Philosophy: J.S Mill On Liberty

6 minute read

In 2008 I read several books on philosophy. My sophomore year in college I enrolled in an ‘intro to philosophy’ class but I ended up dropping out because I missed the first two classes. I however kept all of the books and finally got the time to read them. They are Plato the Republic, Plato Five Dialogues, Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morality, Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy, and J.S. Mill On liberty. I would say taking a required philosophy ethics course two years ago sparked my interest in philosophy. Before taking the course I was afraid I would have to endure a semester of a professor lecturing me what was right and what was wrong. Instead we dug into the foundation of ethical theories, their justification, and their objective or subjective status. We read works from many different philosophers. We thought about how ethical theories applied to issues such as abortion, justice, and moral problems faced by professionals.

            The philosopher who I resonate most with is John Stuart Mill. This British philosopher advocated Utilitarianism, weighing the moral worth of an action on providing the greatest happiness amongst the most people. I read his book On Liberty and I think it is incredible. I want to share some of the parts I found most interesting. A lot of issues are discussed in the book, but it mainly focuses on liberty and individuality.


p.61 Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuals which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices and set the example of more enlightened conduct and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is no capable of being rendered by everybody alike there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already existed. If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done, and do them like cattle, not like human beings? Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are by definition, more individual than any other people-less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of molds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.


p.54 As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them. But the evil is that individual spontaneity is hardly recognized y the common modes of thinking as having any intrinsic worth, or deserving any regard on its own account. The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are, cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody; and what is more, spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers, but is rather looked on with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction to the general acceptance of what these reformers, in their own judgment, think would be best for mankind.


p.55 Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way.


p.56 He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties.


p.58 There has been a time when the element of spontaneity and individuality was in excess, and the social principle had a hard struggle with it. The difficulty then was to induce men of strong bodies or minds to pay obedience to any rules which required them to control their impulses. To overcome this difficulty, law and discipline, like the Popes struggling against the Emperors, asserted a power over the whole man, claiming to control all his life in order to control his character. But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger, which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.


p.60 In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore, capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fullness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them.


All of these excerpts explain the importance of individuality. This is why liberty is so important, in order to defend individuality and spontaneity. You cannot rely fully in democracy to safehold liberty. The majority is not always right. James Madison recognized this and well as the danger of factions. He advocated federalism and separation of powers in the federalist papers in order to balance interests and not let any one faction dominate our government.


p.4 The will of the people, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority. There exists a need to protect against the tendency of society to impose 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.


p.23 In reading the trial of Socrates we find the arm of the law has been employed to root out the best men and the noblest doctrines. Socrates was put to death by his countrymen, after a judicial conviction by the State; indeed, his accuser asserted that he believed in no gods at all. Immorality, in being, by his doctrines and instructions, a “corrupter of youth.” Of these charges the tribunal, there is every ground for believing, honestly found him guilty, and condemned the man who probably of all then born had deserved best of mankind to be put to death as a criminal.


So here you have some of the best parts I liked in Mill’s On Liberty. However, Mill does not advocate freedom without limits, he says it is wrong when someone infringes on the freedom of others or if someone uses their freedom to hurt others. I am a strong advocate of liberty but am increasingly becoming aware of the need of balancing liberty with security. Perhaps a discussion for another time?