On Liberty, By John Stuart Mill

john_stuart_mill_by_london_stereoscopic_company_c1870Mill, 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. But he later softened his views. Yet 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. 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 simply 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 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 would turn into China. Conformity was the enemy.

Mill believed in toleration of ideas and opinions. If a person is not open to scrutiny and to criticisms, that person believes in the infallibility of his position and himself. This is dangerous for society and individuals. Mill acknowledge society no longer killed prophets or burned people at the 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] To contrast Mill’s idea of tolerance to today’s idea of tolerance is informative. Today, college students do not wish to be exposed to different points of views that challenges their thinking. Everything has become offensive that does not conform to one’s personal opinion. Agoraphobia has set in, wide-spread, and noxious in higher education.

For example, the theory of evolution, same-sex marriage, abortion, and climate change are sacrosanct topics. They are not to be challenged or even questioned. An orthodoxy has set in. These have become settled science. Today, people run the risk of losing their careers and jobs. People are stigmatized, labeled as racists and bigots.

Indeed, “settled science” is dangerous to liberty. This is not the first time “settled science” has reared its head. 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 had to be stopped from procreating – at all cost.

Mill argued “settled science” is the road to tyranny. For example, Galileo Galilei was imprisoned for postulating a heliocentric galaxy rather than geocentric galaxy. The geocentric theory was considered “settled science” in Galileo’s day. Mill gave a dire warning, “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 simply question the validity of 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. But 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 harms not only his family but society as well and society has the right to intervene. Philosophers call this the “harm doctrine.”

To counter this threat to liberty, Mill argued for liberty of conscience, liberty of taste and pursuits, and freedom to unite. [5] These arguments are not original. 410klpqjdfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Martin Luther and other Reformers argued for the right of conscience. The liberty of taste and pursuits was established by John Locke and expressed in the Declaration of Independence (1776). And freedom to unite was expressed in the First Amendment and groups had the liberty to form societies (e.g. Freemasonry) 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 were being 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 was just beginning in the United States. The individual was being marginalized and even dehumanized. Mill had a front row seat to these events.

I have a couple of 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 nots. A set of ethics are needed to accompany them. [6] First, he does not understand Christian morals. True, most Christian organizations adhere to the commandments, but God’s mercy is the counter weight. The heart of Christian ethics includes love, forgiveness, and mercy. Without these, any law or secular ethics would fail.

My other objection with Mill is he does not believe in universals in the real since of the word. Mill’s “universals” are based in “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 is still wrong or right today, to put it bluntly. This is not philosophical or natural law universalism. He understands morals by way of his empiricism and observation. Empirical evidence will guide society into what is right and wrong.

There is a major flaw in this logic. For instance, humankind had human sacrifices for hundreds of years and in many different cultures. Children were sacrificed to Baal and Moloch in ancient times. The city of Carthage and other Phoenicians sacrificed children to gods. Thousands of years humankind sacrificed animals to the gods. If we were to apply Mill’s empiricism and logic, we would still have to allow human sacrifice as a proper means of ethics or morality.

Mill is difficult 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 creates a vacuum for Master-minds to fill. A race ensues to who will sound the most “pious” and “ethical.” That race will seek to lord it over others, as we see today with progressivism. 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 modern day libertarianism.

©James Booker


[1] Christopher Macleod, John Stuart Mill, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/ (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.



Macleod, Christopher. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/.

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

1 Comment

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