19 May 2022


John Stuart Mill "On Liberty"

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John Stuart Mill was a British economist and philosopher born in the 18th century. Mill is widely acknowledged for his work on utilitarianism, logic and political theory. In 1859, Mill’s book ‘On Liberty’ was published with its main focus on his ethical system of utilitarianism and how it is applied to the society and the state at large. In the book, Mill endeavors to explain the standards created between liberty and authority. He highlights the significance of individuality which he claims is the summum bonum of utilitarianism that is; a requirement for the ultimate pleasures. In addition to emphasizing on individuality, he takes ample time in criticizing the errors made by previous scholars, philosophers and other parties who supported individuality and democracy just to result to the tyranny of the majority (Mill, 1864).

The book mainly comprises of the following facets. First, Mill discusses an individual’s three basic liberties. Secondly, he provides three objections to government interventions and finally he elaborates two maxims with regards to an individual’s relationship to the general society. The thesis statement for this work is “John Stuart’s ‘On Liberty’ is utterly vague about the limits of liberty and only focuses on the individual rather that the society.” This paper will discuss the main doctrines of ‘On Liberty’, provide an in depth discussion of Mill’s theoretical work, discuss the relationship the book has to social issues and elaborate on the conflicts present during the development of the book. In addition, the book will discuss how Mill’s doctrines relate to other theoretical traditions and how the book is applied to current issue. The paper will also focus on how the book can be used to improve our understanding of the society and its challenges in the examination of the society. Finally, the paper will highlight the possibilities for further development of the doctrines. 

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Research Questions

Did the social issue surrounding the author at the time of publication affect the content of the book?

Are the opponents and conflicts surrounding the doctrine justified?

Does Mill’s doctrine positively relate to other theoretical traditions?

How are the doctrines applied in the current society and in sociology?

How can the doctrine be developed further?

An In Depth Discussion of John Stuart Mill "On Liberty"

‘Mill’s Essay’ has five chapter in which each chapter discusses an aspect of liberty in the society. In the first chapter (the introduction), he discusses the struggle between the ruling classes and liberty. He explains how the authorities have become tyrants and only the citizens have the mandate to stop the tyranny. In this chapter, Mill discusses two ways in which the citizens can control the government; first, there needed to be establishment of constitution checks whereby an independent body with the consent of the community can monitor the acts of the government. Secondly, there needs to be an establishment of necessary citizen rights which have to be fulfilled to the later. During the time when Mill was writing the text, the society was subjected to constant warfare and small population and therefore the subjects had no option but to accept the ruling of a single ‘master’. However, Mills notes that as the society progressed, the type of government had to change to accommodate the wellbeing of the community and not just the wishes of the rulers. Mills clearly states that the only reason the government of a civilized community can exercise power on a countryman against his will should only be to protect the wellbeing of other members of the community. By the end of the discussion, Mill highlights the three most important liberties in a community and that are: the freedom of thought and emotion (freedom of speech), the freedom to pursue tastes even when the tastes are considered immoral as no long as no one gets hurt in the process and finally the freedom to unite as long as the unity is among consenting adults and no harm is done on the others. 

In the second chapter ‘of the liberty of thought and discussion’, Mill tries to justify his claim that the thoughts and opinions of people should not be suppressed. He vindicates that prejudice and omission of an individual’s thoughts and opinion is an evil that we cannot always be exempt from. He states that an individual’s open thoughts can either be wholly false, partly true and wholly true. He argues that when an opinion is silenced, it may hold a portion of the truth and this undermines the truth and development. He states that it is dangerous to suppress the opinions of others based on the beliefs of the society. He does not believe that the truth will not necessarily survive persecution and therefore, the society is obligated to uphold the truth rather than object it (Mill, 1909). 

In the third chapter ‘on individuality, as one of the elements of wellbeing’ Mill focuses on the intrinsic value of individuality. He claims that individuality can be defined as the thriving of a human being through the acquisition of ultimate pleasures. In the chapter, Mill urges the society to promote individuality explaining that it is a necessity in diversity and creativity. He points out that human beings should shy away from conformity to commendable maxims. In concluding the chapter, Mills states that the actions made by a person do no matter but rather the person responsible for the action is what is of importance (Mill, 1909). 

In the fourth chapter ‘on the limits of authority of society over the individual,’ Mill identifies the aspects of a person’s life which the individual can leave to the society for governing and which aspect should be self- governed. He states that a person should be given the freedom to pursue his/ her own interests so long as by doing so, no member of the society should be harmed; through this, he ascertains that the society has a jurisdiction over the individual’s conduct. Although the above point can be argued that liberty promoted selfish indifference, the author claims that the liberal system he supports is more likely to successfully convince people to do general good than emotional and physical coercion. However, the author agrees that by availing the freedom to fulfill their interests, people may harm themselves without the fear of punishment. He explains that authorities should not punish individuals for harming themselves but rather for harming others or neglecting to accomplish a responsibility towards others. 

In the last chapter, the author discusses how the theory can be applied in the society. He summarizes the principles that he has provided in the previous chapters. He then explains how the principles he states can be applied in economy, in prevention of harm, in punishing the consequences of an action rather than the personal deed, in divorce and suicide, education among others. 

History of the theory

John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ was conceived in 1854 as a short essay. As he brainstormed on the idea, he included his wife, Harriet Taylor in the development, rewriting and correction of the essay. Before meeting his wife, Mill had a mental breakdown and had some fixed beliefs on moral life and women. Nonetheless, after meeting his wife and marriage his perception on morality and the rights of women in the society changed. According to the author, the essay was a production of both Mill and his wife. Unfortunately, Harriet suddenly passed away before the book was finished and published. Mill published the book immediately after the death of his and dedicated it to her. ‘On liberty’ is one of the two Mill’s most influential books; the other being utilitarianism (Brink, 2007). 

During the time the Mill published his work, the society was characterized by the tyranny of the authorities. The citizens were subjected to the rules of their masters without opposition. Law breakers were harshly punished by the authorities without exception. Furthermore, individual opinions and thoughts were neglected especially when they were meant to undermine the existing government. In order to provide a solution to the problems that the society was going through, Mill took it upon himself to provide principles that will aid in the progression of society. He assured that as the society progressed towards civilization, the people and the leadership should also change; work in harmony for the betterment of the society. During this century, philosophers and sociologists complained of the tyranny of the majority that was caused by individuality. Through his work, Mill tries to support individuality by pointing out its need in the community. 

‘On Liberty’ was highly publicized after its publication and was read by most undergraduates in the 19th century. However, the publicity did not come through without criticism. The book was widely criticized for creating a chance for barbarism by discouraging punishment of individuals. Some critics have claimed that a book is a contradiction to utilitarianism; it has been pointed out that in this doctrine, Mill ignores utility and idealizes rights and liberty alone. On Liberty has also been condemned for its narrow focus; critics have complained that Mill only focused in the rational members of the society (adults) and neglected how children and other irrational members of the society should be treated. His conception of harm has been a center of conflict among scholars (Kasinec and Onorato, 1997). In his ‘book’ Mill does not specify what constitutes an offence and what constitutes harm. Since most people argue that morality is the foundation of a society and the society is the basis for individual happiness then an individual is not happy if morality is undermined (Devlin,1965). Contemporary philosophers have criticized john Stuart for being a racist and a colonialist. This was prompted by Mill claiming that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians’ (Goldberg, 2000). 

Application to current issues and sociology

Most of the principles that Mill has developed are currently in action in the today’s society. First, the freedom to speech is a vital liberty in a democratic society and has been embraced in most territories in the world. However, the other freedoms have been accommodated in to the citizen’s rights and freedoms without which the society would be dysfunctional. In addition, his principle of punishing the consequences rather than the perpetrator has been applied in several occasions. For example, when a drug user spends all their resources on the drugs, then either the drugs or the resources will be limited to the person rather than punish the drug user since they have no control over their addiction (Scarre, 2007). 

