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Home Opinion John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

John Skorupski - 23 May 2011

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150 years after its publication J.S Mill’s On Liberty retains the radicalism with which it spoke to Victorian Britain, laying one of the core foundations that would subsequently influence the social democratic movement. But Mill’s essay does not belong exclusively to the political left or right, and raises troubling questions about the emergence of democracy itself – what then, can it contribute to rethinking social democracy?

A very simple principle

Mill's central theme in the essay is what he calls the ‘very simple principle’ of liberty. According to the principle of liberty, ‘damage, or probability of damage, to the interests of others, can alone justify the interference of society’. Mill offers greater protection still to expressions of opinion. Interference with these, contrasted with actions in general, is legitimate only when ‘the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’. This is a stronger criterion than the one provided by the main liberty principle for actions in general.

There are important questions about how these principles should be interpreted. While the ‘very simple principle’ is indeed simple to the extent that it is not complicated, its import is elusive. Conscious of this, Mill restates it in a variety of ways through the essay and devotes the last chapter of the essay to a series of applications intended to clarify its ‘meaning and limits’.

Overall, Mill's explanation of his principles is clear enough, but translating them into detailed policy then raises new questions. Mill’s principles plainly have some controversial implications. For example, they rule out appealing to the addictive and self-injurious nature of drug use as an argument for (as against drug dealing) illegalising it. Likewise, they permit freely agreed assisted suicide, unless it could be shown that such suicide would be harmful in some way to people other than those freely involved in the collaborative act. Further, Mill would no doubt have opposed legislation against incitement to racial and religious hatred as unacceptably diffuse, since he held that the law should focus specifically on positive instigation to wrongful acts.

On the other hand, in some cases Mill is less permissive that we are. He believed it to be, for example, a ‘moral crime’ to bring into existence a child if one is unable ‘not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind’. In each case Mill’s principles channel the burden of argument in a healthy way. Nevertheless, even though Mill’s principles are much clearer than some want to claim, arguments about their meaning persist.

Mill’s principles make best sense from a liberal individualist standpoint. In contrast, from the communitarian perspective distinctions between what harms only me and what harms others becomes problematic, for the reason that to the communitarian there is no deep way of demarcating where my good ends and the good of another begins. Social policy must be founded on the good of the community, and for the communitarian that good is not reducible to particular individual goods in the way that the liberal individualist is happy to admit.

This raises a problem as to which camp is being superficial. A liberal individualist will say that a proper understanding of self and society does nothing to undermine Mill’s distinctions. On the contrary, it is unrestrained communitarian rhetoric about the social nature of the self that is superficial. The real truth in the dictum that humans are essentially social is compatible with Mill’s principles, whereas what lurks behind the communitarian interpretation of that dictum is an incipiently authoritarian social ideal, whether religious, socialist or merely conformist. Nor do liberal individualists have to hold, and Mill did not, that the only entities that have ethical significance are individuals. Social entities such as family, society, and nation are ethically significant, and allegiance to such groupings is basic to the forms of solidarity at the foundation of any decent, not least liberal, politics.

A thinker for the Left?

There are communitarian and individualist traditions at both poles of the political spectrum, and for this reason philosophically interesting challenges to Mill’s principles can come from the Right or the Left. By the same token, these principles can appeal to individualist traditions on either side of this spectrum. However, Mill had much more to say about society and politics than is contained in the essay on Liberty, so taking his views as a whole, can we place him on the Left or Right?

Part of the difficulty in answering this question is that it is no longer obvious how this spectrum works, but two questions still seem important. Firstly, the question of what justice requires. How far does it require the state to intervene actively in redistributing resources, as against restricting itself to ruling out unfair discrimination, or unfair inequality of opportunity? Second is the question of state action versus individual action. Here we encounter a philosophical issue that goes beyond economic questions of ‘market or state’ allocation of resources, or how far the state can beneficially engage in macro-economic management – the issue of one’s ideal of life in society.

Again this problem is woven into disagreements between the liberal individualist and the communitarian traditions. What are the good, decent, life-enhancing ways of living together? Do they necessarily include collective action through a democratic state, not merely as a functional necessity but as an ideal? Alternatively, are they best embodied in a mix of self-reliance, voluntary cooperation and competition open to all, with the state restricting itself so far as possible to a regulatory role? As noted above, Mill's outlook does not align perfectly with any current political package, but on these questions it fits more easily with the Left than with the Right.

Mill favours free competition on efficiency grounds, but recognises a series of cases in which regulation is in the public interest. For Mill, private property derives its ultimate justification and limits from its usefulness for guaranteeing to people the fruits of their own labour and abstinence. He infers that tax on earned income (above an untaxed minimum that suffices for security) should be at a constant not a progressive rate, but that wealth acquired through gift, bequest or inheritance can be taxed intensively and progressively enough to reduce large fortunes to the average over a few generations. Furthermore, he strongly sympathises with collective ideals of working together for the common good, and for that reason is supportive of producer co-operatives, while presciently rejecting centralist versions of socialism.

Policy in the spirit of Mill then, would be radically redistributive, while simultaneously encouraging competitive markets among producers, including workers’ co-operatives. It would be a programme which prioritised the reduction of unearned wealth more strongly than anything available today.

