"The grand, leading principle, towards which
every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the
absolute and essential imporance of human development in its richest
- Wilhelm von Humboldt: Sphere and Duties of Government."
The motto and
the dedication that open "On Liberty"
are not in the html-version I downloaded, but are taken from J.S. Mill:
"Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Considerations on
Representative Government", edited by H.B. Acton, Everyman's
Library, 1972. (There are some more useful details for those who want
to read more Mill or Mill + my notes off line in the TOC.)
is the book I first read "On Liberty"
in, and in which are my notes that I reproduce here. It has the
advantage of containing several of Mill's important writings on
politics and also of containing H.B. Acton's useful and interesting
"To the beloved and deplored memory of her who
was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my
writings - the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right
was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward
- I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years,
it belongs as much to her as to me; but the work as it stands has had,
in a very insufficient degree, the inestimable advantage of her
revision; some of the most important portions having been reserved for
a more careful re-examination, which they are now never destined to
review. Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the
great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I
should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to
arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her
all but unrivalled wisdom. "
to "her who was the inspirer, and in part the
author, of all that is best in my writings" is to a woman
probably best known as Harriet Taylor. Her maiden name was Harriet
Hardy. Mill met this person of "all but
unrivalled wisdom" in 1826, when she had just married John
Taylor. After Taylor died she married Mill in 1851, but she died
herself after seven years of marriage to Mill, leaving him desolated.
There is more about her, in the same adoring vein, in Mill's Autobiography,
and it should here be remarked that H.B. Acton writes in a note to this
dedication that "Mill's high opinion of Mrs Taylor's abilities was not
shared by others." Back.
"THE subject of this Essay is not the
so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed
doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the
nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by
society over the individual. A question seldom stated, and hardly ever
discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the
practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is
likely soon to make itself recognized as the vital question of the
The reader who
believes that the "Liberty
of the Will" also is properly
involved, at least logically, may be right, logically speaking, but
acts wisely if he forgets that issue for the moment, since it is quite
different from the issues of "Civil, or Social Liberty" that Mill is concerned with, which is "the nature and limits of the
power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual".
This is a quite
legitimate question - also in the logical sense - and it is of great
practical importance to individuals that live in society, but it should
be noted that "society" is a rather different kind of entity than is
a human "individual", for "society",
unlike the individuals that compose it, is a fairly abstract entity,
that has no will or thoughts or desires of its own. For more on this
see . Back.
"The struggle between Liberty and Authority is
the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we
are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and
I think this is
mostly a matter from one's point of view, and one could name different
struggles - say: between religion and rationality, or between
individuality and the state, or simply between different religions -
that are at least as "conspicuous".
One basic point
here is that every human individual may be supposed to take part in a
particular society - insofar as he does take part freely! - because he
hopes thereby to further his own chances on health, income and
happiness by cooperating with others, and that therefore every human
individual that lives in a particular society does have a considerable
interest in the question what freedoms the society leaves him, and what
bounds, fetters or duties are imposed on him, legally, morally or
religiously, and with what justification and
"By liberty, was meant protection against the
tyranny of the political rulers. The rulers were conceived (except in
some of the popular governments of Greece) as in a necessarily
antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled. "
No, I don't
think so. It seems right that "liberty" is
often opposed to "tyranny" of some kind
(not necessarily "political", for there
has been a lot of religious tyranny also), but I doubt that - any, all,
most? - "rulers" were always and
everywhere "conceived" of as "in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people
whom they ruled".
including absolute ones, seem to have been "conceived"
of by many of their subjects as somehow and to some extent legitimate.
In quite a few nations the king has been supported by a large part of
the population, also if he was neither enlightened, nor a lover of
freedom, nor an obvious friend of the common people.
manner of inequalities have been for many centuries accepted as quite
normal and unobjectionable by many. The existence of slavery and
nobility - that is, of individuals who are legally and morally inferior
or superior to others, for example by being a child of such a one, and
thus through no (de-)merit of one's own - has been a matter of course
in very many nations, races and circumstances, and for a far longer
time, so far, than there have been equal rights for all sane adults.
And indeed equal
rights so far and for all of human history has been a condition
only a minority of human beings have lived under, and those that did
live under equal rights, lived usually in societies with many factual
inequalities of many kinds, notably economical, educational, sexual,
religious and - in general terms - all manner of inequalities of
chances and conditions to further one's own
"The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set
limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over
the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It
was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain
immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be
regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which, if he
did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be
justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the
establishment of constitutional checks; by which the consent of the
community, or of a body of some sort supposed to represent its
interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important
acts of the governing power."
I mostly agree,
but it should be pointed out that some of these rights come with the
law, and indeed that many laws can be seen as constraints on the
freedoms human beings have naturally, that include murder, rape and
theft, in order to help those who want to live under such constraints
against those who don't, and indeed to make a society, as a group of
individuals that cooperate because that is in the interests of each,
possible at all.
