups of people who are most numerous rule over the rest because they have the most influence over the lawmakers, who, after all, are voted into office.

These lawmakers have two ways in which to go wrong:

1) They can issue mandates that require individuals to do wrong, and

2) They can issue mandates in areas where they ought not to interfere at all.

For example, lawmakers can raise taxes for an unjust war, thus forcing citizens to support evil. Or lawmakers can put into effect regulations that interfere in people’s lives without just cause; for example, some people believe that two consenting adults ought to be able to have sex in their own home behind closed doors, even if they are homosexual. The writer Gore Vidal also believes that all drugs ought to be legal and that a woman ought to have the right to choose to have an abortion.

The next question that Mill considers is, Are one’s feelings an adequate guide to making laws? This is something he rejects because people’s feelings vary notoriously. If we are to reform society, it must be on a firmer foundation than that.

Mill’s Principle and Beliefs

So on what foundation ought we to decide “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual”? Mill has an answer: “[T]he 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.” According to Mill, an adult has this right: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

This principle, however, does not apply to children. If a child wants to play in the street, we are justified in telling the child no. If a child does not want to go to school, we are justified in making the child go. This principle applies “only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties.”

However, one should also be aware that there are some things a person cannot do. For example, I cannot harm another person. This means, of course, I cannot murder, I cannot rape, I cannot steal, I cannot beat up, etc.

In addition, a person may legitimately be forced to do some things. For example, I may be forced to give evidence in a court of law, I may be forced to defend my country during wartime, and I may be required to save someone’s life (I cannot simply allow someone to die when I can easily save him or her).

Mill writes about what a free society — if it really is free — must have. A free society must have these three things:

1) [F]reedom in “the inward domain of consciousness”; “liberty of conscience”; “liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment in all subjects, practical or speculative.”

For example, I am entitled to my own opinion about evolution — I can either believe in it or not, as I choose. I am also entitled to my own opinion about whether the President of the United States is a good person or not.

2) “[L]iberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.”

For example, if I want to join a commune and run naked through the woods, I can. If I want to be homeless, I can — as long as I don’t harm other people.

3) “[C]ombination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.”

For example, if I want to join the American Nazi Party, I can — as long as I don’t harm other people.

Majority opinion does not count here. According to Mill, “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.”

Two Objections

Mill’s position is very clear. However, in addition to stating what he believes, he also responds to two objections that people could level against his thesis.

Objection #1. There should be no discussion in the case of a false belief.

Mill’s response: “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

Even if you are absolutely sure that you are right, you need arguments supporting what you believe. Otherwise, when you finally come across someone who does not believe as you do, you will be unlikely to withstand his or her arguments.

Objection #2. We should allow free discussion only when the manner of arguing is temperate and fair.

Mill’s response has four parts:

  1. Any opinion that is silenced may, for all we know, be true.
  2. Even if the opinion is in error, part of it may be true. The only way that we are able to improve our own opinions, and make them truer, is to subject them to criticism. We ought not to silence the critics for they perform a valuable function, even when they are wrong.
  3. Let us suppose that the majority opinion is the whole truth. Unless it is debated, it is in danger of becoming merely a prejudice — with people not realizing the grounds for believing it. (Frequently, people become Republicans or Democrats simply because that is the way their parents voted.)
  4. Unless an opinion is debated, people will pay only lip service to it. For people to truly believe it, it must be debated.

Let me add: If we are truly to understand our own opinion, we must understand the opinions of those opposed to us. In philosophy, we try to do this. We do our best to formulate arguments supporting our opinions, but we also listen to the arguments supporting the other opinions. Only in this way can the truth be known.

Two Maxims

As kind of a summary of his main points, Mill states these two maxims:

  1. “[T]he individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.”
  2. “[T]hat for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.”

Objections to Governmental Interference When Infringement of Liberty is Not an Issue

Finally, Mill considers objections to governmental inference when infringement of liberty is not an issue. According to Mill, we ought not to give the government power to do something when:

  1. The thing to be done is likely to be better done by individuals than by the government.
  2. Though individuals may not do the thing so well as the government, it may be desirable that it be done nevertheless by individuals.
  3. Adding unnecessarily to the power of the government may be a great evil.


Mill’s essay is titled On Liberty for a reason: he believes in the liberty of the individual to think for him- or herself. This right is unqualified.

Copyrighted by Bruce D. Bruce

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