John Stuart Mill
What is the correct balance between personal freedom and the need for state control? Writing in 1859, John Stuart Mill described this as “the question of the future”, and his thoughts remain vital reading on the matter.
At the start of On Liberty, his most famous work, Mill complains that “...owing to the absence of any recognized general principles, liberty is often granted where it should be withheld, as well as withheld where it should be granted...”. He sought to redress such confusion, and On Liberty became a political counterpart to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in outlining the rightful extent of individual freedom and the bounds of government.
Mill’s father James was a disciple of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, and John was groomed to lead the Utilitarians. But by age 30 both his father and Bentham were dead, and he was free to find his own philosophical way. At 35 he became friends with Harriet Taylor, and he considered On Liberty to be a “joint production” with her. Her influence on his other famous essay, The Subjection of Women (1869), is also clear. Their intense, yet chaste romance ultimately resulted in marriage, but only after Taylor’s merchant husband had died.
What is the connection between the Mills’ ideas on personal freedom and political liberty? The book reasons that liberty allows for the flowering of the individual, but results in a whole society fulfilling its potential, since all questions are open for debate and therefore advances – both social and scientific - can more easily happen. Ultimately, every aspect of life benefits from greater liberty.
At the time Mill was writing, he admitted that quite a few countries could be said to be ‘democratic’ – and yet this structure of government was no guarantee of real liberty, because those in power became a class removed from the people. Moreover, a popularly elected government could still oppress some group within the society – the so called ‘tyranny of the majority’. This, he felt, could be an even worse kind of rule than regular political oppression, because it becomes a social tyranny, forcing a ‘right’ way of acting onto everyone. In saying this, Mill perfectly presages 20th century communist states, in which those who did not conform to the new social norms had to be ‘re-educated’. Such regimes, he notes, focus not on enslavement of the body, but the mind and soul.
In a democratic society, the vital question is where you place the limit between a need for social control, and the freedom of the individual to think and believe as they wish. The rule of the majority does not put in place any kind of universal morality, but is rather the expression of the likes and dislikes of the ascendant class. Mill notes that religious freedom only became enacted when multiple minority groups, knowing they could never be dominant, fought for the principle of religious freedom in laws. Man is by nature intolerant, therefore a policy or law of tolerance comes into being only when there are so many competing beliefs that no group is willing for another to become dominant.
All this leads Mill to his famous criterion or principle for ensuring freedom – ‘non-harm’:
“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. 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 opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.”
A government or dominant body in society cannot impose a law on people just because it is considered “for their own good”. Rather, freedom is to be seen in a negative sense – unless a citizen’s action is shown to be demonstrably bad for others, he or she should be allowed to do it. “In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute”, Mill says. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Mill outlines the areas of individual liberty which should be assumed as a basic right as long as they involve no harm to others:
Mill notes that even in the Britain of 1857, people were being sent to jail for professing no belief in God, and furthermore the same people had no right of redress against crime. Believing differently to what was socially accepted put a person outside the law.
The stupidity of regulating thought and belief is witnessed in the persecution of Socrates and Jesus, he says, who now are held up as two of history’s greatest figures. If every age sees that people who were considered ‘bad’ are now ‘good’, they must see that current opinion is usually flawed. Whenever there has existed in history a society or nation that has held some principles beyond dispute, or prevented discussion of some big question, Mill observes, “we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable.” A nation becomes great not by a mere imposition of order and power, but by letting go, knowing that there is much to gain by open discussion. Indeed, this is what frees the best minds to come up with the greatest advances.
Individuality as basis of a good society
Mill argues that ‘pagan self-assertion’ is as valid ‘Christian self-denial’ in terms of personal development. A person becomes more valuable to society in direct proportion to the flowering of their individuality:
“The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual.”
People should be encouraged to be different from the mass, and a healthy society will have lots of eccentrics. Mill writes that the amount of eccentricity in a nation will mirror the “genius, mental vigour and moral courage” contained in it. Mill’s Victorian Britain became famous for a set of values, but it also became known as a land of eccentrics. He notes that people are just like plants: they differ a lot in the conditions needed for their flourishing. Europe’s success, Mill ventures, is the result of its fostering or acceptance of individuality, in contrast to the Chinese or Japanese outlook which is everyone conforming.