And it is true,
and at least logically somewhat of a problem to a position such as Mill
is going to defend, that human society, conceived of as a congregation
of human individuals that desire to cooperate with others to improve
their own chances and standards of living, also requires rules and
regulations to protect the individuals that live in it against the
wrath, dishonesty, thievery or perversions of others living in
"But, in political and philosophical theories, as
well as in persons, success discloses faults and infirmities which
failure might have concealed from observation. "
This has many
applications, and some of these concern socialism and communism, for it seems
rather likely that what was made of these in the 20th Century in Russia
and China, for example, was not at all what their originators, such as
Owen or Marx, had had in mind - which is not to say that what the
originators did have in mind would have been practicable, and fair, and
most of the things they hoped and claimed it would be.
interesting book in this connection is A. Talmon's "The origins of
totalitarian democracy", that charts how much totatilitarianism was
mixed in as a matter of course with early socialism and communism.
what the actual histories of socialism and communism show is that there
is, in very many men and women, a strong totalitarian streak, that
moves them to repress, forbid or persecute almost anyone with any point
of view they themselves do not agree with, often for the simple reason,
or at least on the basis of the simple expedient, that those who do not
agree with our ideals "thereby" have shown themselves to be bad,
inferior, or not properly or fully human.
totatilitarian tendency is important for Mill's argument and concerns
in "On Liberty", and it seems a
quite human - "human-all-too-human" - feeling. Back.
"Neither was that notion necessarily disturbed by
such temporary aberrations as those of the French Revolution, the worst
of which were the work of an usurping few, and which, in any case,
belonged, not to the permanent working of popular institutions, but to
a sudden and convulsive outbreak against monarchical and aristocratic
of 20th Century socialisms and communisms - 70 years of despotism in
Russia, for example - show otherwise, and anyway Mill in this passage
is willfully disingenuous for a reader of Burke on the French
Revolution. (A quite interesting book about this revolution, compiled
from writings of people who lived through it, is "The French
Revolution", by Pernoud and Flaissier.)
In brief: There
is a strong proclivity to authoritarianism and totalitarianism in the
average human heart, and one can see it manifested in all
manner of religious and political movements, including all or nearly
all of those that are nominally and ideally committed to liberty and
freedom, as socialism and communism were, until they were really
practised on a social scale, for then all rapidly turned into
despotisms of some kind.
there is a rather major strand of totalitarian feeling in most kinds of
socialism, left and right, as well outlined by A. Talmon in "The
origins of totalitarian democracy". Likewise, many socialist
leaders have shown totalitarian leanings, as have many of their
"It was now perceived that such phrases as
"self-government," and "the power of the people over themselves," do
not express the true state of the case. The "people" who exercise the
power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is
exercised, and the "self-government" spoken of, is not the government
of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the
people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or
the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed
in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people,
consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and
precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse
of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over
individuals, loses none of its importance when the holders of power are
regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party
In fact, the ""people" who exercise the power" are never
"the same people" "over
whom it is exercised", even if they belong to it, since the
politicians of the state and their bureaucrats always form a minority,
in any state. The whole notion that "the people"
have "self-government" (in a democracy or
elsewhere) is mostly propaganda, and Mill is too optimistic about the "will of the people", for it does not mean that "the majority" rules, in any realistic sense,
even in a full democracy with honest elections. For even in those quite
rare conditions it means at best that the representatives that choose
the government have been chosen by a majority of those entitled to
vote, in a process of fair elections, not overly marred by propaganda,
lies, or emotions.
But Mill is
right about the fact that even a democratically elected government may
abuse its powers, or may have legal powers it should not have, and that
anyway the mere fact that there is a majority for some policy or
principle or law does not at all entail that therefore, necessarily,
the policy or principle or law is wise, good, rational or
is right about something else that he does not say in the quoted
passage that I am now discussing, but that certainly was one of his
motives un writing "On Liberty",
namely that it is not usual that a majority of men,
of any kind, is rational or good or intelligent in any sense, and that
in fact most of the benefits that come from new ideas or values or
formulations derives from the thinking and doing of individual
persons, who usually have to start their new notions in a minority of
one, even if eventually, often after many generations, their ideas are
acceptable to or accepted by a majority.
As a rule, the
majority is neither enlightend, nor intelligent, nor fair, nor humane,
though it usually is conformistic, namely towards what the
majority thinks and feels - or believes it is safer to pretend to think
and feel in the society and circumstances they live in.
For more on
this, see Mill's Chapter
III or my notes to
"Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the
majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as
operating through the acts of the public authorities."
Yes, but as
Mill will point out a little later in his text, there are - as I put it
- in every society different sources and kinds of authority. Here are
some that are important:
(of state, city, region) and their servants: These often have a
monopoly on violence, and if they have not, they normally can muster
more organized and armed manpower than any other group in the society
and their servants: These often have a large authority over the
opinions and acts of their followers, and regularly also some over
non-followers they live next to
accepted morals, customs and practices: These often come with
rules, regulations and justifications of many kinds, and are
influential with many simply because they have been educated in them
opinions of the majority, and fashions: These too tend
to be influential on and with the average, and indeed also can be quite
tyrannical in circumstances, operating as if might is right if the
might is that of the opinion of the currently fashionable majority
And in general
it is well to distinguish between (1) authority that is ultimately due
to violence, legal or not, since in the end that is often what
counts, even if the violence is not used but only threatened with; (2)
authority that is based on law, in the sense that it conforms
to it, helps to keep it up, and is justified by it; and (3) authority
that is somehow based on opinion, as in the last three cases
listed in the previous paragraph. Back.
