Mill Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill conducted a philosophical investigation into how far a democratic society can legitimately interfere with individual freedom, and the result was one of the most enduring foundation documents of political liberalism.

Summary of Event

During the nineteenth century, the British Great Britain;political liberalism liberal creed passed through three distinctive phases: classical or bourgeois liberalism, democratic liberalism, and welfare liberalism. John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher and economist who was nurtured in the classical school, found a comfortable home with the democratic liberals. Before he died, he heralded the coming of welfare liberalism. Throughout the evolution of liberalism, there may be found a fundamental strand of belief in the freedom of the individual: the classical phase stressed the economic laissez-faire freedoms; the democratic urged the freedom of all adult men to participate in government through the secret ballot and as urban industrialized society glaringly revealed how laissez-faire victimized individuals, welfare liberalism demanded state interference to provide for freedom from want and social and economic security for all. Mill, John Stuart [p]Mill, John Stuart;On Liberty On Liberty (Mill) Philosophy;John Stuart Mill[Mill] Great Britain;political liberalism [kw]Mill Publishes On Liberty (1859) [kw]Publishes On Liberty, Mill (1859) [kw]On Liberty, Mill Publishes (1859) [kw]Liberty, Mill Publishes On (1859) Mill, John Stuart [p]Mill, John Stuart;On Liberty On Liberty (Mill) Philosophy;John Stuart Mill[Mill] Great Britain;political liberalism [g]Great Britain;1859: Mill Publishes On Liberty[3270] [c]Philosophy;1859: Mill Publishes On Liberty[3270] [c]Government and politics;1859: Mill Publishes On Liberty[3270] Taylor, Harriet Tocqueville, Alexis de

Each liberal platform, however, was founded upon the civil liberties of thought and expression. With Mill’s publication of On Liberty in 1859, this basic tenet of liberalism gained elaborate, almost religious, expression. A brilliant product of the utilitarian school, Mill intended his essay to be a practical handbook for “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” The need for such a handbook originated in his fear of the potential antiliberal trends of contemporary democratic society: the threat of tyranny of the majority contained in the newly accepted “will of the people” principle and the growth of a state infused with this popular mandate.

Like the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville Tocqueville, Alexis de , whose Democracy in America (1835, 1840) influenced Mill’s reflections in On Liberty, Mill feared that democratic society could become more despotic than absolute monarchy, given that the will of the majority, if not checked, could turn into a form of social tyranny that could extend its domination more deeply over an individual’s life than could political tyranny. Unlike his French liberal colleague, however, Mill committed himself to the task of resolving the practical question of where to place limits and how to adjust these limits between individual independence and social control.

In his 1873 autobiography, Mill Mill, John Stuart [p]Mill, John Stuart;autobiography expressed his belief that On Liberty would come to be regarded as the most significant of all his works. In this essay he looked for, and found, a single rule to apply to the problem of where to draw the line separating legitimate from illegitimate social coercion. Often referred to as the “harm principle,” this rule states that unless harm to others flows from the action of an individual, a civilized society ought in no way to interfere with the individual’s personal freedom. The possibility that one’s action might be harmful to oneself, according to Mill, does not provide society with a legitimate reason for interfering with it; “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Thus society violates the harm principle when it acts paternalistically. Society can, however, legitimately compel citizens to perform positive acts such as giving evidence in court. Also, because the inaction of individuals may cause harm to others, society may justly punish those who fail to act; however, Mill asserted that society should be most cautious in exercising its right.

Mill emphatically points out that the region of human liberty includes three fundamental areas of freedom: first, the absolute freedom of conscience, thought, opinion, and sentiment “on all subjects,” and the right to freely express and write such opinions; second, the freedom to adopt any lifestyle, life pursuit, or life plan as long as it does not directly harm others, even though it may offend their sensibilities as to what is socially acceptable or proper; and third, the freedom of individuals to unite for any purpose if such a combination is not injurious to others and is freely entered into by adults.

Mill’s methodology is thoroughly deductive. In his introduction, he justifies the need for his essay, and posits the primary principle of liberty along with its corollaries. The remaining four chapters explore the collision of his principle with forces of custom, the dogmatism of religion, and the orthodox opinion patterns of the upper classes.

John Stuart Mill.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

The chapter titled “Of Thought and Discussion” is particularly concerned with liberty’s historic enemy, organized religion. Here, Mill defends the individual’s absolute right of free expression by demonstrating the logic Logic contained in four major arguments. First, if the opinion that is silenced is actually true, society cheats itself by denying its free expression. Second, even though the repressed opinion be in error (such as truth which is seldom whole), error is likely to include portions of truth. Third, assuming the orthodox opinion be the whole truth and the dissenting view wholly untrue, and if dissent is suppressed, orthodox truth will be without an intellectual challenge and will be readily accepted on subjective feeling or prejudiced basis. Finally, it follows that an uncontested doctrine may gradually lose its meaning, atrophy, and become an ineffective guide for human conduct.

To support his argument, Mill cites countless historical situations in which liberty suffered at the hands of authority, often at the expense of truth and always in opposition to the intellectual health of humankind. Mill concedes the right of society to deny freedom of expression when such expression becomes “a positive instigation to some mischievous act.” However, free expression, if it is to be truly free, must include the subsequent right of the individual to translate opinions into action without recrimination. A defense of this latter piece of liberty takes up the third chapter: “Of Individuality, as one of the elements of well being.”

