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Mill Idea on Liberty

Project ON

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty


Dr. B.K. Mahakul

Faculty, Political Thought


Pankaj Sharma
Roll no. 100
October 0, 2016


Uparwara Post, Abhanpur, New Raipur 493661 (C.G.)

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty


I feel highly elated to work on the project J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty. The practical realisation
of the project has obligated the assistance of many persons. Firstly I express my deepest gratitude
towards Dr. B.K.Mahakul, Faculty of Political Thought, to provide me with the opportunity to
work on this project. His able guidanceship and supervision were of extreme help in
understanding and carrying out the nuances of this project.
I would also like to thank The University and the Vice Chancellor for providing extensive
database resources in the library and for the internet facilities provided by the University.
Some printing errors might have crept in which are deeply regretted. I would be grateful to
receive comments and suggestions to further improve this project.

Pankaj Sharma
Roll No. 100
Semester II
Section A,
Batch XIV

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty


Research Methodology
Objectives of Study
Scope of Study
Organization of study
Overview of Literature

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

John Stuart Mill opens his essay by discussing the historical "struggle between authority and
liberty," describing the tyranny of government, which, in his view, needs to be controlled by the
liberty of the citizens. He divides this control of authority into two mechanisms: necessary rights
belonging to citizens, and 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" Because society wasin
its early stagessubjected to such turbulent conditions (i.e. small population and constant war),
it was forced to accept rule "by a master." However, as mankind progressed, it became
conceivable for the people to rule themselves. Mill admits that this new form of society seemed
immune to tyranny because "there was no fear of tyrannizing over self." Mill argues that the
democratic ideals were not as easily met as expected. First, even in democracy, the rulers were
not always the same sort of people as the ruled. Second, there is a risk of a "tyranny of the
majority" in which the many oppress the few who, according to democratic ideals, have just as
much a right to pursue their legitimate ends.
In Mill's view, tyranny of the majority is worse than tyranny of government because it is not
limited to a political function. Where one can be protected from a tyrant, it is much harder to be
protected "against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling." The prevailing opinions
within society will be the basis of all rules of conduct within society; thus there can be no
safeguard in law against the tyranny of the majority.

J.S. Mill concludes the Introduction by discussing what he claimed were the three basic liberties
in order of importance:
1. The freedom of thought and emotion. This includes the freedom to act on such thought,
i.e. freedom of speech
2. The freedom to pursue tastes (provided they do no harm to others), even if they are
deemed "immoral"
3. The freedom to unite so long as the involved members are of age, the involved members
are not forced, and no harm is done to others

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

Research Methodology:
This Research Project is descriptive and analytical in nature. Accumulation of the information on
the topic includes wide use of primary sources cases as well as secondary sources like books, earticles etc. The matter from these sources have been compiled and analysed to understand the
concept. Websites and articles have also been referred.

The objectives of the current project are:
1. To Analyze the Mills Idea on liberty.
2. To Examine the Critical Analysis On Liberty

Scope of the Study:

The current project attempts to Analyse the J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty. It also examine with the
Critical Analysis of the essay On Liberty. Further this project also describe the John S. Mill Life.

Organization of the Study:

This project report has been organized into five sections. The first section deals with the
introduction along with the Research methodology employed in preparation of this project. The
second section comprises of about the J.S. Mills life. The third section deals with the Idea on
Liberty. The fourth section deals with the Critical Analysis of the Essay on liberty. Lastly the
fifth section deals with the Conclusion to this project.

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

Overview of Literature:

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

John Stuart Mill was a child of prodigy, born on May 20, 1806 at Pentonville, London. He was a
British philosopher, political economist, civil servant and Member of Parliament, and was an
influential liberal thinker of the 19th century. He was an exponent of utilitarianism, an ethical
theory developed by Jeremy Bentham, although his conception of it was very different from
Bentham's. John Stuart was educated by his father, with the advice and assistance of Jeremy
Bentham. He was given an extremely rigorous upbringing, and was deliberately shielded from
association with children his own age other than his siblings. His father was a follower of
Bentham and his explicit aim was to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of
utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham were dead. Mill was a notably
precocious child which is highlighted by the fact that he was taught Greek at the age of three and
was exposed to Latin, Euclid, and algebra at quite an early age. At the age of fourteen, Mill
stayed in France for one year with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy
Bentham. The mountain scenery he saw in France made the deepest impression on him, which
led to a lifelong taste for mountain landscapes. The lively and friendly way of life of the French
also left a deep impression on him. However the intensive study which Mill went through at such
a young age had injurious effects on his mental health and state of mind, and consequently at the
age of twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, the depression eventually began to
dissipate, as he began to find solace in the Memoires of JeanFranois Marmontel and the poetry
of William Wordsworth - his capacity for emotion resurfaced. Mill refused to study at Oxford
University or Cambridge University, and followed his father to work for the British East India
Company until 1858. In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor after 21 years of an intimate
friendship. His relationship with Harriet Taylor reinforced Mill's advocacy of women's rights.
During the period, 1865-1868, he was a Member of 3 Parliament for City and Westminster, and
was often associated with the Liberal Party. In 1869, he argued for the right of women to vote
and called for various reforms of Parliament and voting, especially proportional representation,
the Single Transferable Vote, and the extension of suffrage. He died in Avignon, France in 1873
and was buried alongside his wife. While he was still in his teenage, Mill had begun publishing
articles and essays in various publications. In 1843, he published System of Logic, followed by