"But reflecting persons perceived that when
society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate
individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not
restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political
functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it
issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in
things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny
more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though
not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of
escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and
enslaving the soul itself. "
Yes, except for
the fact that "Society can and does execute its
own mandates" is really too vague and ambiguous a phrase.
Here I will
insert the first part of the relevant lemma of my
Society: A society is a cooperation of persons and groups
of persons to occupy some territory and to practice
agreed upon common ends in
organized ways, that maintains itself
against outsiders, and differentiates between outsiders and insiders.
important consequence is that "Society"
only ever acts in the form of acts of individuals, cooperating or by
themselves, on purpose or by accident.
Apart of that,
there is a lot of
Systems of ideas, rules, instructions and practices that concern how
the members of a group
in most and
perhaps all complex human societies (so far) that is restrictive,
unfair, unreasonable, prejudiced or ignorant, however honorably
motivated or well-intended. (See
Features of moral norms for some realistic qualifications of morals
as they usually are preached.)
And Mill is
right that this moral type of
rules of behavior quite often and normally is such that "it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more
deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."
Acton has a fine quotation from Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution
in France" that is relevant to this part of Mill's text:
"Of this I am
certain that in a democracy the majority of citizens is capable of
exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority, whenever
strong divisions prevail in that kind of polity, as they often must,
and that oppression of the minority will extend to far greater numbers,
and will be carried with much greater fury, than can almost ever be
apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre... They seem deserted
by mankind, overpowered by a conspiracy of the whole
"Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of
the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the
tyranny of the 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 all characters
to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. "
Yes, again with
the proviso that "society" should be
understood as in , or along similar lines
- or in the present context also as "other people" or "others".
And it is well
to remark here upon a presupposition Mill seems to make, namely that
every human individual has some "individuality",
which he or she desires to exercise and develop to at least some
extent, and may well have been born with. Back.
"All that makes existence valuable to any one,
depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other
This is so, for
humans living in society or in contact with other humans, because as a
matter of natural fact every human being is not only capable of
cooperating with any other human being but also quite capable of
killing, torturing, hurting, or harming any other human being in many
circumstances in many ways, and may want to do so, for profit, pleasure
or sport, for example, if this were not punished by others if found
"Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be
imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which
are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should
be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few
of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has
been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries,
have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a
wonder to another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more
suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which
mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves
appear to them self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal
illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom,
which is not only, as the proverb says a second nature, but is
continually mistaken for the first."
five important points I want to comment on.
First, "Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by
law in the first place"
Yes, but "law" does not fall from the sky (even if some,
like Moses, claimed so). It may be presumed that humans who live from
their own free will in society do so because they believe that
cooperating with others is in their own interests, and that such
cooperations, and eventual disagreements, that may arise over all
manner of things, are best settled if subjected to explicit agreements
to do certain things in certain circumstances in certain ways, and also
by agreements of a general kind that outline what the society is for,
and what its ends and rules are.
laws are rules of conduct that are adopted in a society, by whatever
means, that are publicly known and lay down what persons of a certain
kind should and should not do, may claim as their due, or should give
to others, and that normally come with known kinds of sanctions or
punishments for those who choose not live by those rules of law in that
society, while the laws apply to them.
Second, "and by opinion on many things which are not fit
subjects for the operation of law."
In any society
much more is regulated by custom, free consent and agreement, or by
opinion, than is regulated by law, and indeed one major purpose of a
body of law is to guarantee, as well as this can be humanly done, that
the persons living in a society live peacefully, orderly, and without
harming each other, which enables them to cooperate freely for their
Third, "What these rules should be, is
the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the
most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been
made in resolving."
This does not
seem to me quite true, and in fact human beings of all races and all
cultures, over the last 30 or 40 centuries at least, are recognizably
the same or similar in many ways, both as regards their needs, desires
and feelings, and as regards their capacities.
Fourth, "No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have
decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to
another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect
any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had
always been agreed. "
Part of the
reason for the many differences between cultures and civilizations in
the past have been independent development in mutual ignorance of each
others' achievements and failures, and another important part of the
reason for many differences between cultures and civilizations has been
that they had different religions, that added much in the ways of
worshipping and practices as regards feeding, sexuality, education and
On the other
hand: All human beings have similar needs for food, shelter, and sleep;
all have similar responses to many kinds of things, whether pleasurable
or painful; all are cured by many of the same medicines, killed by the
same poisons, and are indeed biologically, anatomically and chemically
clearly constructed in very similar ways; all human beings are mutually
comprehensible to a considerable extent from their similarities in
needs and responses; and it is only for something like four centuries
now that there has been a more or less effective science of physics
that gives testable empirical knowledge of nature and that enables the
creation of a working scientific technology to use nature for human
Fifth, "The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them
self-evident and self-justifying. This all but universal illusion is
one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not
only, as the proverb says a second nature, but is continually mistaken
for the first."
