John Stuart Mill On Liberty and Utilitarianism

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Utilitarianism. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Reviewed by James Booker, MA.

  • Key Terms: Conformity. Collective. Industrialized age. Mass media. Individuality v. the masses. Intolerant. Tolerant. Mass opinion. Liberty. Settled science. Morality. Agoraphobia – in the philosophical and practical sense. Experience. Clone. Freedom of Conscience.   

John Stuart Mill (1803-71) was considered by many the “most influential English language philosopher of the nineteenth century.” [1] By the time he was twelve, he knew both the Greek and Latin languages and knew Algebra. His father reared him to be a radical utilitarian. However, he later softened his views. He remained a utilitarian – although he tweaked it somewhat. He was also a staunch empiricist. He did not believe in natural rights, natural law, or universals.  

In his book, On Liberty, Mill elevated the individual over the masses. He believed in the sovereignty of the individual. Society was becoming “industrialized sheep,” expressed by Isaiah Berlin. The mass opinion was at war with individual thoughts and actions. People no longer viewed themselves as different, but more and more part of a collective – on a grand scale. Karl Marx, the founder of Communism, rejected Mill’s belief in the individual. Marx would view the “individual” as a construct. For Mill, the individual was real.   

Unfortunately, Marx had his finger on the pulse of the industrializing of nations. Mill, however, saw that public opinion was tyranny by the majority. Marx believed in the utopia of the Masses. However, people were becoming increasingly intolerant of differing points of views. This was a real threat to liberty, according to Mill. He believed that if public opinion continues to grow and suppress individual thought – England will turn into China. Conformity was the enemy.

Mill believed in toleration of ideas and opinions. If a person is not open to scrutiny and criticisms, that person believes in the infallibility of his position and himself. A person’s perfection about themselves and their beliefs is not only untenable but dangerous for society and individual thought. Mill acknowledged culture no longer killed prophets or burned people at stake, but society stigmatizes and even penalizes those who hold to another opinion(s). Mill’s toleration was much different; however, from how modern society understands it today.

According to Berlin, “Toleration . . . Implies a certain disrespect. I tolerate your absurd beliefs and your foolish acts, though I know them to be absurd and foolish. Mill would, I think agreed.” [2] Furthermore, Mill’s notion of tolerance compared to today’s concept of tolerance is informative. Today, college students do not wish to listen and expose themselves to different points of views that challenge their thinking. Everything has become offensive that does not conform to one’s personal opinion. Agoraphobia is wide-spread and toxic to education on all levels.

For example, the theory of evolution, same-sex marriage, transgender, abortion, and climate change are sacrosanct topics – they are sacred cows. They are not to be challenged or even questioned. A cult-like cultural phenomena has set in like concrete. These have become settled science. Today, people run the risk of losing their careers and jobs if they question these untouchable objects. People are stigmatized, labeled as racists and bigots.

Indeed, “settled science” is dangerous to liberty. The notion of “settled science” is not new, however. For instance, in the early twentieth-century intellectuals convinced the masses to embrace the idea of eugenics. It became “settled science.” It grew out of the theory of evolution that reached its apex in the Nazi Concentration camps. It was a movement to “save” the human race from extinction. People of color, inferior races, and the disabled were believed unfit for civilization, and they must be forced sterilized.   

Mill argued that “settled science” is the road to tyranny. For example, the Roman Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo Galilei for postulating a heliocentric galaxy rather than the geocentric galaxy. The Church held the geocentric model of the universe as “settled science.” Mill gave a dire warning for the future, “If resistance waits till life is reduced nearly to one uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature.” [3]

Unfortunately, today the West is engaged in another witch hunt for those who question the validity of the same-sex marriage, the theory of evolution, abortion, transgender, men using women’s bathrooms, and climate change. To do so is to be, “impious, immoral, monstrous, and contrary to nature.” The hoi polloi (uneducated masses) is indeed squashing individuality, critical thinking, and liberty.

Mill arrives at two maxims: (1) The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, and (2) If individual actions harm others, the individual is accountable to society. [4] One can harm oneself (e.g., drinking alcohol); no one has the right to interfere with a person’s choice. Friends and family can try to persuade and convince, but not control his actions. However, if a person allows his vices to harm others, he is accountable to society. For example, if a person does not support his family, he hurts not only his family but community as well, and society has the right to intervene. Philosophers call this the “harm doctrine.”  

To counter this threat to liberty, Mill argued for freedom of conscience, liberty of taste and pursuits, and freedom to unite. [5] These arguments are not original. Martin Luther and other Reformers argued for the right of conscience. John Locke established his idea of liberty: life, liberty, and property expressed in the Declaration of Independence (1776). Moreover, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of association, (e.g., Freemasonry and religion) long before Mill wrote his book.  

What is unique, however, with Mill’s book is his expansion of these liberties. He honed and critiqued them to a razor-sharp point. The world was ushering in a new era. Production of material products was mass produced like never before. Mass communication was starting to reach every nook and cranny of society. The industrialized age was reaching all new heights in Europe and started in the United States. The individual was being marginalized, pulverized, and even dehumanized. Mill had a front row seat to these events.

There are few objections with Mill, however. Mill believed the only thing Christian religion offered, with regards to morals, was the ten commandments. He said it is just a list of do not. A set of ethics are needed to accompany them. [6] First, he did not understand Christian morals. True, most Christian organizations adhere to the commandments, but God’s mercy is the counterweight. The heart of Christian ethics includes love, forgiveness, and compassion. Without these, any law or secular ethics would fail.

Another other objection with Mill is that he does not believe in universals in the real sense of the word. Mill’s “universals” are based on “universal experience.” [7] He posited the notion that morals are realized by experience over time. In other words, what was wrong or right two hundred years ago may not be wrong or right today, to put it bluntly. In one sense, this is a soft version of Fredrick Nietzsche’s transitional morality. Mill’s “experiential morality” is transient; it is not Natural Law theory, and it is a far cry from the notion of universal morality. He understands morals by way of his empiricism and observation. Empirical evidence will guide society into what is right and wrong.

Therein lies a significant flaw in this logic. For instance, different cultures from the past performed human. Some cultures sacrificed their children to Baal and Moloch. The city of Carthage and other Phoenicians sacrificed children to gods. Different cultures viewed human sacrifice, not only moral but essential. Innocent blood ran deep. If Mill’s logic on morality is held up as a standard, then these human sacrifices cannot be condemned. Moreover, if a culture today were to perform human sacrifices, Mill’s “ethics” cannot be used to condemn such practices.  

John Stuart Mill is challenging to follow at times. He strained at trying to posit a view of morality. He succeeds on a general level, but he failed in the details. Whenever a person does not believe in a basic universal moral system, the details become contrived. Why should his views of morality be preferred over others? The jettison of basic universal morality and even natural law theory creates a vacuum for Master-minds to fill. A race ensues to who will sound the most “pious” and “ethical.” Today, progressives have filled the slot. Progressivism is the path for Master-minds; for so-called “moral” and “pious” politicians and social warriors for controlling speech and thought. They seek Lordship over the human race. In the end, Mill failed to see this flaw in his theory.

Nevertheless, On Liberty is a classic and a must read, especially for those who wish to learn about libertarianism. Mill is a far better read and a better tutor for the libertarian cause than Ayn Rand.   

©James Booker


Macleod, Christopher. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Utilitarianism. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

[1] Christopher Macleod, John Stuart Mill, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed October 29, 2016).

[2] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Utilitarianism (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), xvii.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid., 90.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid., 47-49.

[7] Ibid., 81.

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