Book Review: J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a classic statement of liberal values and an iconic text in the arena of moral and political thought. Published in 1859, it was originally conceived as a short essay upon which Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, fleshed out the liberal values and morality that still provide much of the basis for political structures today. In essence, it seeks to address the question of how far the state or society as a whole should go in controlling individual beliefs and actions, and its answer is a resounding defence of individuality.

Title page of the first edition of On Liberty (1859). (Credit: Public Domain)

Mill opens his account with a historical assessment of the ancient struggle between liberty and authority, suggesting an evolving relationship between ruler and ruled whereby people came to believe that rulers no longer needed to be independent powers opposed to their interests, thus giving rise to notions of democracy. But, whilst government tyranny is a concern for Mill, ‘On Liberty’ focuses more on the dangers of democratic and social coercion and its hindrance upon the individual; perhaps an unsurprising view in the context of Victorian social conservatism. On Liberty sees Mill warn against a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and it is with this in mind that Mill sets out the individual freedoms and protections that ground liberal values to this day. 

‘On Liberty’ focuses on four key freedoms: freedom of thought, speech, action, and association, all of which would challenge the Victorian orthodoxy of custom and restraint in the social and political sphere. 

Freedom of thought, by which Mill means ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects’, is a staple in the genre of classical liberalism; a rejection of group-think and the elevation of individual thought over social customs. Mill’s conception of freedom of speech is arguably more profound and more contentious. His defence of free speech extends up until such speech becomes incitement to violence. He sees value in speech no matter how potentially hateful or self-evidently incorrect, for such speech is necessary to reinforce the strength of our convictions and stop our beliefs and values from becoming mere platitudes. One might perceive this opinion as at the crux of today’s disagreements over the limits of free speech.

Mill’s conceptualisation of freedom of act divides action into two categories: self-regarding action and other-regarding action, and sees only limitations on the latter as permissible. In essence, one should be free to act in any way they please, unless in doing so they directly harm somebody else; a classical liberal statement if there ever was one. Finally, freedom of association; the freedom to unite with any person so long as the purpose does not involve harm. 

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

J. S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’

‘On Liberty’ is evidently a defence of individualism and individual freedoms, but it represents a major departure from previous liberal thinkers. Mill’s support for liberty is rooted in his utilitarianism. Whereas liberal thinkers such as John Locke see liberty as a valuable end in itself, and man as endowed with natural rights by way of existing, Mill’s individual liberties merely serve a purpose, that purpose being utility. In short, ‘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’. He has come under severe criticism for this, with many doubting his liberal credentials, but as he states in ‘On Liberty’, without firm grounding, ‘there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical’.

Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is not liberty merely for liberty’s sake, but rather it is liberty with a purpose, and his robust defence of individual freedoms still providing the framework for liberal thought today makes ‘On Liberty’ one of politics’ greatest hits.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

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