This is true,
but it also is an interesting fact that if people are fairly exposed to
the practices, techniques and customs of other civilizations, they
usually rapidly copy those ways, perhaps adapted to their own customs,
that seem beneficial, profitable, or pleasurable. A good example is the
spreading of various cuisines around the earth, thanks to a
combination of improved media and improved agricultural
"Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large
portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class
interests, and its feelings of class superiority."
I do not know
to what extent Mill was familiar with the writings of Marx. In any
case, though there is something to be said for the existence of classes
in terms of habits, outlooks, practices and values, in fact the term
"class", when used in a sociological sense, is much like the term
"society": It is an abstract term, that properly refers to a plurality
of individuals of some kind, but not to an entity that exists apart
from the individuals and their practices.
of "an ascendant class" it should be
noticed that so far every complex society has been pyramidical, like so
with a few -
the social élite - on top, usually both financially and in terms of
power and status; a larger group in the middle; and the majority at the
bottom, with least of the valuables and chances that are considered
most worth having in the society, and most of the heavy or boring work.
how human beings are and have been, on average, and given how one must
direct larger groups by smaller groups, if at all, and given the
existing differences between (1) the chances for individuals to develop
their talents usefully and between (2) the individuals and their native
talents themselves, where many more are capable of being good farmers
than are capable of being good doctors, and where there are many more
good doctors than geniuses, there is hardly any other possibility for a
society than being somehow pyramidical, men being what they are,
normally and usually.
I think so much
one must accept as following from the nature and capacities of man and
as therefore unavoidable, though it is also true that one can try to
make the chances for all that live in a society to rise high in it, if
they have sufficient natural gifts to do so, as fair as is possible,
and likewise one can try to distribute the income of the society
fairly, and according to individual merit. Back.
"Another grand determining principle of the rules
of conduct, both in act and forbearance which have been enforced by law
or opinion, has been the servility of mankind towards the supposed
preferences or aversions of their temporal masters, or of their gods."
This is true,
and indeed true to an extent that it seems at least reasonable to me to
assume that human beings are, in majority, born to follow and venerate
leaders. There seems to be a similar principle at work in other mammals
that live socially, like wolves, hyenas and gorillas, and it is not
difficult to imagine reasons why such a principle would arise in a
group of mammals that live socially, namely to keep it much more
orderly and organized than it would otherwise
"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. And in general, those who have
been in advance of society in thought and feeling, have left this
condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come
into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied
themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or
dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should
be a law to individuals. "
Here it should
be mentioned that the "likings and dislikings of
society" that have become law or custom in a society usually
have some form or sanction of traditions in the society, and may be the
product of generations, that may include generations of tinkering,
tuning and adjusting. Back.
"The only case in which the higher ground has
been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an
individual here and there, is that of religious belief: a case
instructive in many ways, and not least so as forming a most striking
instance of the fallibility of what is called the moral sense: for the
odium theologicum, in a sincere bigot, is one of the most unequivocal
cases of moral feeling. "
is no longer true, and indeed it may be argued with some plausibility
that it was not so already in Mill's own time, indeed not since the
American and French Revolutions in the 18th Century, for these were
politically rather than religiously inspired.
And in the 20th
Century there have been the socialist states, under the aegis of
either the Soviet Union or China, that were maintained and created by
political belief, rather than religious belief, even if the political
beliefs that did this were in many ways secular religions, including
promises of an earthly paradise, and also including a sort of
priesthood of political commissars, party-leaders, and regular public
manifestations of loyalty. Back.
"The great writers to whom the world owes what
religious liberty it possesses, have mostly asserted freedom of
conscience as an indefeasible right, and denied absolutely that a human
being is accountable to others for his religious belief. Yet so natural
to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that
religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except
where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace
disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale.
Here are at
least two important points.
First, "freedom of conscience" seems to be based on
natural fact. Indeed, it is here that the issue of the freedom of the
will enters, though we do not need to discuss it: It seems as if any
living human individual is capable and free to do or not do many things
only because he desires and wills it, and for no extraneous reason, if
not submitted to force, threats, promises or new credible and relevant
Second, Mill is
quite right that on average human beings have been - over the past 20
to 40 centuries, so far as can be judged - intolerant in matters of
religious or political ideology, probably in part because these concern
the foundations of social cooperation, and what the society in which it
is the prominent religion or political creed is supposed to be for, and
in part because intolerance to foreigners, to strange practices, and to
uncommon ideas and values seems fairly
"Wherever the sentiment of the majority is still
genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to
This is true,
and it may well be strengthened to the proposition that on average
human beings are totalitarian and intolerant, unless explicity educated
otherwise, and even then they feel often emotionally disposed to desire
to force others to see things as they do, and to act as they want,
usually "in their own interest". Back.