However they rethink their views, social democrats will continue to hold an ideal of living together that values especially what people do as citizens. To be sure, individuals should also be self-reliant planners of their own life, and generous private benefactors, but on the social democratic view there is value inherent in collective action expressed through a democratic state, particularly in the collective provision of social security. It is valuable because it develops a distinct and important human virtue. One need not enter into debates regarding individualism and collectivism at this point, and indeed Mill is a valuable example of how one far one can go within an overall stance that remains liberal and individualist.

Of course, the social democratic ideal is not the only ideal of social life. Against it stands the libertarian ideal of self-reliance and purely voluntary co-operation. Its most attractive expression presents it as the ideal of a certain kind of freedom — an ethic of personal independence which insists that contributions are always voluntary and never compelled. But this is not the conception of liberty formulated in Mill’s essay on Liberty. On Liberty's principles do not conflict with the libertarian ideal, but at least as understood by Mill, they do not conflict with the social democratic ideal either.

Libertarians might argue the latter perspective does conflict with the Liberty principle by arguing that failing to help others is not the same as actively damaging their interests, and therefore imposing a scheme of aid on individuals who have not freely agreed to it violates Mill’s principle of liberty. However, Mill himself does not take the principle that way: he clearly thinks that social obligations are legitimate if they have been imposed by a properly democratic decision, so long as their content does not itself violate the Liberty principle. Thus, a decision to level down all great fortunes, made by proper democratic procedures, would not violate liberty, whatever other arguments against it there might be.

On Liberty and the tyranny of the majority

These issues of debate are interesting from the Millian perspective, and he was certainly exercised by them. Valuable discussions of competition and cooperation, the principles of taxation, the green economy and so on can be found in his other works, but most importantly On Liberty is about something quite different, for which Mill felt more deeply than anything else – the threat of tyranny inherent in democracy of a mediocre conformism, capable of ‘enslaving the soul itself’. It is precisely here, I would suggest, that social democratic thinking has something important to learn from Mill.

Though Mill goes out of his way to highlight this theme in the introductory chapter, it is often underplayed in analysis of his essay. On Liberty is the work of an optimistic civic egalitarian, one who is also a passionate and anxious liberal elitist.  Now clearly Mill is a liberal rather than an authoritarian, and the principles forwarded in On Liberty are one good way of characterising what liberalism is. But he is no populist. He argues that after a level of security and decent comfort have been reached (already reached, according to Mill, in his own time), what really matters for human beings is not affluence but virtue and insight into true value.

Yet while many have virtue, only a few have the moral creativity or the independent insight into value that is required to invigorate social and personal life. This leads to the claim that we have a duty to educate each other, and those that enjoy insight into true value have a duty to take part. They must not stand aside in an exclusive enclave, but lead others by example and persuasion, rather than control. In order to do this they require the freedom to develop themselves and their ideas.

Mill feels as strongly as he does about On Liberty’s principles because he thinks that only they can protect the independence of such people against democracy’s tendency to majoritarian despotism. What makes them especially urgent for modern democracies is the protection they give to unpopular criticism and unwelcome insight. This is an important insight for political thinking, and not least social democratic thought. Yet what consequences social democrats should draw from it is another matter.

Social democracy and the decay of the liberal republic – the relevance of Mill's essay today


Modern democracies insinuate, in more and less subtle ways, a compliant egalitarianism of consumerist values. An exploitative culture of celebrity and personal display dominates their common spaces, and increasingly their politics. Meanwhile dissident elites withdraw into enclaves, or ‘gated’ mental communities.

This is a formula for the decay of the liberal republic. Today it is at least as great an anxiety as Mill and other classical liberals foresaw, and if anything the situation is accelerating. Are Mill's principles of liberty either a necessary or a sufficient remedy? Or should social democrats think the problem through afresh, and approach it in some different, perhaps stronger, way?

Social democrats should agree with Mill about an underlying premise: what is best for us is virtue and insight, in which there is a duty to educate each other. No liberal principle is infringed if that duty is pursued through the collective action of a democratic state, and thus social democrats and classical liberals may find common ground here. For social democrats this may involve a shift in thinking from a conception of social justice – that has always been unclear – to a focus on civic equality as the foundation of the public good of a democracy.

As Mill saw, however, civic equality is not the only element in a democracy’s public good. In addition to the question of how to achieve and maintain civic equality is that of how to invigorate the spirit of a liberal republic in an undermining commercial environment. For example, Britain has a variety of publicly funded educative institutions, originally founded in the classical spirit of public liberalism that are now in decay. It has become obvious that the state patronage on which they rely generates its own deep problems, but that does not mean there is a better alternative.

I suggest that it is these issues, pertaining to the maintenance of public good in a modern democracy, that Mills essay can alert social democrats to, and to which in that tradition’s renewal it should attend.

John Skorupski is professor of moral philosophy at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of John Stuart Mill, The Arguments of the Philosophers, London: Routledge 1989

This essay is a contribution to Policy Network’s series on “The classics of social democratic thought.” Visit the Social Democracy Observatory

© Policy Network

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: On Liberty , John S. Mill , Social Democracy , Social Democracy Observatory , Policy Network , John Skorupski , classic political thinkers , civic equality , public good , liberal republicanism

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