MILL: On Liberty [Chapters III-V]

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

CHAPTER III: Of Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-Being

  • Both the expression of opinions and actions ought to be limited when they cause harm to others [yelling fire in a theater]

    , but there are many more instances in which actions can cause harm than in which the expression of opinions can cause harm. But these freedoms ought to remain unrestricted beyond this lone boundary.

  • Individuality and diversity is necessary for human progress. A German philosopher claims that the end of humanity is to produce circumstances in which an individual can fully realize his unique self. The conditions necessary for self-realization are freedom and a variety of situations.
  • Men who merely conform to social norms do not exercise the faculties that make them human. Men that act as mere automatons are not worth anything. It is not man’s nature to be like a machine that is programmed to perform certain tasks based upon a specific model.
  • The majority of modern men do not have any inclinations. They possess desires entirely consistent with cultural norms. Conformity is their first thought.
  • There ought to be a balance between pagan self-assertion and Christian self-denial.
  • Humans become beautiful and noble by cultivating their individuality, not by conforming with others.
  • To acquiesce to legal restraints that prohibit harming others cultivates the social part of human nature; but to acquiesce to legal restraints that prohibit something that is merely disagreeable to another person dulls one’s nature.
  • Cultivation of individuality brings humans closer to the best form of the thing that they can be.
  • Originality is necessary to prevent humanity from becoming a stagnant pool. Geniuses who break the predefined molds that society offers everyone to save them the trouble from developing themselves are the source of all human progress. Without originality, beliefs and practices would degenerate into mechanical routines; men would perform these practices and hold these beliefs like cattle.
  • The individual has become lost in the crowd due to the spread of democracy and improved methods of communication and dissemination of ideas. Children are taught the same facts and sentiments and do not develop critical thinking skills, but rather accept the facts and choice modes of life that are available to them. Men are not similar in their tastes and inclinations. They cannot be made to fit into predetermined molds of behavior like shoes can be made for different sizes of feet.
  • Mediocrity holds sway. Public opinion stifles individuality. It might still desire progress, but it desires progress as a group, not individually. Changes are made for the sake of change rather than utility. Fashions change many times a year for the sake of change rather than beauty or preference. This is because not all would accept the changed notions of beauty, but they will accept change solely for the sake of change.
  • There is no one best mold for human life. Those who wish all to adopt the same desires and fears hinder human progress. Conformity is a real danger. Despotism of custom is a real danger.


“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.”


“The mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own.”


“The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement.”


Originality is necessary to prevent humanity from becoming a stagnant pool. Geniuses who break the predefined molds that society offers everyone to save them the trouble from developing themselves are the source of all human progress. Without originiality, beliefs and pactices would degenerate into mechanical routines; men would perform these practices and hold these beliefs like cattle. This reminds me of a part of the novel, Crime and Punishment, by Dostoyevsky. In the novel, Dostoyevsky’s character Raskolnikov writes an article expressing the same sentiments about “geniuses” being the ones who lead humanity down the road of progress. Raskolnikov, however, believes himself to be one of these exceptions and chooses to kill a pawnbroker in order to “take from the rich and give to the poor.” After carrying out his plan, he suffers tremendous guilt. I suppose that I introduced this anecdote to qualify Mill’s unbridled enthusiasm for individuality. Indeed, Mill does remark that action must always be restricted by the harm principle – i.e. do no harm to others – but the reader sometimes will forget this principle in the midst of Mill’s laudatory declaration of the virtues of originality. One ought to remember the evil that can arise from such individuality.


Mill reviles what he calls the “despotism of custom.” While reading this part, I remembered Montaigne’s thoughts on custom. Montaigne demonstrated the powerful persuasion that custom has over one’s life, both good and bad. Mill only focuses on the negative consequences of custom. He argues that adhering to custom, or even falling into a mechanical routine, essentially renders one less than human. In a sense, he is right. When one does not make choices, but rather follows a predetermined set of values and maxims, one does act in many ways like an automaton. Mill’s notion of predefined molds that modern individuals choose to fill rather than cultivate their own desires and skills is particularly relevant today. Furthermore, Mill accuses the advances in communication and dissemination of knowledge to be the key causes of this rise of mediocrity. Indeed, people read the same things, watch the same news programs, see the same advertisements, listen to the same music, etc. It is difficult to be original when there are millions of people that are exposed to the same experiences that you are. Mill quotes a German philosopher that stated two things are necessary for the cultivation of the individual – freedom and a variety of situations. Most of the modern world possesses freedom, but there is very little variety of situations. To support my case, I need only refer to the prevalence of McDonald’s in nearly every country of the world.