"There is, in fact, no recognized principle by
which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is
customarily tested. People decide according to their personal
preferences. Some, whenever they see any good to be done, or evil to be
remedied, would willingly instigate the government to undertake the
business; while others prefer to bear almost any amount of social evil,
rather than add one to the departments of human interests amenable to
this also describes two important tendencies: On the one hand, the
tendency that usually is related to varieties of socialism, that wants
to make the doing of most or many good works the task of government;
and on the other hand, the tendency that usually goes by a name derived
from liberalism, that wants to keep the powers and tasks of governments
small, and holds that most of the good that humans may do must be done
by individuals, or by individuals freely cooperating.
Mill was a
liberal, and so am I, and the main reason for me to be a liberal
(though without committing myself to any party platform) is that I
believe the 20th Century has made it perfectly clear that the power of
the state is much to be feared, and should be curtailed and checked if
it is not to blossom into a dictatorship.
And here it
also should be noted that all dictatorships are founded on the
pretension, that may be originally a sincere belief, that the
dictatorship does good and serves the interest of the people, or at
least a majority of the people, while also the worst crimes and
atrocities tend to be done for the noblest sounding reasons and
"The object of this Essay is to assert one very
simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of
society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control,
whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal
penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is,
that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or
collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their
number, is self-protection. 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. "
Here we have
arrived at the fundamental "very simple principle"
that "On Liberty" seeks
to express and further: That principle is, that
the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or
collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their
number, is self-protection.
It is well to
note immediately an assumption Mill in fact made, and that I do make,
namely the one mentioned already under :
that every human individual has some "individuality",
which he or she desires to exercise and develop to at least some
extent, and may well have been born with. (For more on this see Chapter III, that is
concerned with it.)
Next, it is
also well to note a very fundamental reason why individual human beings
would and do find the principle Mill asserts and defends congenial: Every
human individual wants to do as he or she pleases - normally and
naturally, and with only some provisos for age and ignorance (for small
children often need help, and also want and seek it; and one cannot
choose for or against what on does not know of).
is a related ethical motivation that has been given and noted in all
races and all important religions - and I quote from Dagobert Runes' "Pictorial
History of Philosophy":
The Golden Rule
What you don't want done to
don't do to others
- SIXTH CENTURY B.C.
Hurt not others with what pains
- FIFTH CENTURY B.C.
In happiness and suffering, in
joy and grief,
we should regard all creatures as we regard
own self, and should therefore refrain from
inflicting upon others such injury as would
appear undesirable to us if inflicted upon
- FIFTH CENTURY B.C.
Do not do unto others all that
not well for oneself.
- FIFTH CENTURY B.C.
May I do to others as I would
they should do unto me.
Plato - FOURTH CENTURY B.C.
Do naught to others which if done thee
would cause thee pain.
Mahabharata - THIRD CENTURY B.C.
What is hateful to yourself,
don't do to your fellow man.
Rabbi Hillel - FIRST CENTURY
Whatsoever ye would that men should do
do ye even so to them.
Jesus of Nazareth - FIRST
Treat others as thou would be treated
- SIXTEENTH CENTURY A.D.
Human beings all want to do as they please; all can know how others may
feel, think and desire in many circumstances and conditions from their
own feelings, thoughts and desires; and all may cooperate with others
if only they take care to "Do naught to others which if done thee
would cause thee pain" - if only because all others are quite capable,
in principle, to cause pain to those who cause pain to them, and
because all persons are in society, in so far as they are in it freely
and deliberately, in order to profit personally from the fruits of
Thus we come to
the second point Mill makes in this connection, that is a restatement: "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. "
Note the "rightfully" - in fact this is a stipulative
definition of when and where power may be used by one man over another:
only if it "is to prevent harm to others".
I think it makes sense to understand "power"
here in the sense of "physical force", and not in the more metaphorical
sense that goes with "the powers of persuasion", and that indeed this
is what Mill meant.
factual reasons for this stipulative definition are that individuals
all want to do as they please; that all individuals are in power over
their own body and mind, if sane and healthy, and can naturally act as
they please, for such ends as they want; and that it is normally quite
easy to understand and agree to what constitutes "harm"
to a person.
The third and
last point Mill makes in the quoted passage I here discuss is that "His own good, either physical or moral, is not a
This is an
important proviso, and the totalitarian tendencies of men to use
physical force against men are usually excused or motivated by the
claim that this is in the physical or moral interests of those that are
subjected to the force.
It should be
noted here that this presupposes that one deals with a person that is
not insane or momentarily unfit to judge from other other causes (such
as sleep, illness or alcoholic drinks).
insists that persons who are sane, adult and capable of judging are the
only real proper judges to decide what is good for them, and one good
ground for this is that they are the only ones who feel their own
bodies and what is done to these, and the only ones to know their own
minds intimately, and that therefore only they have the necessary means
and interests to judge what is good for them.
And it should
be noted that Mill will restate and motivate his fundamental "very simple principle" in this chapter and in
later ones in various ways, that are not all evidently equivalent, at
least, and that H.B. Acton remarks correctly in an interesting note to
the paragraph I quote from that "It is not quite clear what are
unjustifiable grounds of interference according to Mill."
I will take up
these problems, reasons and motivations at various places, and give a
list of my own in .
