John Stuart Mill's Concept of Liberty Professes Term Paper

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John Stuart Mill's concept of liberty professes to be liberal but ends up with a distinctly 'non-liberal' feel when analysing the details. This paper endeavours to define exactly what Mills' notion of liberty is and how it should be regulated by studying his book "On Liberty." The main discrepancies of his theory will be highlighted so as to demonstrate the apparent contradiction between his ideology and the examples he chooses to showcase his theory in its application.

Mill defines liberty (civil or social) as "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." (Chapter I - Introductory; 1) The obvious wielder of this power Mill identified to be the government. However the government can be controlled or checked in turn since they are still held accountable to the people. Mill recognized another wielder of this control over the individual, the 'society' in question that exercises this power over the individual is the majority or those considered to be the majority. However, unlike the government, which is held accountable to the people, the majority does not have those checks. Mill states that in many instances the ruling majority is not always the same people who have this power exercised on them. The majority may even wish to dominate a part of the population. Therefore, there would still need to be a limitation placed on this ruling majority. (Chapter I - Introductory; 4)

The reason behind the importance in limiting the power and influence of government and 'society' over its individual constituents lies in the risk of tyranny. Society enforces its own rules and regulations, as well as punishments it metes out to whomever society deems necessary to penalize. However, if society is incorrect in its judgment or if society unjustifiably interferes in an individual citizen's affairs, it actually practices tyranny. If society delves too deeply in the private affairs of individuals, it leaves that individual less room to maneuver, less room to escape such tyranny, particularly if the allegations of wrongdoing are unfounded. Mill identifies this type of tyranny as "enslaving the soul itself." (Chapter I - Introductory; 5) Mill uses this argument to justify protection, not just from the government of the day in securing true liberty, but also from the majority. "There needs [to be] protection... against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own." (Chapter I - Introductory; 5)

The question becomes, how can we regulate this type of balance between intervention and non-intervention on the part of society? Currently, the method of doing so is simplistic. Mill has identified this method as being largely a reworking of one of the Catholic tenets, i.e. "turn the other cheek." People normally treat others the way they themselves would want to be treated. (Chapter I - Introductory; 6) With everyone basically following this philosophy, the ruling majority would dictate what the preferred level of treatment is. Therefore, "the likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion." (Chapter I - Introductory; 7) However, one cannot always trust the majority to know what preference is most appropriate, particularly if their decision unjustifiably oppresses a minority of the population.

To get around this dilemma, Mill attests to one very simple notion: a society's objective in debating the limits of their power and control should be based on whether an individual is bringing harm to others by his actions. If the answer is yes, than society has the right to intervene in order to stop the harm from occurring. However, if the answer is no, society should not and must not intervene. If the individual only poses a threat to himself, again society must not interfere since society would be seen as encroaching on the civil liberty of the individual in question. "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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (Chapter I - Introductory; 9) However, there are conditions to this statement. Complete personal sovereignty regarding issues of a solely personal effect does not include children or individuals in the complete care of others. Only if the individuals are already adults and have sound mind can this rule relate to them.

Mill proceeds to go into great detail in how this limitation on society should be placed (and it is in the details where Mill's concept of liberty loses its conviction). Mill asks himself the question concerning the rightful restriction to the sovereignty of the individual by society. Where does society draw the line before it starts to encroach on an individual's civil liberties? Mill answer to this question is vague: "To individual should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society." (Chapter IV - Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual; 2) Then the question becomes what belongs to society and what belongs to the individual? The way Mill answers this question serves to blur the lines of distinction between the two parties. Mills believes that there is an invisible social contract in operation. There is an apparent trade-off between the government/ruling majority and the individual citizenry. In order to receive protection from the government/ruling majority, there are certain social obligations the individual must adhere to. Also, because we all have a choice in selecting which community we wish to live in, it is not an unreasonable request on the part of the government/ruling class to maintain the rules and regulations enforced in that particular community. These obligations are in the form of 2 codes of conduct:

Individual citizens are not permitted to harm the interests of others, i.e. particular interests that have been expressed outwardly or through indirect comprehension, should be thought of as rights;

Each individual must shoulder the responsibility, effort and sacrifice (equally amongst themselves, of course) in ensuring the protection of its society and the individuals or reside in the community from harm or abuse. (Chapter IV - Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual; 30)

Mill delves further into other practices society may be allowed to conduct in terms of controlling their citizenry without necessarily violating their civil liberties. If an individual does harm others or if their concern for others is found wanting, then society has the right to dispense punishment to the offender, if not through legal channels, then through opinion. (Chapter IV - Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual; 3)

The difficulty in drawing this line lies in the examples Mill proffers. Some of his examples are clear-cut and straightforward where the impact on society is very obvious. "When a person disables himself, by conduct purely self-regarding, from the performance of some definite duty incumbent on him to the public, he is guilty of a social offence. No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty." (Chapter IV - Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual; 10) However, he cites another example that may be considered extremist. Basically, an individual is also committing a social offence (and therefore society can justifiably intervene) if he/she makes so much as a dirty joke to a group of people. In that instance, the people offended could intervene and either relate their displeasure at hearing his dirty joke or encourage society to penalize the offender for his transgression. (Chapter IV - Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual; 5)

Mill's answer to the accusation of being vague or extremist is as follows: "Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality and law." (Chapter IV - Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual; 10) But what is the definition of "definite damage," of "definite risk"? Who is the one…

Sources Used in Document:


Mill, John Stuart (1869) On Liberty. 4th ed. London, Longman, Roberts & Green.

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