It seems appropriate that as the Fourth of July approaches in the United States that we examine On Liberty. This is one of the guiding lights of my nation and useful in understanding our noble experiment. All of our glories and all of mistakes might well serve as lessons to all… including ourselves.
John Stuart Mill originally intended that the philosophical work, On Liberty, be a short essay. The more would have been the pity had it remained so. This exposition explores how the ethical system developed by Mills called Utilitarianism might be best applied to society and governance of that society. It was published in 1859.
Mill starts with the proposition that individuality is of paramount importance in establishing the proper relationship between authority and liberty. In Mills view, the highest good required individuality as the foundation of higher pleasures. Simultaneously, he warns us against the tyranny of the majority.
There is an argument that might be made that utilitarianism sprung from a higher form of the autistic spectrum. I will have to leave that argumentation to those who are more keenly aware of such things. What we will continue to explore more in this coming year are Mill’s three basic liberties belonging to individuals; his three objections to governmental intervention and two maxims relevant to the relationship of individuals to society as a whole.
Criticism of utilitarianism is worth examining. Then again, it should be equally noted that copies of On Liberty remains a basis of much of liberal political thought in Great Britain and elsewhere. A copy of this work is passed down by the leaders of the British Liberal Democrats.
In this post, we will be focusing on the introductory chapter. Mill’s open salvo is a discussion of how the tyranny of government needs to be controlled by the liberty of its citizens. In doing so, he argues that authority is checked through two mechanisms. First, necessary rights belonging to the citizens. Second, the constitutional checks which divide the important acts of government.
This struggle between tyranny and liberty is shown to be a constant throughout the history of mankind. Early society with its smallish population and constant war needed the rule by ‘master’. The people, however, gradually came to progressively rule themselves more and more until modern society was found to be immune to tyranny. Little did Mill know the perils to come in the 20th Century.
Having dealt with much tyranny, blood and loss at the hand of collective government in the largest part of the 20th Century in the rule of so many ‘isms, we are now dealing with the fear expressed by Mill. This is his reasonable fear regarding the tyranny of the majority where dissent in any number of areas is trampled on time and again. Prevailing opinion and feelings do not establish truth in science, religion, or society. We see this on multiple levels today from established science where true science recognizes no such establishment to the trampling of religious liberty in the name of secularism.
Personal preferences do matter and should as a matter of right, should not only be allowed but the exercise of these rights should indeed be protected. As Mill so aptly puts it, the majority does not prove up the correctness of these things. It is only a passing trend and as subject as the winds to change. Society does well to safeguard against arbitrary and capricious authority.
In addressing this Mill sets out that here is a single reason for which a person’s liberty should be restricted against these individual’s will. This is to prevent harm to others. The individual is to remain sovereign over his own good be it physical or moral. Mill does find a limit to this and seeks to restrict those who are unable to sufficiently govern their own affairs. Children, barbarians, mental incompetents prove to be the exception to utility that prove the rule.
To the rest of us, there are three basic liberties. Mill does us the good service of deciding their order as follows:
- Freedom of thought and emotion and the right to take action on these. For example, freedom of speech and religion.
- Freedom to follow individual tastes even if ‘immoral’ so longer as such pursuit does not harm others.
- The freedom to assemble and associate with those of our own choices as long as no force is involved and no harm to others.
There are, of course, some exceptions. But these exception are argued to be best approached with due care and in light of rational justification.
The source material can be read here:
For those who would like to simply listen on audiobook format, this may be found here: