John Stuart Mill 2: Freedom to be Yourself

By now, it is clear I am a fan of John Stuart Mill and appreciate both his thought and character. I hope the minor critique contained in this week’s blog will not be seen in any way as diminishing my respect. The history of ideas is an unfolding process, and the human experience is one of continual unfolding. This unfolding of human understanding means that every contribution, even those we may think mistaken, is a part of getting the human race where it is today.

Last week’s blog dealt with the beginning of On Liberty. [1] Mill begins his work by introducing his theme and its importance. He defends the role of freedom of thought, speech, and action as necessary for a free society and for the achievement of practical wisdom in government. In Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of On Liberty are devoted to the importance of individuality to human well-being, the limitations that ought to be put on the authority for society to limit human freedom, and certain applications of the doctrines.

In these chapters, Mill develops a common Enlightenment notion of the nature and limits of human freedom. In so doing, Mill also betrays a typical 19th century “human atomism,” that sees society made up of isolated individuals, just as Newtonian science saw the material world as made up of atoms. Based upon this world-view, Mill is positively concerned to create a zone of freedom within which human beings can be free to develop themselves as autonomous individuals. [2] We shall see how successful he might be in this endeavor.

The Utilitarian Principle, Liberty, and the Individual

Mill begins his defense of Individuality with a clear statement of the approach of a Utilitarian to the subject:

Such being the reasons which make it imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; and such the baneful consequences to the intellectual, and through that to the moral nature of man, unless this liberty is either conceded, or asserted in spite of prohibition; let us next examine whether the same reasons do not require that men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril. This last proviso is of course indispensable. No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. [3]

The first two chapters of Mill’s work set out the necessity for freedom of thought and opinions as well as speech. In the third section of the treatise, he turns his attention to the extent to which human beings should be free to act upon their ideas. There are two principles which Mill defends in this section of On Liberty.

  • First, people should be free to form and express hinderances without restriction.
  • Second, however, the right to express opinions and act upon them is only absolute when they are formed and acted upon at their “risk and peril” and without significant risk and peril to others.

Actions that impact others, can be restricted legitimately. In addition, where an opinion is being voiced with the intention of instigating a “mischievous act,” it can be restricted. [4]

Mill was aware that all actions may be said to impact others, and in some small sense may do so. His point is that, where the negative impact on others is not significant, persons should be free to speak and act. However, where the speech or act might cause measurable, significant harm to others or society, the situation is not so clear. For example, freedom of thought, speech and action concerning a public event does not entitle one to blow up a public building filled with citizens. Nevertheless, where the potential harm to the public is not significant, freedom of thought, opinion, speech and action is to be protected by civil authorities.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that utilitarian thought is an inevitable feature of public decision-making. Even under tyrannies, there are limits to the police power of the state and the social control of majorities. The decision to prohibit an opinion, restrict speech, or criminalize an action is subject to the prudential nature of those in government. Not every idea, opinion or act that the state thinks wrong-headed can or should be restricted. In this sense, utilitarian thought is an inevitable feature of government.

However, in contemporary society, freedom cannot be defended strictly upon utilitarian grounds because there are  always reasons why any opinion or act could be considered beneficial or harmful. A feature of contemporary America is increasing restrictions on the ability of people to voice unpopular opinions or act upon them. As Mill and others foresaw, in a democracy there is a constant danger that thought, opinion, and speech will be forced to conform to law and majority public opinion. In my view, this is where what I have called a “Politics of Love” comes into play. To value the other is to allow the other to be his or herself, form his or her opinions, voice them, and act upon them to the maximum extent possible, even when we disagree and where there is some risk in so doing.

Mill and Formation of the Individual

To say that “individuals” should be free to form, hold, voice and act upon their own opinions begs the question as to the nature of the individuals to whom this right may be said to apply. Mill does think that the freedom of which he speaks is a substitute for parental guidance and training of the young, for education, and for the proper formation of the mind and will of people. In speaking of tradition, Mill wisely remarks that:

No one would assert that people ought not to put into their mode of life, and into the conduct of their concerns, any impress whatever of their own judgment, or of their own individual character. On the other hand, it would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct, is preferable to another. Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. [5]

In order for human civilization to exist and progress, every idea and thought, every notion of human good, every pragmatic test of right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness cannot be rediscovered and reinvented in every generation. Therefore, youth do need to be taught and formed so that they might live successfully and form their characters wisely when they have arrived at the age when their own individuality can and should be expressed.

This is an area in which our culture is vastly deficient and much of the mischievousness of the deficiency is built upon a misunderstanding of the kind of freedom to choose that is reasonable for people to have at various stages of life. If a politics of love is required to undergird the utilitarian notion of freedom of thought, opinion, speech and action, a “politics of wisdom” is needed to undergird these very same freedoms.

In the end, Mill believes that human beings need freedom in order to develop their inborn capacities. He compares what he believes to be “an early state of society,” where people needed the discipline and control of external restraints on their behavior, to the current time (which would be Great Britain of the 19th Century where such restraints are no longer needed).

Mill is particularly critical of Calvinism, with its extreme notion of the results of the Fall, as Luther would have put it, its notion of the “Bondage of the Will,” that renders human beings incapable of wise and good actions. In keeping with Mill’s general appreciation of human capacity for moral and aesthetic progress, he rejects the darker implications of Protestant theology. Mill’s notion is that there needs to be a blending of the Greek ideal of self-development and a Christian notion of self denial. [6]

For Mill, the self-denial he sees in Calvinism, results in a drab uniformity of human character. What is needed is a wise cultivation of all human capacities:

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. [7]

Once again, it is my view that all Christians can join with Mill in this desire that human beings should be able to flourish in both the people they become and the works that they do. This is the fulfillment of human beings being made in the “image of God” and given the earth to cultivate and improve as a garden. It is the recovery of that image that motivates Christian conversion and sanctification. Where Christianity differs a bit from Mill’s vision is in a deeper appreciation for the capacities of the human spirit for foolishness, selfishness, and even evil.

This is not to say that Mill himself is not aware of the implications of his views of human flourishing, for he immediately conditions human freedom as existing “within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others.” From a Christian perspective the same freedom love bestows on the beloved also restrains Christians actions that negatively impact the rights and interests of others.

Among those who Mill wishes to protect from artificial restraints are those of genius, who must be allowed to “unfold itself freely in both thought and practice”. [8]  In Mill’s view, human history is characterized by an abstract appreciation of genius coupled with a tendency to suppress it in favor of mediocrity.

At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions. [9]

In Mill’s view, the masses, and those who have power because of their leadership of the masses, are instinctively given to oppressing new ideas and challenges to the status quo they enjoy. In modern democracies, this ends up in the suppression of dissent and new ideas. The ideal of progress requires that genius especially be free to think, publish and experiment with as few restraints as possible. Therefore, not just genius in particular requires protection.

Sitting behind Mill’s views sits the instinctive hostility of the Enlightenment to tradition, or in the case of Mill, “custom.” Thus Mill writes:

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement. The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement; but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals. The progressive principle, however, in either shape, whether as the love of liberty or of improvement, is antagonistic to the sway of Custom,…. [10]

It is here that I think Mill can most justly be critiqued. Every society has customs or traditions that impact thought, opinion, and behavior. In fact, there is no possibility of constructive thought without a tradition. The Enlightenment itself is a continuation of a tradition that began in the Renaissance, but which has roots in both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization. It is not custom or tradition that is the enemy of progress but prejudice and a lack of openness to new ideas and change.


As indicated above, there is much about Mill that should resonate with contemporary people, since we see in social media and among some politicians the desire to eliminate views that challenge the received wisdom of the present age. However, the defense that Mill makes is less convincing, I believe, to modern ears precisely because of the understanding we have of the power of the media and the difficulty of discerning harmful opinions from those which are not harmful.  Furthermore, we live in an age in which the relativity of knowledge and the reality of an almost infinite range of perspectives and opinions on matters of public interest render public officials and the public itself desirous of cutting off debate, sometimes prematurely. This is the dark side of postmodernism where combined with a Nietzschean notion of the “Will to Power,” which I believe to be a characteristic our media and politics.

Finally, our current situation undercuts one of the primary postulates of utilitarian thought: the notion that it is possible to define areas of private opinion and action where there are negligible impacts on others. In point of fact, human society is deeply relational and almost nothing we think, say or do is without some degree of social consequences for ourself and others. Defining the boundaries of freedom of thought, opinion and action has become increasingly difficult as has maintaining public defense of such freedom.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968), hereinafter “On Liberty”.

[2] See, David Shultz “On Liberty” in the First Amendment Encyclopedia (downloaded January 5, 2022).

[3] On Liberty, at 67.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 70.

[6] Id, at 75-76.

[7] Id, at 76.

[8] Id, at 79.

[9] Id, at 80.

[10] Id, at 85-86.