How the Theory Improves Our Understanding of the Society

According to Skorupski, ‘On Liberty’ has maintained radicalism that shaped the Victorian Britain and laid the foundation for the establishment of the social democratic movement. He argues that as much as On Liberty is at the forefront of political principles, it is questionable how the emergency of democracy happened. According to Mill, only damage or probable damage is a valid reason for the interference of the society. This principle is applied in the today’s society in that a perpetrator is only punished for injuring others or when they intend to do so. However, in the society, it is debatable what harms the perpetrator alone and what harms the others. For example, when a person decides to commit suicide, is it just self- harm or harm to others too? When a person decides to commit suicide, it harms the person physically and the others mentally and emotionally. It is debatable where the line is drawn between societal harm and individual harm (Skorupski, 2011). 

In sociology, Mill’s principles can best be understood from a liberal individualistic point of view. However, communitarians believe that there is no distinction between personal good and the good of others. They believe that when communal policies are made, they must be formulated with the good of the society in mind. In addition, they argue that good cannot be reduced to individuals but to general societal good. In sociology, humans are social people holding social entities such as family, the nation and the society. Allegiance must be formed to such entities and solidarity help not just in politics but in social lives. For this reason, when one harms himself, in some way, they harm the social entity they swore allegiance to (Smith and Gordon, 2015). 

However, in the society as much as people live in solidarity, self- reliance and voluntary cooperation must be established. People must be allowed to what they feel is right, pursue their interest and air out their views without constraint. People need to feel independent irrespective of the social entity they feel obligated to. It is important for people to understand that in the society, overreliance and overdependence leads to an imbalance of both monetary resources and human resources. It is therefore important to separate individual liberty and social democracy. Nevertheless, granting that self- reliance and voluntary cooperation is necessary, it is also important to remember that all members of the society have a right to fulfill their social obligations without fail. 

Possibilities for furthering theoretical development

Although the writer of ‘On Liberty’ is long dead, it is important to note areas that require improvement. First, the doctrine only focuses on the rational members of the society and ignores the irrational members. Scholars should try to improve the doctrine to accommodate other dependent members of the society such as the weak elderly, children and the psychologically challenged. Since this people are partially or wholly dependent on others, it is vital for their individuality to be defined. 

Mill’s conception of harm has been a center of conflict among scholars in the past. This perception has been argued to promote barbarism in the society. Therefore, it is vital for scholars to polish on the policies by specifying where harm shifts from the self to the society. In addition, Mill warns the society not to punish an individual unless their actions are harming or potentially would harm others; this leaves an open door for people who want to harm themselves. It is therefore vital to polish this doctrine to allow the society to constrain people who harm themselves since as much as others may not be harmed physically, they may be harmed psychologically.


Brink D. (2007). Mills Moral and Political Philosophy . Liberalism and Utilitarianism. Stanford: 24

Devlin, P. B. (1965). The Enforcement of Morals. London: Oxford University Press: 7-8

Dominco L. (2011) Liberalism: A Counter History. London, Verso: 23-24

Goldberg D. T. (2000). Liberalism’s Limits: Carlyle and Mill on the Negro Question . Nineteenth Century Context: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 22 (2): 203- 16

Kasinec D. And Onorato M. L. (1997). John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873). Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism. Detroit: Gale. 58 (1): 317-88

Mill J. S. (1909). Harvard Classics. PF Collier and Sons, New York, 25 (1): 258

Mill, J. S. (1864). On Liberty . London: Longman, Roberts and Green 1 (3): 1- 68

Scarre G. (2007). Mill’s ‘On Liberty’: A Reader’s Guide . Continuum: 120

Skorupski, J. (2011). John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Policy Network. Retrieved on March 22, 2016 from Www.Policy-Network.Net/Pno_Detail.Aspx ? 

Smith G. H. and Gordon D. (2015). John Stuart Mills on Liberty. Libertarianism.Org. Retrieved On March 22, 2016 from Https://Www.Libertarianism.Org/Guides/Lectures/John-Stuart-Mills-Liberty/  

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