"The only part of the conduct of any one, for
which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the
part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right,
absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is
articulates a principle and indeed a natural fact I have insisted on
before: Human persons are the only persons who directly feel their own
bodies and what is done to these; are the only persons to know their
own minds intimately; and are the only persons to have direct control
over their own bodies and minds. Back.
"Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in
dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the
means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a
principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the
time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and
Mill, like his
father, worked for many years for the English India Office, and here he
undoubtedly articulates something that moved many of the more
enlightened English in India: That they were there and in control of
that country ultimately because they were more civilized, and that it
was their moral duty to transmit their civilization to them.
Thus, Mill was
neither a cultural relativist nor a romantic in Rousseau's tradition.
There is a
problem here, though, namely that one may well ask whether "mankind have become capable of being improved by free
and equal discussion", in as much as the mass of men is neither
intelligent nor learned, and in fact not capable of having a free and
equal discussion with the intellectually best and best educated amongst
answers the problem in the next quotation. Back.
"Until then, there is nothing for them but
implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so
fortunate as to find one. But as soon as mankind have attained the
capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or
persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we
need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or
in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer
admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the
security of others."
that mostly interests me here is "as soon as
mankind have attained the capacity of being guided to their own
improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in
all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves)", for it
at least gives Mill's answer to the question whether modern adult
Europeans "have become capable of being improved
by free and equal discussion".
Now this may be
doubted, as far as I am concerned, when we consider the majority of the
lowly educated, who do have the right to vote in modern democracies,
but then it should also be pointed out that there are a number of
complicating factors, three of which are the following.
nations each have far more adult members than any member of the nation
can meet or learn to know in his life, and hence the idea of "free and equal discussion" about the policies
of the society the people who are discussing it are part of does
not quite come to the same as the more ordinary case where a group of
people who all personally know each other to some extent discuss what
are to be their common policies and ends.
although all adults have the right to vote in modern democracies, in
fact most important discussions about social policies are between their
elected representatives in parliament, or between prominent people in
individual men tend to follow leaders or fashions in most of their
opinions and values, and indeed their opinions on many matters can be
fairly predicted on average when some relevant factors such as their
religion, political affiliations, social status and income are
"Those interests, I contend, authorize the
subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in
respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other
This is yet
another statement of Mill's fundamental principle, and it should be
remarked that in many cases what is "the interest
of other people" is not easily determined, especially if you ask
the "other people", since these may easily
incline to "whatever I desire that benefits me that you may do, or
feel, or think, or wish, or plan".
the present formulation draws the attention to one important aspect of
the principle, namely that each human being can really and intimately
know and feel his own mind and body, their main and rightful interest
in the conduct of others concerns only the question to what extent the
doings of the others to further their interests harms or might
harm one's own interests (and those of one's family or friends,
one would assume, in ordinary practice of ordinary people).
And even if
that is accepted their is considerable room for disagreement, in as
much as some are much more sensitive than others, while other may be
disinterested in what interests many. Back.
"There are also many positive acts for the
benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform;
such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share
in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the
interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to
perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a
fellow-creature's life, or interposing to protect the defenceless
against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man's duty
to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing.
A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his
inaction, and in either [*] case he is
justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true,
requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former.
To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to
make him answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively
speaking, the exception. "
Mill here gives
some examples of conduct he holds "may rightfully
be compelled to perform", where - of course - "rightfully" is to be understood in some
rational moral sense, and not in the sense "according to the law" or
"legally binding", for many systems of law impose many more duties than
Mill holds are rightful.
conduct in some circumstances may be rationally and morally compulsive,
for some reason, and neglecting to do it may be considered rationally
and morally punishable.
And indeed Mill
is also quite right that this holds for both commissions and
ommissions, even if indeed the latter case requires a more strict proof.
[*] The html I have used
has here "neither", which is evidently mistaken, and indeed the printed
version I use has "either". Back.
"But there is a sphere of action in which
society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an
indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person's life
and conduct which affects only himself, or, if it also affects others,
only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and
fundamental principle of Mill is again recast, and it seems well to me
to stress that there are, it would seem, and most people would agree,
three kinds of things a person may do or leave undone:
First, "conduct which affects only himself", in as much
as only he bears the consequences of the conduct;
second, "conduct which affects" others "only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived
consent and participation", in as much as they either are
willing to help bear the consequences, or desire them;
third, "conduct which affects" others
that does not have their "undeceived consent and
participation", in as much as they may not like it, or be
opposed to it, or believe it harms them.
These are three
important classes of conduct, and I will assume they exist and that the
distinction in many cases can be fairly easily drawn, as it depends
only on the interests and concerns of those that are or may be involved.
However, it is
true that there are some problematic points here, and notably that the
conduct belonging to the first two classes may be quite local and
temporal, approved then and there, by a small society, group of
friends, or family, and may be not at all what the majority of society
approves of, if they would know of it.
And I hold that
one important set of motives or reasons for Mill's principle, or one
like it, is the following set:
being is the only one to feel his own body and know his own mind
intimately and directly;
being can decide about many things he does, thinks, and selects
as ends, and no one else can decide these things, though others may try
to force one and may succeed by making one fear the others' sanctions
or threats enough;
being has strongly felt incentives to do as he pleases and to act so as
to further his chosen ends; and
free and rational discussion there is no good reason, in many cases,
why one sane informed adult should know better what to do and not to
do, and why and wherefore, than any other sane and informed adult.
