Mill’s On Liberty
Chapter I: Intro.
i. Need of protection against the magistrate and the non-legal tyranny
of the majority.
NOTE: the threat of mass-society to individual liberty
ii. Essay thesis:
The sole permissible end for individual or collective interference
with individual liberty of action is the avoidance of harm to others (other
regarding actions). In matters concerning only oneself, one’s right
is absolute (self-regarding actions). Over oneself, one’s body and
mind, the individual is sovereign. Hence, the following sacrosanct:
absolute liberty of conscience, tastes, opinion & speech; limited liberty
of pursuits and association (no harm to others clause).
iii. Method of argument: utilitarian argument (that is, PU) applied to the “permanent
interests of man as a progressive being.”
Chapter II: Freedom of thought and discussion.
1. These freedoms necessary for the well-being of humankind because:
Chapter III: Of individuality as one of the elements of well-being.
- suppressed opinion might be true.
- even if partially true, the discovery of full truth is easier with an open
discussion of it.
- even if the suppressed opinion totally false, its presence is needed to
avoid true contrasting opinion be transformed in dogma without knowledge of
- limitations to these freedoms always advantageous to the majority or
- it's impossible to set bounds for temperate, informative, non-tendentious
discussion. So, anything goes. However: limits in case of clear and
present danger, e.g. “corn-dealers are starvers of the poor!” said to mob
in front of corn-dealer house; “fire!” in crowded cinema
Freedom of action is not as unrestricted as freedom of opinion because
it is more likely than mere speech to harm others. However, since
it's a manifestation of individuality, it should be protected because individuality
is important both to individuals and to society
1. Individuality important to well-being of individual because
2. Individuality important to well-being of society because:
A. plasticity argument
- human nature not like a machine, built after a fixed model, but like
a tree developing through its own forces and responding to the demands of
the environment. We are, in many respects, different from one another.
- such development is good because it brings out the best in us.
NOTE: note Mill's optimism and his attack on calvinism and dark view of human
B. Pleasure/pain argument
Sources of pleasure and pain different for different people. Hence,
unless people left free to pursue their different interests and ends, they’ll
miss out on happiness.
Chapter IV: of the limits to the authority of society over the individual.
- genius and spur to change and improvement are maximized in an atmosphere
valuing individuality and different thinking.
danger of mass-society in which mediocrity produces oppressive custom:
in this case, even mere eccentricity is a good.
Question: What are the limits to the sovereignity of individual over
Answer: Society may interfere with the part of the individual’s life
chiefly interesting society (other regarding actions); the individual is
sovereign in that part chiefly interesting the individual (self-regarding
- One not allowed:
- to injure those interests of others which by law or tacit understanding
are considered important.
- to avoid one’s share of labor and sacrifice needed to defend society
from injury and molestation.
- Apart from the above, one’s freedom is complete because that is the
sphere of self-regarding actions. There is no parity between the feeling
of a person for his own opinion and that of one offended by it.
If we don’t agree with one’s behavior, we can avoid his company (without parading
the avoidance), warn others, not offer him optional positions.
Examples: temperance laws; Sabbatical precepts; persecution of Mormons because
1. The distinction between self regarding and other regarding actions
is unclear and/or untenable
2. Paternalism: even if self-regarding actions exist, cannot we maximize
happiness through paternalism?
self-regarding actions affects only oneself; other-regarding actions affect
others as well.
Problem: no man an island.
self-regarding actions affect only my interests, i.e., my personal concerns
according to common standards; other regarding actions affect others’ interests
Problem: if public opinion has final word, then very reason
for distinction between self and other regarding actions is lost.
self-regarding actions don't affect other people's rights; other regarding
Mill's argument against paternalism:
3. Enforcement of morals (Lord Devlin)
- restraint or compulsion is an evil; hence, the burden of proof is on its
- we either cannot advance the interests of the individual by compulsion,
or doing so involves evils outweighing the good one because adult individual
knows what’s good for him better than society which is likely to interfere
at wrong time for wrong reasons.
- Treating citizens as children turns them into children, which is incompatible
with democratic self government
Argument for the enforcement of morality and against the existence of a private
sphere of autonomy
- Society has a right to pass judgment in matters of morals, i.e. there ought
to be a public morality.
Rationale: Society is, among other things a community of ideas,
including moral ideas. Without shared ideas in politics, ethics etc. society
- So, society has a right to enforce its judgment on moral issues.
No theoretical limits can be set to the power of society to legislate against
Rationale: Society has a right to protect itself from danger.
But an attack on common morality is a danger. (Other leg is education involving
religion because we do not know of any other way to teach morality but through
- The moral judgments which should be enforced are those about which the
man in the street feels a strong combination of intolerance, indignation and
disgust. No reason need be given.
Rationale: This necessary for the keeping of common morality. Whether
such morality is right or wrong is irrelevant to the right of society to enforce
Problem: Too much stress on feelings and too little on reason (consider
the case of witch burning). At a minimum, there must be a demand for rational
NOTES: For Devlin,
Chapter V: Applications
- what’s tolerated varies from time to time (e.g. fornication, adultery
- the maximim degree of individual freedom should be allowed compatibly
with the integrityof society.
1. Cases in which liberty is unjustly denied because the actions involved are
2. Cases in which freedom is wrongly invoked because the actions involved are
restrictions on sale of poisons, opium, alcohol
Rationale: these restrictions on liberty of buyer. However,
to require registration
- to control drinking in drunkard not fullfilling obligations
to compel idle to work if not fulfilling obligations
Prohibition of actions dangerous for agent only.
Rationale: these self-regarding actions. However, it's
permissible to have warnings (Crossing of safe bridge example).
NOTE: self-slavery impermissible because contradictory with idea of
freedom, which doen't include the “freedom to alienate one’s freedom.”
regulations about number of liquor shops.
Rationale: no paternalism against any group. However, it's premissible
to tax liquor because not a necessity.
Requests public licences for practicing. However, certificates may
be issued as advisory to the public.
3. Objections to state interference even when liberty not at stake:
Family relations involving abuse.
avoiding educating one’s children. However, home school ok, if reasonable
state tests passed.
Procreating without any means to support progeny.
- individual concerned do often better job than state.
- even when state would do slightly better, it’s educational and conducive
to development that individuals do it: e.g. jury trial, philanthropic
and industrial voluntary associations. Moreover, greater experimentation within
- avoids the evil of giving added power to the state.
Rationale: Where state has massive control, liberty exists in name only.
- General rule: greatest possible decentralization of power consistent with
efficiency and greatest possible centralization of information and diffusion
from the center.