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On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

The following is a transcript of this video.

To what extent  does society have the right to control and  impose limits on the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of individuals?

The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill thought this question to be of monumental importance. In his famous work On Liberty, written over a century ago,  Mill predicted that such a question “is likely to make itself recognized as the vital question of the future.”(On Liberty, John Stuart Mill) Given the ubiquity of state tyranny in the 20th century and the threats to liberty that loom over us today, Mill’s prediction seems to have come true.

In this video we will provide a summary of Mill’s highly influential work, On Liberty, in which he sets out to investigate, in his words,

“the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

Before we proceed we must first understand who or what exercises power over individuals in a society. As is well known to most people,  governments, be they authoritarian, monarchical, or democratic, are always a threat to individual liberty. 

Thomas Jefferson in fact stated that: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

Mill recognized the threat governments posed, but he also postulated that there is a subtle and more anonymous social force which also destroys the freedoms of individuals. Every  society comes to adopt customs, beliefs, opinions, and attitudes which are accepted by the majority as the ‘right’ way of thinking and living. 

Individuals who show signs of deviating from this ‘right’ way of living are shunned and ostracized by the majority, and are thereby pressured to conform and adopt the socially accepted ways of living and thinking.

Mill called this social force  the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and claimed it to be the primary manufacturer of conformity.

As he wrote:

“…when society is itself the tyrant – society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it – its means of terrorizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandate; 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, though 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.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

Mill believed that because liberty was “one of the leading essentials of well-being” that individuals must take positive steps to ensure that their liberties are not destroyed. It should be noted, however, that some have suggested that Mill overstated the threat of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and understated the threat posed by governments. An important distinction, which Mill did not address, is the  different way that freedoms are destroyed by governments versus the tyranny of the majority. Governments, who maintain a monopoly of legitimized force within a certain area, coerce individuals with force and any individual who tries to evade the dictates of a government faces imprisonment or even death.

However, the tyranny of the majority, on the other hand, must use criticism and ostracism to impose their way of living on individuals who wish to lead their life in a different manner. As such, it is much easier for someone to ignore the ‘tyranny of the majority’ than it is for them to ignore the ‘tyranny of a government’. However, had Mill lived to see the atrocities committed by the totalitarian governments of the 20th century, his opinion on the relative threats of governments versus the tyranny of the majority may have been different.

That point aside, Mill did not think individuals should be completely free to do exactly what they want without any restraint. With respect to the actions of individuals, he thought society had a right to exercise power over individuals within a limited domain.

To delineate where he thought it was appropriate for society to exercise power over individuals and where it was not, Mill differentiated between two types of action:  other regarding action and  self regarding action. Self regarding action refers to actions which directly affect only the individual performing the action. Self regarding actions which are disallowed by a government are somewhat analogous to what are  called illicit crimes, such as the use of drugs. With respect to actions of this nature Mill believed society has no right to intervene:

“the individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

Other regarding actions refer to  actions which directly affect other individuals. Mill maintained that if an individual performs an action  which harms another individual or which encroaches on their basic rights then such an individual should be punished and if needed incarcerated. This, Mill stated, is the only legitimate power which society has over the individual.

As he wrote:

“…the 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

While he proposed that society has a right to exercise power over an individual if his actions harm others, Mill held that the freedom to hold and express beliefs and ideas of one’s choosing should be completely  unconstrained:  

“If all mankind minus one were of one 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.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

Mill proposed that the freedom to entertain a wide variety of ideas and to express those ideas without fear of punishment was not only crucial to the healthy development of individuals but also of society at large. He put forth two main reasons why society benefits when ideas are not suppressed but allowed free expression.

Firstly, Mill proposed that in suppressing an idea  a society runs the risk that it is suppressing the truth. Human beings are fallible creatures,   and every society throughout history has falsely mistaken their most cherished ideas for absolute truths. A society should therefore allow free expression of even the most unorthodox ideas, for these ideas may turn out to contain more truth than the ideas the majority accepts as ‘true’.

“…the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course, deny its truth; but they are not infallible….Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals – every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

Moreover, Mill maintained that even if an individual or society at large covets an idea they are certain is true, it is still not beneficial to suppress all opposing ideas. For even if one has arrived at the truth it is necessary that  contradictory ideas exist. A true idea, Mill insightfully proposed, retains its strength and vigor only so long as it is constantly under attack by conflicting ideas. Once a true idea is  accepted as an absolute and labelled as untouchable, it loses all that which makes truths valuable:

“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.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

Liberty of thought and liberty of action combine to give rise to the freedom to cultivate one’s individuality. The freedom to be unique and eccentric is, Mill held,   essential for social progress.  When individuals break free from the tyranny exercised by both governments and the majority and live unconventional lives, Mill proposed that they undergo what he called ‘experiments of living’. These experiments are what drives both individual and social development.

As Mill wrote:

“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living…and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others individuality should assert itself. Where not the person’s own character but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

Mill observed that in his day eccentric individuals were wanting, leading him to  fear that the ‘tyranny of the majority’ would soon gain complete control over the development of individuals. As  when conformity becomes all pervasive social stagnation sets in and human beings lose all that makes them superior creatures in the animal kingdom: “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation.”

Because of this danger Mill called for individuals to practice nonconformity solely for the sake of breaking the chains of custom and displaying to people that different ways of living and thinking are possible. For it is only in a society where nonconformity and eccentricity are pervasive that social progress is achievable:

“In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.” (On Liberty, John Stuart Mill)

All too often people misunderstand the importance of individual liberty and  think that individual freedoms should be sacrificed for the ‘greater good’. Other individuals  erroneously think that liberty only serves the selfish ends of the individual at the expense of society at large. But as Mill so eloquently explained in his classic work, the  ‘greater good’ is only served by allowing individuals to do and think as they please so long as their actions do not harm others. One can only hope that in the modern day when so many threats to liberty loom over us that more and more individuals will come to understand this all-important truth. To finish this lecture we will provide a passage from HB Phillip, in which he echoes John Stuart Mill’s message regarding  the importance of liberty:

“Throughout history orators and poets have extolled liberty, but no one has told us why liberty is so important. Our attitude towards such matters should depend on whether we consider civilization as fixed or as advancing. . . In an advancing society, any restriction on liberty reduces the number of things tried and so reduces the rate of progress. In such a society freedom of action is granted to the individual, not because it gives him greater satisfaction but because if allowed to go his own way he will on the average serve the rest of us better than under any orders we know how to give.” (HB Phillips)

Further Readings