CHAPTER IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual

  • Society ought to have full control over what concerns the interests of the state, and the individual ought to have full control over what concerns the interests of the individual.
  • Mill rejects the social contract theory, but does believe that people owe a duty to society for the protection they receive from it. Such duty includes refraining from harming the interests of others and providing for the common defense of the society.
  • Society does not have an interest in those actions that affect no other member of society but the actor. Anybody’s interest or knowledge in another’s well-being is trivial compared to that person’s interest and knowledge in his own well-being.
  • People may still censure a person for behavior they find offensive and immoral, but they cannot enact punishments for such aberrant behavior. There are already natural penalties that an eccentric person suffers under. For example, a society will speak ill of a person that has many vices, and even forego his company altogether. Actions ought only to be punished when they harm others.
  • Mill criticizes those philosophers that believe mankind has an intuitive sense for what is right, or there is some objective morality that is discernible through philosophy. Every individual is unique, and not all individuals flourish under the same moral system.
  • Mill addresses the counterargument that all action of an individual is of interest to the society. In other words, no man is an island. Actions can create bad examples which will encourage others to do the same immoral acts.
  • Mill distinguishes between acts that violate the duties one owes to society and those acts that are entirely indifferent to society. For example, a man who is a drunkard ought not to be coerced to become sober; however, a police man who is drunk while working ought to be punished because he has failed in his duty as a police man. The police man is not punished for being drunk, but rather for failing to perform his duty as a police man.
  • The society must be willing to bear actions that only have an indirect effect on the society for the sake of the greater good of human freedom.
  • Society is culpable for the personal vices of its citizens because it has the entire childhood of people to educate them and instruct them in morality.
  • As to the argument that bad examples will encourage others to behave in a similar manner, Mill argues that bad examples also exhibit the negative consequences of those bad acts. If the behavior is truly “bad,” then it will have bad consequences, which will deter others from behaving in the same manner.
  • When society does interfere in personal matters, it is almost always in the wrong. The feeling of a person for his own opinion is utterly different than the feeling of another person who is offending at his holding it.
  • Mankind has a pernicious inclination to impose their morals on others. If people wish to impose their morality on others, they must be ready to have other moralities imposed on them.


“The notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious, was the foundation of all the religious persecutions ever perpetrated, and if admitted, would fully justify them.”


“It is easy for any one to imagine an ideal public, which leaves the freedom and choice of individuals in all uncertain matters undisturbed, and only requires them to abstain from modes of conduct which universal experience has condemned. But where has there been seen a public which set any such limit to its censorship? or when does the public trouble itself about universal experience? In its interferences with personal conduct it is seldom thinking of anything but the enormity of acting or feeling differently from itself; and this standard of judgment, thinly disguised, is held up to mankind as the dictate of religion and philosophy, by nine-tenths of all moralists and speculative writers. These teach that things are right because they are right; because we feel them to be so. They tell us to search in our own minds and hearts for laws of conduct binding on ourselves and on all others. What can the poor public do but apply these instructions, and make their own personal feelings of good and evil, if they are tolerably unanimous in them, obligatory on all the world?”


Mill criticizes those philosophers that believe mankind has an intuitive sense for what is right, or there is some objective morality that is discernible through philosophy. Every individual is unique, and not all individuals flourish under the same moral system. I could not help but think of Kant and his categorical imperative. If we adhered to Kant’s argument that there is a universal set of moral dictated by Reason that we must of necessity follow, we all would indeed be automatons. There would be no freedom in the sense of making moral choices; however, Kant would argue that we make the choice to adhere to this universal set of maxims, and are most free when we act in accordance with these precepts, but this seems like fallacious reasoning.