In any case - as
H.B. Acton and others also argued - it would have been better if Mill
had spoken here not of "himself" and "others", but of one's own interests and
the interests of others.
And one more
point should be made, logically speaking, about the three classes of
conduct, that holds for the first two classes. There are at least two
relevant considerations Mill has not mentioned: First, whether or not
the conduct is known or not, to the wider group within it takes
place, or to the society to which the group belongs; and second, in the
case of known conduct, that there usually are considerable differences
between consent, tolerance and indifference, even if the result of
either of these is the same, namely that the conduct is, then and
there, permitted. Back.
"This, then, is the appropriate region of human
liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness;
demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense;
liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and
sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral,
or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may
seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part
of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being
almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and
resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable
from it. "
immediately before this quotation insisted that he speaks here of "When I say only himself, I mean directly" and
that other cases and complications will be taken up later.
So here we
have, with the stated proviso, Mill's first list of liberties:
suggests, the first three liberties in this set seem to coincide with
natural facts: one has these capacities; their use does depend only on
oneself; and also one is the only person in the whole universe to feel
the feelings of one's own body and to think the thoughts in one's own
And as Mill
also suggests, the liberties of expression and publication are not
precisely of the same kind, but then indeed there is no point in having
or furthering them if one did not have the first three liberties as a
matter of natural fact, and indeed constraints on the use of the
natural liberties of conscience, thought and feeling, and opinion and
sentiment, are often constraints on the social liberties of using
these naturally given liberties.
should be made here about the last two liberties, that are not based on
or derived from the natural capacities of human beings, but from what
other humans allow one to say or write, that is quite important:
Speaking and writing of something are not at all the same as doing the
things one speaks or writes of.
This point is
important for quite a few reasons, two of which are that one often
cannot get the consequences and presuppositions of something clear
without considerable discussion, and that it seems anyway fair and
reasonable that one can speak or write of far more things than one can
do or should do. Back.
"Secondly, the principle requires liberty of
tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own
character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may
follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what
we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct
foolish, perverse, or wrong. "
taste and pursuits
directing and planning one's own life
doing as one likes, if this does not harm others
In many ways,
these liberties are related to the first three natural liberties - as I
will say - mentioned in  as are the
liberties of expression and publication: They concern the exercise of
such natural abilities as one has, and they are free for the sort of
reasons given in  and by Mill at various
places when discussing or reformulating his fundamental
"Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual,
follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among
individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to
others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not
forced or deceived. "
As Mill suggests,
this liberty of cooperation ("combination",
"freedom to unite") is an extension of the
liberty individuals have, or are supposed to have, to do as they like,
motivated by what they feel, desire and believe.
This is true, but
there are complications, most of which are due to the fact that
cooperating persons are more powerful and may do much more than
individual persons, that also may effect many more persons; and the
fact that the responsibilities and accountabilities of groups are not
the same as those of individuals, and indeed that, unlike individuals,
groups have no conscience, no feelings, and no thoughts, for these are
all properties of individuals and not of groups, and if one does
attribute them to groups, this is done either fallaciously, or
statistically, in the sense that the majority of a group may feel or
In this context
it is also relevant to note that human individuals in groups tend to
feel differently about their own responsibilities for what the group
does, or what they do for the group, than for acts that are clearly and
only their own and done for their own interest.
"No society in which these liberties are not, on
the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government;
and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and
It may well be
asked if any extensive and complex society has ever been "completely free" in Mill's sense. Apart from
that question, there are at least two provisos to be made here, that
both - again - have to do with the meaning of the term "society".
society is a cooperation of persons and of
groups of persons, and usually consists of many persons and many
groups, all with many ends, and any (adult) person in the society
normally is a member of many different groups, in which he plays many
different roles, for many different reasons.
different roles one plays, and the different groups one is member of,
usually come with different degrees of liberty to act as one pleases,
and this often for good reasons, for the liberties of a doctor
operating upon a patient, say, are differently circumscribed,
motivated, and regulated than the liberties of the same doctor to play
with his own children in his own backyard.
In brief, it
may well be, and usually is the case, that a person engages freely in
activities in society that are much more constrained than other
activities he might have done, simply because this is work to be done;
and the constraints mostly are there to protect the interests of
others; and the reasons for the person to do the work comprise that he
holds it is important that it is done or that it allows him to make a
living that enables him to do other things, with more freedoms and
fewer constraints. Back.
"The only freedom which deserves the name, is
that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not
attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain
Here we have a
reformulation of Mill's fundamental principle and its motivation, and
indeed as I pointed out before, it is a matter of natural fact that
every human being desires to pursue his own good, according to his own
tastes, needs, and interests, while one is oneself the only person
to really feel and know one's own tastes, needs, interests and thoughts
intimately and directly anyway. Back.
