Mill 1: “On Liberty” Part One

John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty” is one of the most important pieces of political philosophy that this series of blogs will examine. [1] Last year, I introduced Mill and reviewed his Utilitarianism. This week, we look at On Liberty. By common consent, On Liberty is the greatest and most enduring of Mill’s efforts as a political thinker, and the work has influenced American law and politics in a profound way, even to the current time, over a century after its publication.

At twenty-five, Mill met Harriet Taylor, who was then married to a businessman. Mill and Harriet Taylor became close friends, eventually marrying in 1851, after the death of her husband. For the next ten years, Mill and Harriet lived quietly together, and Mill credits her with the inspiration for his work. Mill wrote much of On Liberty before her untimely death in 1858, publishing it in 1859, untouched after Harriet’s death. He dedicated the essay to his wife in loving terms, calling her the inspiration for the work and co-author of much of the essay.

Tyranny in a Democratic Society

Mill was among the first to recognize that the advent of a democratic era changed the fundamental threat to liberty. In the ancient and medieval world, the fundamental threat to liberty was the king, emperor, the seat of all governmental power and authority. However, with the advent of democracy, the fundamental threat had changed. Now, the greatest threat to freedom was not the state, but the people themselves, or more properly a majority of the people or that portion of the people who have gained power. Here is how Mill puts it:

It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government and “the power of the people over themselves” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise power are not always the same people over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the same government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people—the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority, the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number and precautions are needed against this s against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. [2]

I could spend the remainder of this blog unpacking the importance of this paragraph and the time spent reading it would not be wasted, for it describes the situation that presents the greatest threat to freedom in the West today. Mill recognized that, when translated into political institutions, Enlightenment notions like, “Will of the People” (Rousseau) and “Self-Government” practically mean the will of those in power and those who put them there. The fundamental threat to liberty, therefore, is the people themselves and their elected representatives.

This is important because elections do not always or even commonly reflect the “will of the people” but can and do reflect the will of political parties, media companies, “king-makers,” wealthy contributors, political activists, and the like. Elections can be rigged and votes purchased—and have been since the beginning of democratic institutions. “The people,” meaning “those not in power,” need protection from “elected officials and the people and those who put them there.” This is a fundamental challenge to any functioning democracy and is why checks and balances are so important as well as a strong tradition of freedom of speech.

Just as importantly, democracies, as de Tocqueville early observed, create restrictions on liberty by the very nature of majority rule and the desire of groups in power to stay there. Social pressure is much greater in a democracy than in other forms of government. In a nation where everyone is a Christian, Jews and other religions need protection from the majority religious faith. Increasingly in America, everyone of any faith needs protection from the elites who disbelieve in any kind of religion and simply play them off against each other for power. In a place where the majority are either Republican or Democratic, the minority group needs protection against the natural human tendency to force our beliefs on others. The same thing is true of moral and other positions that may be unpopular with those in power.

Thus, Mill observes that:

Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since thought not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life and enslaving the soul itself. [3]

Mill sees that social tyranny is the most devastating tyranny of all, reaching into every aspect of human life. Thus, a free society has an interest not just in the kinds of political tyranny that have besmirched human history, but also with social tyranny, which is just as bad.

Point of the Essay

Mill’s desire is to secure a place for freedom of thought and action within the context of modern society. His basic proposal is that legal and social compulsion is only warranted in order to prevent harm to others. Absent a harm to others, people should not be compelled to secure their own best interests or happiness. [4] Mill immediately exempts from this freedom minors and those lacking in the capacity to seek their own best interests or happiness.[5] This exemption also applies to societies which lack the capacity to act wisely. [6] This particular exemption seems to me to be both a justification of British colonial policy, with respect to which Mill was a participant, and an invitation to tyranny. [7]

In setting out his premise, Mill specifically endorses the public application of the utility principle of Bentham to public life, so long as “utility” is given its largest possible sense grounded on the permanent interests of the human race as a progressive species. [8] Mill, it will be remembered, rejected a simplistic Utilitarianism and included all the finest potentials of which human capacity within his version of Utilitarianism. In my view, Christians can easily embrace some features of Mill’s Utilitarianism, for it opens the door to ultimate commitments and their importance for a full life and true happiness.