This chapter also raised to my mind the current debate surrounding the legalization of marijuana in the US. I am almost certain that Mill would align with those who are in favor of legalization. Many of the arguments for the prohibition of alcohol, which he refutes, are nearly identical to the arguments used by opponents to the legalization of marijuana. For example, the “Alliance” of Mill’s age, argued against alcohol by claiming that “It destroys my primary right of security, by constantly creating and stimulating social disorder. It invades my right of equality, by deriving a profit from the creation of a misery, I am taxed to support. It impedes my right to free moral and intellectual development, by surrounding my path with dangers, and by weakening and demoralising society, from which I have a right to claim mutual aid and intercourse.” Mill counters this argument by demonstrating the absurd arrogance of the statements. He writes that the prohibitionists’ arguments are based on a principle that it is the right of every individual that every other individual shall act in “every respect as he ought; and whoever fails thereof in the smallest particular, violates my social right, and entitles me to demand from the legislature the removal of the grievance.” I think Mill would further argue that the prohibitionists should realize that the act of drinking alcohol is not a punishable offense, but any harm done while intoxicated is certainly punishable. The prohibitionists mistakenly claim that the mere act of drinking alcohol is a crime. They must discern between actual harm and personal indulgence.


CHAPTER V: Applications

  • The essay is composed of two principles

o   People are not accountable to society for actions that only concern themselves.

o   Society may punish an individual whose actions harm others.

  • The harm caused in institutions of competition – the business world, sports, etc. – are not punishable harms because of the common good derived from the competition.
  • A distinction can be drawn in instances of potential self-harm. For example, one ought to warn another about the potential dangers of crossing a bridge; but one cannot prohibit another from crossing a bridge if that person is aware of the risk but decides to cross anyway.
  • Because dangerous items, such as poison and guns, can be used to commit crimes, it is not a violation of liberty to require certain disclosure of information before selling such items to a buyer. For example, it is not a violation of liberty to require a buyer of poison to provide his address, name, and intended use of the poison. It is, however, a violation of liberty to entirely prohibit its sale.
  • Public acts of indecency are affronts that can be punished.
  • People ought to be free to counsel others to perform particular acts. However, if one profits from encouraging others to commit unlawful acts, then they can be punished. Gambling ought not to be punished, but the keepers of gambling house ought to be punished [this is an inconsistent argument].
  • States are within their jurisdiction to tax substances they deem to be ‘immoral’ or conducive to vice. This is because the State must raise revenues, and the State ought to tax what it considers the people can do without more than what it absolutely requires. Drugs and alcohol are not vital substances, and therefore can be taxed.
  • A person cannot sell himself into slavery or commit suicide because he undermines his own freedom. The principle of freedom does not afford a person the freedom to not be free or to abolish his freedom by committing suicide.
  • The State can legislate compulsory education for children because it is preventing harm to the child. The State is permitted to restrict marriage to those people who are capable of supporting a family because it is a crime to bring a child into the world without the means to support that child. Essentially, deadbeat parents are harming their children by the mere fact of bringing them into the world in such circumstances.
  • Government should not interfere in instances where the person is better qualified to perform the action than the government. The person most qualified to perform an action is generally the person who has a direct interest in it.
  • Governments should not interfere when it is beneficial to the individual to do the action though the government is more qualified to do it.
  • Governments should not interfere when doing so would extend its power and the people would become dependent upon the government.


“The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”


Mill presents some very controversial opinions regarding marriage and parenting. He writes that a State can legitimately exercise its power to prohibit marriages when the couple cannot prove they have sufficient resources to provide for their children. Mill writes that it is a crime of the most heinous nature to bring a child into the world without the means to provide nourishment to its body and instruction for its mind. Furthermore, if such a person does have a child, the State is justified in compelling that person to labor and defray the costs of rearing the child. While reading this particular part of the chapter, I thought about the television show Teen Mom. There seems to be a lot of people who do not consider the tremendous responsibility associated with bringing life into the world. I agree with Mill that it is very atrocious, even criminal, to bring a child into the world without the sufficient means to provide for its basic needs. These deadbeat parents ought to be sentenced to forced labor or imprisonment. The amount of harm that they inflict upon their child is incalculable.


Overall, Mill’s On Liberty was an enjoyable read. I thought that his opinions concerning freedom of pursuits and his comments upon the degenerative tendencies of customs and conformity were very persuasive. Mill’s intense belief of the importance of liberty and individuality will remain with me for a very long time.

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