On Liberty 1859

 

  • On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son, London 1859.
  • On Liberty. In J. S. Mill: ‘On Liberty’ and Other Writings. Edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge 1989
  • Vapaudesta. Suomentanut Niilo Liakka. Otava, Helsinki 1891.  Ajanmukaisestettu 1981. Reima T. A. Luoto. Studia liberalia  Librum, Helsinki 1982

 “The Liberty is likely to survive longer than anything else that I have written (with the possible exception of the Logic), because the conjunction of her [Harriet Taylor Mil]  mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth, which the changes progressively taking place in modern society tend to bring out into ever stronger relief: the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions.” (Mill: Autobiography)

 


INTRODUCTORY 

“There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”

The  simple principle of liberty (entitled to govern absolutely)

john-stuart-mill

  • 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.
  • Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

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.

Utility as the ultimate appeal 

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.

I. OF THE LIBERTY OF THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” 

The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. 

All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.

But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons.

The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.

only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.

The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.

II. OF INDIVIDUALITY, AS ONE OF THE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING

No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions.

A person whose desires and impulses are his own – are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture – is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.

Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings

Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people – less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.

At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions.Those whose opinions go by the name of public opinion, are not always the same sort of public: in America they are the whole white population; in England, chiefly the middle class.But they are always a mass, that is to say, collective mediocrity.

That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

The greater part of the world has, properly speaking, no history, because the despotism of Custom is complete.

III. OF THE LIMITS TO THE AUTHORITY OF SOCIETY OVER THE INDIVIDUAL

To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.

Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest.

As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion.

We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours.

And it is not difficult to show, by abundant instances, that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities.

 

APPLICATIONS

The maxims

  1. The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.
    1. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.
  2. 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 opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.