Scope of Freedom of Thought, Speech, and Action

There are three particular areas in which Mill defends the liberty of the individual within the parameters of the utility principle:

  1. Individual freedom of thought, opinion, and conscience on all matters.
  2. Individual absolute freedom to develop and pursue a person’s own plan of life, suffering whatever consequences they endure because of their choices.
  3. Social freedom giving groups the same rights given individuals so long as their collective actions do not harm others. [9]

Mill’s formula has been criticized from time to time as insufficiently setting out the parameters of the utility principle in securing human freedom, and from a communitarian point of view for underestimating or ignoring the importance of social factors and the practical inability to take any actions that do not have impacts on others, including family, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens and the like. However, it would be wrong not to note that Mill, like most modern thinkers, intends to protect the individual from any unnecessary control and to protect freedom of thought, speech, and action to the maximum degree possible. In Mill’s case he wants to protect individual and social groups from restraints because he thinks this is the key to a healthy society.

Why Freedom Is Necessary

In Mill’s analysis, he sets out three fundamental reasons why freedom of opinion, speech and action need to be protected:

  1. First, the opinion, however obnoxious, might be correct. Human beings by nature believe their own opinions to be correct and those opposed to their opinions to be wrong. This is as true in democracies as in autocracies.
  2. Second, even if an opinion is false, its expression can be beneficial, for it gives those who hold a truer opinion the opportunity to grow in an understanding of the truth, which is beneficial to society.
  3. Finally, most opinions are neither wholly true nor wholly false. In these cases full freedom of thought, speech, and action gives society the opportunity to discern the best truth or a better truth than any previous opinion. [10]

In developing his argument, Mill gives three important examples to illustrate the foolishness of suppressing unpopular opinions, Socrates, Christian faith, and Marcus Aurelius. The ancient Greeks put to death Socrates for the crime of undermining the character of the young, the ancient Jews and Rome put to death the Christ, and Aurelius persecuted the Christian movement. In each case, history has proven the persecutors wrong. [11]

If we take our current division in American politics to be a good example of the third group, we recognize that neither the left nor the right, neither free-market aficionado’s nor those who prefer socialism are probably completely correct, but the best and most wise policy is something different. Over the past thirty or so years, both major political parties have been in the majority more than once, but the problems of an increasing deficit, out of control medical care costs, and an increasing concentration of wealth continue. A wise person might ask if there is not some better way or a better policy approach in these areas than the ones we have been trying.


On Liberty is of such importance that I have determined to spend at least another week exploring its meaning and significance for this series of blogs. Today, the great threat to liberty is not Christian faith but a kind of radical secularism that is busy squashing any contrary views. On college campuses the views of Christians, political conservatives, and others are actively suppressed. Prominent leaders are denied the chance to speak to students.

Unfortunately, our government is not without complicity in attempts to squash free speech. However well intentioned, this problem has become abundantly apparent in the attempts to prevent any critique of the government’s response to Covid19 and the potential availability of alternative treatments. I think Mill’s position would be that, while government has the right to issue mandates, it does not have the right, nor should it, to prevent or artificially inhibit contrary views, for this would be to prevent the full defense of its own policies and/or the exposure of a mistaken policy, neither of which are in the public interest.

In one of Mill’s most poignant passages, he reminds his readers that it is a “pleaseant falsehood” [12]to believe that truth has some inherent power to prevail over falsehood, going on to say:

It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal of even of social penalties will generally succeed stopping the propagation of either. [13]

The long history of the human race contains abundant examples in religion, government, science and other areas where powerful political, economic, and social forces have suppressed ideas that were true or promoted ideas that were false to the ultimate injury of many people and a delay in progress. [14] As Mill points out, it is foolish to believe that, in our current state of society such a result is no longer possible, warning “Let us not flatter ourselves that we are yet free from the stain even of legal persecution.” [15] Wise words.

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).

[2] Id, at 6.

[3] Id, at 7.

[4] Id, at 13.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 14.

[7] Id. I do not have space to quote and discuss this exemption, but Mill’s wording would permit despotic behavior any time an elite feels that the majority or a substantial minority of citizens are “unenlightened” about any matter that has the slightest reference to free self-determination.

[8] Id.

[9] Id, at 16.

[10] This is a summary of the argument Mill makes in Chapter 2 of On Liberty, entitled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.” Id, at 19-67. See also, David Shultz “On Liberty” in the First Amendment Encyclopedia (downloaded January 5, 2022).

[11] Id, at 29-33. It is beyond the scope of these blogs, but this particular section is filled with wisdom and illustrates the complex views of Mill related to Christ and the Christian faith. Although he is critical of the persecution of heretics by Christians, he is also aware of the great contributions of Christian faith to Western history and the development of modern civilization.

[12] Id, at 34.

[13] Id, at 34-35.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.