Mill was writing at a time when Mormonism was new (a bit like the Scientology of its day), and people wanted to ban it because of its allowance of polygamy, which one writer called “a retrograde step in civilization”. Notwithstanding Mill’s own dislike of the religion, he writes, “I am not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilized.” If the rest of society is not directly hurt by it, there is no grounds for a law against it. He frames the question this way:
“No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.”
But such damage has to be overt and clear. If it is not, people should be left to follow their beliefs, life projects, causes and interests without hindrance.
Applying the principles
Mill includes a long section on questions of government policy arising from his principles. For instance, while noting that in a free society one cannot really defend a ban on prostitution or gambling – people should be free to fornicate or gamble as far as their conscience allows, “should a person be free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling-house?” Mill does not give a clear answer on this, but generally he repeats that government’s role is not to enact laws for people’s “own good”, only to prevent direct harm, and if people want to drink or gamble (with all the downsides) that is their choice. Government can play a role in preventing harm, however, through taxation and licensing, and he approves of taxing alcohol to make people likely to drink less. Mill also supports the state requiring people wishing to marry that they prove they have enough resources to have children, to prevent people coming into the world who face a wretched life from poverty.
Today, behavioural economics and psychology offer ways of achieving socially useful outcomes without reducing personal freedoms. In their book Nudge (2008), Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler outlined ‘liberal paternalism’, a way for governments to influence people’s decisions without actually making them forcing them to do anything. For instance, organ donation forms can assume that a driver’s license holder will donate in the event they are killed, unless they specifically opt out. This simple change can dramatically affect the number of organs that become available in a country, saving hundreds of lives a year. Yet there is no regulation involved, just a tinkering of the ‘choice architecture’, as the authors describe it.
Mill noted the natural human disposition (whether in rulers or fellow citizens) to want to impose our will on others. This results in the tendency for government power to increase and individual freedoms to be eroded, unless it is monitored and held in check. Yet this fact, and its warning of government creep, did not mean that governments had no legitimacy – as some of today’s extreme libertarians believe. The Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick outlined in his classic Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) a vision of government’s core role: protection of life and property, and the enforcement of contracts. Anything beyond this would involve the diminution of rights and freedoms.
It might be thought that Mill’s heirs are today’s libertarians. But Mill was never an extremist, and was much more in the common sense mould of Adam Smith; though both warned against the creep of government into every area of society and economy, neither denied or questioned that government did play an important role. The accurate way to see Mill is as a great beacon of progressive politics. The progressive principle, he writes, “whether as the love of liberty or of improvement, is antagonistic to the sway of Custom, involving at least emancipation from that yoke; and the contest between the two constitutes the chief interest of the history of mankind.”
Both left and right have claimed Mill as their own, but his expression of what freedom means is beyond the various shades of politics. On Liberty is best seen as a manifesto for any kind of open society.
Source: Philosophy Classics: Thinking, Being, Acting, Seeing, Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking from Fifty Key Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).
John Stuart Mill
Born in 1806 in London, Mill had a famously intensive education thanks to his father. Largely excluded from play with other children, he learned Greek at 3 and Latin at 8; by 12 he was well versed in logic, and at 16 he was writing on economic matters.
After further studies in France in history, law and philosophy, while still in his teens Mill began a career at the East India Company, where his father James had a senior position. He served in the Company until the Mutiny of 1857 when he retired as a Chief Examiner. Concurrently to his bureaucratic career he started the Utilitarian Society, which met in Bentham’s house, and with Bentham also established (in 1825) University College, London. He was an editor and contributor of the Westminster Review and other magazines. His activism in social reform led to an arrest for handing out birth control information to London’s poor.
Mill was elected to parliament in 1865, and campaigned for women’s right to vote and other liberal issues. His large body of writings covers logic, economics, religion, metaphysics, epistemology, current affairs and social and political philosophy. Titles include A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), Three Essays on Religion (1874) and his Autobiography (1873). Mill’s Utilitarianism (1863) refined the Benthamite philosophy and kept it influential for a new generation.
In 1872 Mill became godfather to his friend Lord Amberley’s second son, Bertrand Russell. He died the following year in Avignon, France.