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

Principles of Political Economy in 1848 and On Liberty in 1859. His other important works
include Utilitarianism (1863), The Subjection of Women and Autobiography (published after his
death in 1873). It took scholars several decades before they fully examined John Stuart Mill s
unique and systematic contribution to ethical and logical traditions. For todays students of
economics, philosophy and politics, he remains a vibrant and preeminent figure
Moreover, he derived from it his interest in foreign politics, which remained one of his
characteristics to the end of his life. In 1823 he was appointed junior clerk in the Examiners'
Office at the India House. The year 1856 saw him head of the Examiners' Office in the India
House, and another two years brought the end of his official work, owing to the transfer of India
to the Crown. In the same year his wife died. Liberty was published shortly after, as well as
the Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, and no year passed without Mill making important
contributions on the political, philosophical, and ethical questions of the day. The circumstances
under which John Stuart Mill wrote his Liberty are largely connected with the influence which
Mrs. Taylor wielded over his career1. Liberty was published in 1859, when the nineteenth century
was half over, but in its general spirit and in some of its special tendencies the little tract belongs
rather to the standpoint of the eighteenth century than to that which saw its birth. In many of his
speculations John Stuart Mill forms a sort of connecting link between the doctrines of the earlier
English empirical school and those which we associate with the name of Mr. Herbert Spencer. In
the tract on Liberty, Mill is advocating the rights of the individual as against Society at the very
opening of an era that was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the individual had no absolute
rights against Society. The eighteenth century view is that individuals existed first, each with
their own special claims and responsibilities; that they deliberately formed a Social State, either
by a contract or otherwise; and that then finally they limited their own action out of regard for
the interests of the social organism thus arbitrarily produced2. To the Victorian readers of that
time it was a radical work, advocating moral and economic freedom of individuals from the
state. The most memorable point made by Mill in this work, and his basis for liberty, is that
"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign".3
1 Life of John Stuart Mill, chapter vi. (Walter Scott.
2 Autobiography, p. 190

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

3 Brian R. Nelson, WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT, 2nd ed., Pearson Eduction.


J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

The concept of liberty carries three connotations,
(a) The notion of choice.
(b) The absence of constraints to make and exercise such a choice.
(c) The existing conditions that enable you to actuate the choice.
The liberty not to have ones individual opinion suppressed by collective decisions of the society
and state is at the core of J.S Mills understanding of Liberty. Mills view on Liberty is based on
the understanding of Utility in the largest sense grounded on the permanent interests of man as a
progressive being. His essay On Liberty seeks to protect individual liberty from the
interference of State and Society. Mill enlarges the concept of liberty beyond the Utilitarian
doctrine of Bentham by holding a view that a proper conception of happiness includes freedom
as individuality. As per Mill, Individuality was a prerequisite for the cultivation of the self. This
would enable society to progress as each individual is useful in proportion to the extent they
differ from the rest. Further Mill discussed Liberty under three aspects:4
(a) Liberty of thought and discussion
(b) Principle of individuality
(c) Limits of authority over an individuals action.
On Liberty depends on the idea that society progresses from lower to higher stages and that this
progress culminates in the emergence of a system of representative democracy.5 Mill undertakes
a historical review of the concept of liberty, beginning with ancient Greece and Rome and
proceeding to England. In the past, liberty meant primarily protection from tyranny. Over time,
4 Freedom of Speech, Volume 21, by Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred Dycus Miller, Jeffrey
5 John Stuart Mill (18061873) "On Liberty" 1859. ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb, UK:
Penguin, 1985, pp. 8384

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

the meaning of liberty changed along with the role of rulers, who came to be seen as servants of
the people rather than masters. This evolution brought about a new problem: the tyranny of the
majority, in which a democratic majority forces its will on the minority. This state of affairs can

exercise a tyrannical power even outside the political realm, when forces such as public opinion
stifle individuality and rebellion. Here, society itself becomes the tyrant by seeking to inflict its
will and values on others. Next, Mill observes that liberty can be divided into three types, each of
which must be recognized and respected by any free society. First, there is the liberty of thought
and opinion. The second type is the liberty of tastes and pursuits, or the freedom to plan our own
lives. Third, there is the liberty to join other like-minded individuals for a common purpose that
does not hurt anyone. Each of these freedoms negates societys propensity to compel
compliance.6 Mill states that two maxims together form the entire doctrine of the essay. The
first maxim is that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these
concern the interests of no person but himself, and the second is that for such actions as are
prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to
social or to legal punishment, if society is of the opinion that the one or the other is requisite for
its protection.7 Mill sidesteps this dilemma by delving into moral theory, where the only
important thing is the happiness of the individual, and such happiness may only be attained in a
civilized society, in which people are free to engage in their own interests, with all their skills
and capabilities, which they have developed and honed in a good system of education. Thus, Mill
stresses the fundamental value of individuality, of personal development, both for the individual
and society for future progress.
Mill view on individual liberty is that society must be given power to curtail behavior that harms
others, but no more. Mills twofold argument. First, individuals are not accountable to society for
behavior and actions that affect only them. Second, a person is answerable for any type of
behavior or action that harms others, and in such cases it is the responsibility of society to punish
and curtail such behavior and action.
6 http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/mill/section3
7 http://www.enotes.com/topics/on-liberty

