Classics Review: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

These past few days I have been retrieving five years worth of blog posts and book reviews from an old blog that goes offline forever as of tomorrow, July 25th. In doing so I have found tons of pieces I had forgotten about, some of which fit neatly into my summer political philosophy theme. In my last post I shared my review of Tolstoy’s philosophical novel Resurrection, and today I am re-posting this review….

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If only we could all enjoy so calm and pleasant a dialog about the limits of government infringement on individual lives as John Stuart Mills gives us in On Liberty. The issues discussed here are certainly more relevant and more essential than ever, no matter how tired some of us are of talking about them.

imageOn Liberty is an in-depth exploration of the relationship between the individual and authority. Authority in this book refers not only to that imposed by government but also all kinds of societal checks on individual freedom of behavior, speech, and thought, with particular attention to the kind of pressure inherent in most organized religion. Mills begins by stating:

“The Subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”

Published in 1859, On Liberty was extremely well received and has been in print ever since. Interestingly, Mills began writing the work in 1854 in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor. Originally intended as an essay, it kept expanding in scope until it became a full-fledged book published shortly after Harriet’s death. I enjoyed the clarity of thought Mills brings to topic which can be a muddy one with many shades of gray.

When is an individual’s action of concern only to him or herself and when does it affect others enough for society to step in and regulate it? How much tolerance should society have for aberrant behavior, unpopular lifestyle choices, and the spouting of opinions deemed pernicious?

According to Mill and Harriet, a healthy society tolerates a wide berth of eccentricity and welcomes diversity of opinion, primarily because it is only by being challenged that we can truly be strong in our beliefs about what is true. Society is justified in interfering with individual liberty only when the individual’s actions cause harm to others. The problems emerge mostly in how we define “harm.”

Mills seems quite reasonable to me and certainly not an extremist. I think he would have been a libertarian when it comes to restrictions on what substances people choose to indulge in and would be in favor of zero restrictions on expressions of faith in the public square and in the workplace as long as these expressions do not physically harm to anyone else. He is most definitive in his support freedom of speech and the press.

He is a bit less libertarian when it comes to public education. In fact, as you get toward the end of the book, it becomes apparent that the keys to his vision of a society that allows for maximum individual liberty are universal education as well as responsible procreation. If people just did not create children that they are not prepared to feed, shelter, and educate then everything would be just fine. To the extent that this state of affairs is not fully realized, Mill believes, the state is justified in educating children whose parents do not or cannot fulfill their most sacred duty. According to Mills, all education sponsored by the state should stick to the basics such a language usage and scientific facts. There must be no requirement that students subscribe to any particular creed or political opinion in order to obtain a certificate of completion.

So there are some “if onlies” and a bit of utopian thought here, but all in all this is a great read for anyone who wants to explore the complex many-sided issue of the individual liberty versus interests of society. If this was a complicated issue in 1859 it is more so now as our civilization has become exponentially more interconnected. Since we live in a world where individual liberty is diminishing as the interests of society become increasingly dominant, this great book of social philosophy is a great way to understand how we got where we are and to help us decide if we think it is worth resisting the general trend.

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Posted on July 24, 2016, in Book reviews, Classics, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I agree with you about the importance of this book in an age where democracy and its attendant liberties may well be on the retreat. I must pick up this book again as, in a dry way, it reads so well. The Oxford World Classics paperback has an interesting introduction by John Gray which is rather sceptical about the universality of Mill’s liberalism

    • Thanks Ian. I will look for the Oxford World Classics introduction. A lot of things depend on shared agreement about what is moral and what is socially acceptable. He says a healthy society has tolerance for a wide diversity of opinion and behavior, but perhaps he didn’t consider what would happen if the diversity of behavior and differing opinions about what is socially acceptable became as wide as it is now. Of course it makes sense that anyone can do anything as long it does not harm anyone else. But there are differences of opinion as to what constitutes harm. If someone is playing music really loud late at night in the next apartment and I can’t sleep, I may think that is harmful but my neighbor might disagree.

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