"Each is the proper guardian of his own health,
whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. 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. "
The first is a
consequence of what Mill expressed as "Over
himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign"
(see ) and of "of
doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without
impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not
harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse,
or wrong" (see ).
tends to be strongly denied by religious believers, who often incline
to the belief that any society and any person not living according to -
their interpretation of - their religious and moral beliefs is bound
for hell by their benevolent God's will and commands.
But I believe that there is
very good evidence that pluralistic societies, in which many different
kinds of men, of various races and faiths, and different political
ideals, cooperate peacefully, are both capable of producing the highest
civilization and of enabling the largest groups a satisfying human
"Though this doctrine is anything but new, and,
to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no doctrine
which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing
opinion and practice. "
Of course, an
important reason why "this doctrine is anything
but new" is that it does tie in well with the set of natural
facts listed in . Back.
"but the engines of moral repression have been
wielded more strenuously against divergence from the reigning opinion
in self-regarding, than even in social matters; religion, the most
powerful of the elements which have entered into the formation of moral
feeling, having almost always been governed either by the ambition of a
hierarchy, seeking control over every department of human conduct, or
by the spirit of Puritanism. "
mostly true, and not only about the Christian religion: For some
reason, that probably has a lot to do with the average human heart and
mind, and the sociobiology of living in groups, there are pronounced
totalitarian tendencies in most religions, and indeed they tend to be
bound up with "hierarchy" i.e. mostly with
power, dominance and submission, and "Puritanism"
i.e. mostly with constraints on sexuality and having pleasure in
"M. Comte, in particular, whose social system, as
unfolded in his Traité de Politique Positive, aims at establishing
(though by moral more than by legal appliances) a despotism of society
over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political
ideal of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers."
Mill had been
an admirer of Comte - the creator of sociology and of
philosophical positivism, and the planner of a sort of socialist utopia
- and had supported him financially, but the older Mill was
disappointed with the totalitarian notions of the older
"Apart from the peculiar tenets of individual
thinkers, there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination
to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by
the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the
tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen
society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is
not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the
contrary, to grow more and more formidable. "
again I have trouble with the term "society"
(see ), which in the present case means
mostly the power of the government or of religious or political
institutions, for these three kinds of organizations have been the most
repressive of all human institutions, and also the most prone to
pretend that their repression was for good legal, moral or religious
reasons or ends, and in the "real interests" of the individuals that
were repressed. Back.
"The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or
as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a
rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the
best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that
it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power;
and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier
of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect,
in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase."
This is a true
and melancholic thought: Most human beings are quite often quite
inclined towards forcing other human beings to act, and indeed also to
feel and think, as the first want - and if they do not use force for
this end, then many find it convenient and unobjectional to lie,
mislead, or pretend, where the most common kinds of pretention that are
used in this context are that one knows God's will or commands, or that
one knows what course human history will or should take.
This is part of
the reason that an enlightened legislation should contain a
considerable amount of laws that aim to protect individuals against the
natural freedoms of others to force him as they please, or to tell him
lies and propaganda that is in their interest. Back.
"It will be convenient for the argument, if,
instead of at once entering upon the general thesis, we confine
ourselves in the first instance to a single branch of it, on which the
principle here stated is, if not fully, yet to a certain point,
recognized by the current opinions. This one branch is the Liberty of
Thought: from which it is impossible to separate the cognate liberty of
speaking and of writing. Although these liberties, to some considerable
amount, form part of the political morality of all countries which
profess religious toleration and free institutions, the grounds, both
philosophical and practical, on which they rest, are perhaps not so
familiar to the general mind, nor so thoroughly appreciated by many
even of the leaders of opinion, as might have been expected."
This is a good
plan, and Mill will start implementing it in the next chapter.
Here I want
only to make a remark upon "the Liberty of
Thought: from which it is impossible to separate the cognate liberty of
speaking and of writing".
We have seen
Mill's reasons for this (see e.g. , , , ) and I have given my own (see ), but it should be admitted that Mill
stacked his cards at least a little to conform to his own
interests, concerns and theses.
Indeed, it is
quite common "to separate" the "liberty of speaking and of writing" from the -
naturally given, or so I shall assume - "Liberty
of Thought", namely by some reference to and some criterion or
qualification, of abilitity, age or education, that goes further than
mere adulthood, otherwise accompanied by "equality of all" (with or
without the proviso "in law").
Here is a
pertinent quotation of a conservative contemporary of Mill, objecting
to one of the themes and tendencies of "On Liberty":
"One of the
great divisions of politics in our day is coming to be whether, at the
last resort, the world should be governed by its ignorance or by its
intelligence. According to one party, the preponderating power should
be with education and property. According to the other, the ultimate
source of power, the supreme right of appeal and of control, belongs
legitimately to the majority of the nation told by the head - or, in
other words, the poorest, the most ignorant, the most incapable, who
are necessarily the most numerous."
(W.E.H. Lecky in "Democracy and Liberty", quoted from p. 94 of "How
Conservatives Think", Ed. P.W. Buck, Penguin
As I am one of
those who believes that, other things being supposed equal, "the
preponderating power should be with education", and not with stupidity,
ignorance or prejudice, even if these are in majority if only heads are
counted, there is a problem here.