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

However, individual liberty must always be expressed in order to achieve social and personal

As Mill states in his autobiography, his essay On Liberty was first conceived as a short essay
in 1854. Over time as development of new ideas took place, he expanded and rewrote his work.
His wife, Harriet Taylor was a significant part of the writing, though some scholars debate the
extent of her influence on his thoughts. Mill starts off by emphasizing the struggle between
authority and liberty. He explicitly describes the tyrannical authority of the government, which
according to him needed to be controlled by the liberty of the citizens. He supplements that
without such limit to authority, the government attains a form of a dangerous weapon . He
divides the limits to be imposed to control the authority into two mechanisms; the necessary
rights belonging to citizens and the establishment of constitutional checks to which the consent
of the entire community was available for the enactment of important acts of the governing
powers. Mill suggests that the people would be contented to be ruled by a master , provided his
rule guards them against tyranny. However, the development of democracy soon took place
where there was no fear of tyranny over oneself. This, as Mill puts, is illusionary, as the people
who exercise powers in the democracy are not always the same people over whom the powers
are exercised. Further, he highlights one more demerit, saying that the democratic functions can
only be carried out by a majority, and if consequently the majority wishes to operate against a
particular minority section of the society, it can easily be done despite keeping in consideration,
the wishes of the minority. This, he describes as tyranny of the majority Mill holds the view
that the tyranny of the majority is worse than the tyranny of the government because it crosses
8 Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty, Harvard Classics: Volume 25, p 258, PF Collier & Sons
Company New York 1909

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

the boundaries of political functions.9 Protecting a person against the tyranny of the prevailing
opinion and feeling is more difficult than protecting him against a tyrant. People will be subject
to what the society thinks suitable and will be governed by it. The majority opinion within the
society is the basis of all rules of conduct within the society. Thus there would be no safeguard in
law against the tyranny of the majority. Here, Mill criticizes this 6 approach and proves this as
negative showing that the majority opinion may not always be the correct opinion. On a
particular case people will either be for or against the issue and the side with an upper hand over
the other prevails, but this is not necessarily correct.

According to Mill, for exercising power over an individual there is only one legitimate
reason: That the only purpose for which powers can be exercised over any member of a
civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. The development of the
harm principle in On Liberty is mentioned by Mill. The harm principle regards that each
individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as his acts do not adversely affect the person
undertaking the action, then the society has no right to intervene, even if the person committing
such act is harming himself. Exceptions to this principle, as enshrined by Mill, are those who are
not capable of self government; i.e. young children, those living in backward states of society,
etc. Furthermore, Mill states that one may accept despotism over barbarians if it is for their
betterment, but this is only applicable if the barbarians are non-age and cannot be sovereign
over self. As soon as these people are capable of deciding for themselves, they should be given
liberty from authority.10 As an illustration to this principle, the example of Charlemagne and
Akbar the great was used, who were compassionate dictators who controlled and supposedly
helped the barbarians At this point, Mill divides human liberty when its private, into various
manifestations. They include :
(a) The freedom to think as one wishes, and to feel as one does. This includes the freedom to
opinion, and includes the freedom to publish opinions known as the freedom of speech,
9 John Stuart Mill's Social and Political Thought: Critical Assessments, by John Stuart
10 John Stuart Mill: critical assessments, Volume 4, By John Cunningham Wood

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

(b) The freedom to pursue tastes and pursuits, even if they are deemed "immoral," as long as they
do not cause harm,
(c) The "freedom to unite" or meet with others, often known as the freedom of assembly.
Without all of these freedoms, in Mill's view, one cannot be considered to be truly free and
liberty cannot be exercised.11


To conclude, the researcher feels that Mill was very contemporary in his thoughts and views on
the principles of liberty as he highlighted it in his essay On Liberty. This can be further
supported by quoting a paragraph from chapter one of his essay, On Liberty. 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 sufficient warrant. He cannot
rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will
make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The
only part of the conduct of anyone, 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 This paragraph much
highlights that the notions of liberty as advocated by Mill were quite contemporary and can be
11 John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and
Historical(New York 1874) Vol. 3, pp. 252253

J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty

highly regarded and justified in todays context. Therefore, the essay On Liberty can be
regarded as a highly unique piece of writing by Mill, which advocated various modern aspects of
liberty which is totally warranted.


J.S. Mill Idea on Liberty


Subrata Mukherjee and Susila Ramaswamy, A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT:

PLATO TO MARX, Prentice- Hall of India Pvt Ltd.

Brian R. Nelson, WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT, 2nd ed., Pearson Eduction.
John Stuart Mill: critical assessments, Volume 4, By John Cunningham Wood
John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and
Historical(New York 1874)