In that third chapter, Mill brings to the fore another reason why liberty is so valuable. Unless society allows those living within its bounds to develop themselves as individuals—that is, as persons allowed to make up their own minds as to what course of life to pursue, within the limits of the harm principle—human happiness is threatened. Echoing the individualist creed found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” Mill identifies a happy man as the autonomous man. He portrays individuality as the saintly condition of human grace constantly warring against the collective mediocrity of the masses and its mediocre political instrument, the state. If “the Sovereign Many” are to progress on a noble path the masses must be led by the “counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed Few” not along the lines of hero worship but freely converted to the wisdom of the enlightened elite. Without a condition of liberty, enlightenment perishes and humankind is put onto a brutish regressive course.

In chapter 4, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual,” Mill again defends the right of society to interfere with injurious acts that flow from individual actions. He is, however, skeptical of society’s ability to distinguish between what is merely odious behavior and what is directly harmful to society. As examples of society’s overstepping its limits, he cites prohibition laws in certain states of the United States, American laws aimed to suppress the Mormons’ practice of polygamy Marriage;plural Polygamy, Mormon Mormons;and polygamy[Polygamy] , and Sunday “blue laws” that violate individual freedom to work. If society deems itself taken over by barbarian lifestyles, then it is better that it should wither away than extinguish the torch of liberty by tyrannically and puritanically imposing a rigid code of civilization upon its individual members.

The final chapter of On Liberty provides readers with several practical applications of the principles interwoven throughout the essay. Here, Mill cites complex conditions that involve the question of liberty. In theory, he abhors the growth of state interference but fully recognizes situations in which state interference may be needed to protect the freedom of workers and consumers. For example, he cherishes the notion of free trade but condones public regulations for controlling sanitation, defending buyers from fraudulent products, and protecting workers from dangerous conditions.

Mill’s most frequently cited example of when society should overstep individual freedom is his contention that society should enforce individual education. He argues his case on the grounds that parents who do not provide for the mental health of their children commit crimes against the children and against society as well. Although he is opposed to state education as a threat to individuality, he favors state subsidies for families unable to finance private education.


Scholarly controversy has surrounded On Liberty since its publication. Some scholars have maintained, for example, that Mill’s distinction between acts affecting oneself and acts affecting others is a false one. Conservatives have argued that the majority in a society has a right to legislate its moral beliefs in order to preserve social stability. Questions also linger as to exactly how many of the ideas and their expressions in Mill’s essay had their origins not with Mill but with his wife Harriet Taylor, Taylor, Harriet who collaborated with him on his Principles of Political Economy Principles of Political Economy (Mill) and to whose memory On Liberty is dedicated. These debates, however, do not obscure the fact that in this work, Mill reveals a remarkable insight into those constant trends in modern society that tend to subvert freedom and obstruct individuality, an insight whose continuing applicability ensures the status of On Liberty as a classic work of political philosophy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berger, Fred R. Happiness, Justice and Freedom: The Moral and Political Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Argument by a distinguished political philosopher that Mill’s theory of liberty can only be fully understood in the context of his perspectives on happiness and justice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capaldi, Nicholas. John Stuart Mill: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Exploration of Mills’s intellectual development that traces the influences in his life that contributed to his philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gray, John. Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1991. Examination of Mill’s liberalism by a noted Mill scholar. Gray compares Mills’s writings with theories of liberalism articulated by other prominent political philosophers of the twentieth century and analyzes the connections among these theories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Himmelfarb, Gertrude. On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Reading of On Liberty that finds it is consistent with the libertarian viewpoint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levin, Michael. J. S. Mill on Civilization and Barbarism. London: Routledge, 2004. Study of Mills’s ideas of the stages leading from barbarism to civilization, his belief in imperialism as part of the civilizing process, and his thoughts on the blessings and dangers of modernization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mill, John Stuart. John Stuart Mill: A Selection of His Works. Edited by John M. Robson. New York: Odyssey Press, 1966. Collection of Mills’s most important writings that contains all of On Liberty and Utilitarianism, selections from the autobiography, A System of Logic, and The Subjection of Women, and passages from eighteen other essays. Robson’s twenty-page introduction is excellent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Packe, Michael St. John. The Life of John Stuart Mill. New York: Capricorn Books, 1970. Engaging and thorough biography of Mill, based on a variety of original sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, Alan. The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill. 2d ed. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1990. The discussion of On Liberty in the last chapter of this book explores the question of why it is wrong to coerce individuals into being better people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">West, Henry R. An Introduction to Mill’s Utilitarian Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Interpretation of Mills’s essay on utilitarianism.

Hegel Publishes The Phenomenology of Spirit

Ricardo Identifies Seven Key Economic Principles

Tocqueville Visits America

Blanc Publishes The Organization of Labour

Carlyle Publishes Past and Present

Smiles Publishes Self-Help

Spencer Introduces Principles of Social Darwinism

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon; Thomas Carlyle; James Mill; John Stuart Mill; Henry Sidgwick; Alexis de Tocqueville. Mill, John Stuart [p]Mill, John Stuart;On Liberty On Liberty (Mill) Philosophy;John Stuart Mill[Mill] Great Britain;political liberalism

Categories: History