Maarten Maartensz

  Philosophy - Mill - On Liberty - Chapter I




Notes to Chapter I. Introductory

Note on these notes

These notes are from 2006, based on notes in my paper copy of "On Liberty" (see [1]) that date from 1977.

The format is that I quote the text of Mill that I comment in blue, and write my own notes in black, with a "Back" at the end of every note that moves the reader back - provided he or she is on line, or has downloaded the relevant files in similar directories,or uses a CD of my site - to the beginning of the quotation the note is concerned with. (See also the TOC.)

The result is that my quotations + my notes take more space than Mill's original text, but one advantage of the procedure I use is that the reader can read my quotations + my notes independently from the text, yet be moved thence - provisos as above - with a single click.

[1] "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 diversity.
- 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.)

This reference 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 notes.     Back.

[2] "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. "

The dedication 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.

[3] "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 future."

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 [11].      Back.

[4] "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 England. "

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 evidence.     Back.

[5] "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".

Many rulers, 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.

Also, all 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 interests.     Back.

[6] "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 it.     Back.

[7] "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.

A very 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.

And indeed, 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.

This 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.

[8] "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 despotism. "

The histories 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.

And indeed, 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 followers.     Back.

[9] "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 therein. "

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 practicable.

Besides, Mill 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 it.   Back.

[10] "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:

  • governments (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

  • religions 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

  • traditionally 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 from birth

  • the 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.

[11] "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 Philosophical Dictionary:

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.

And an 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

Morals: Systems of ideas, rules, instructions and practices that concern how the members of a group should behave,

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."    

Also, H.B. 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 species."   Back.

[12] "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 [11], 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

[13] "All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. "

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 out.     Back.

[14] "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."

This contains 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.

Accordingly, 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 own purposes.

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 child-rearing.

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 ends.

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 technology.     Back.

[15] "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.

Also, speaking 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.

Indeed, given 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.

[16] "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 be.     Back.

[17] "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.

[18] "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. "

Actually, this 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.

[19] "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 information.

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 human-all-too-human.      Back.

[20] "Wherever the sentiment of the majority is still genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed."

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.

[21] "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 governmental control."

Indeed, and 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 ends.     Back.

[22] "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 [12]: 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).

Indeed, there 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 yourself,
     don't do to others

     Hurt not others with what pains thyself.

     In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief,
     we should regard all creatures as we regard our
     own self, and should therefore refrain from
     inflicting upon others such injury as would
     appear undesirable to us if inflicted upon

     Do not do unto others all that is
     not well for oneself.  

Classical Paganism
     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 B.C. 

      Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, 
      do ye even so to them.
      Jesus of Nazareth - FIRST CENTURY A.D. 

      Treat others as thou would be treated thyself.

Put otherwise: 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 human cooperation.

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. 

The main 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 sufficient warrant."

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).

But Mill 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 [28].     Back.

[23] "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 sovereign."

Here Mill 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.

[24] "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 equal discussion."

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 them.

Mill himself answers the problem in the next quotation.     Back.

[25] "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."

The passage 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.

First, modern 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.

Second, 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 the media.

Third, most 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 known.     Back.

[26] "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 people. "

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".

Thus, though 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.

[27] "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.

But some 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.

[28] "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 participation. "

Here the 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:

(1) every human being is the only one to feel his own body and know his own mind intimately and directly;
(2) every human 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;
(3) every human being has strongly felt incentives to do as he pleases and to act so as to further his chosen ends; and

without 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.

[29] "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. "

Mill has 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:

  • liberty of conscience

  • liberty of thought and feeling

  • liberty of opinion and sentiment

  • liberty of expression

  • liberty of publication

As Mill 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 mind.

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.

Another point 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.

[30] "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. "

  • liberty of taste and pursuits

  • liberty of directing and planning one's own life

  • liberty of 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 [29] 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 [28] and by Mill at various places when discussing or reformulating his fundamental principle.     Back.

[31] "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. "

  • liberty of cooperating with others, if this does not harm others

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 think something.

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.     Back.

[32] "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 unqualified. "

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".

First, a 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.

Second, the 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.

[33] "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 it. "

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.

[34] "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 [23]) 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 [30]).

The second 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 life.      Back.

[35] "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 [28].     Back.

[36] "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. "

This seems 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 general.     Back.

[37] "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 Comte.     Back.

[38] "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. "

Indeed, but again I have trouble with the term "society" (see [11]), 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.

[39] "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.

[40] "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. [22], [26], [28], [33]) and I have given my own (see [28]), 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 Books.)     Back.

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.