On Liberty Summary

John Stuart Mill

On Liberty

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On Liberty Summary

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On Liberty is a short treatise originally published in 1859. It was written by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, although he originally had conceived it as a short essay. Mill’s concept for the treatise was to apply the ethical system of utilitarianism to larger society and the state. Mill was greatly influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill. In On Liberty, Mill passionately defends nonconformity as having a positive impact on the whole of society, further arguing that no one can ever be completely sure their way of life is the only—or best— way of living.

On Liberty was an extremely influential work and was well received by its contemporaries, although not without criticism. Some thought the work didn’t maintain any continuity with utilitarianism, while others thought it too vague regarding the limits of liberty. Still others said the work placed too much importance on the individual, failing to distinguish between actions that only harm oneself and actions that harm others. The concepts presented in this work are still the foundation of many modern liberal perspectives. It has remained constantly in print, and a copy of On Liberty is passed to the president of the British Liberal Democrats as a symbol of the office, as well as the president of the Liberal Party.

The introduction discusses the struggle between liberty and authority. Mill says that individuals often feel their rights and needs are being ignored by a tyrannous government, which is run by the majority. Individual liberties are ignored due to a fear of authority. In the past, when society was constantly in a state of turmoil, people would accept a master to rule over them and provide safety. In a more stable modern environment, people have the power to rule themselves, making them immune to tyranny.

Mill then discusses the idea of this tyranny of the majority. People, he states, think that a democratic government’s function is to provide people with a self-governing state. But this is ineffective, because majority public opinion often stomps out minority voices. Mill says this is the worst type of tyranny. Governments should provide the greatest personal liberty an individual can attain.

Mill then discusses “Self-Regarding Actions and Autonomy,” during which he argues that a person cannot be punished or coerced to change if his actions only affect himself. It is not the purpose or right of society to protect the individual from themselves. The only thing the society may affect is the public actions of said individual.

Mill says that very often, public opinion is wrong. This is because the majority is often tainted with motives and biases, and they shouldn’t affect the decision being made. Mill analyses past wars, world events, and historic acts of discrimination to support this theory. He concludes that the majority’s opinion is not always rooted in good faith. Making sure that the minority is always included in debates and discussions is always necessary.

Religious people often believe that non-religious people are less credible in their ideas on societal structure. This, Mill says, should not occur. Mill argues that religious affiliation or any lack thereof should play no factor in a person’s ability to form an intelligent opinion about the question at hand. This includes what is best for society. Mill references specific nonreligious men with outstanding morals as proof.

The next section discusses coercion, which Mill is opposed to in every case. He says that both societal and individual coercion should be avoided always except when a person is harming others. Mill says a clear abuse of liberty occurs when a person is doing something that only affects themselves, and is then coerced into changing his or her behaviour. When that person harms other people or society, Mill agrees it is appropriate to intervene and punish that person in a court of law, if applicable. The public, Mill says, has a duty to warn each other about potentially dangerous people.

Mill further states that society has an obligation to use its large influence to protect people who are incapable, for whatever reason, to display or exercise their own liberty. Mill uses children and those with mental impairments as examples. Society must persuade children to be rational, behave reasonably, follow their passions as adults, and be dynamic personalities. Part of this responsibility is to provide a proper education for children. Mill argues for the installation of a universal education standard for all children, to prevent any child from falling behind.

Mill believes that the power of the government is something to fear. He argues that all of his theories have been constructed in order to give the government as little power as possible. This will prevent government officials from attaining any more power of persuasion than they already have. The government should never be allowed to make final decisions regarding its constituency. Instead, local officials should be chosen and appointed, and they should consider the central government’s advice. Ultimately, however, all final decisions should be decided with the direct input of all citizens.