Classic Liberal Thought by John Stuart Mill

The only part of the conduct of any one, 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.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In last week’s post I wrote about Edmund Burke, who was considered to be one of the fathers of modern day conservatism, and this week I am hopping across the political spectrum to one of the fathers of modern day liberalism.

John Stuart Mill was also a British member of Parliament, just like Burke, however he was born in the beginning of the 19th century just a few years after Edmund Burke`s death. Mill was a strong supporter for the abolition of slavery, women`s rights movement and for freedom of speech. Mill described liberty as a citizen’s right to protect themselves from abuse at the hands of their own government. He understood that for any real freedom to be possessed by a citizen, there had to be checks and balances which hold the head of state accountable, so that certain freedoms could not be infringed upon without great difficulty or an open rebellion.

One of Mill’s most famous essays was named “On Liberty,” and it is this piece of political writing that will be the focus of this post today. So let’s begin…

Mill begins his essay by drawing attention to the history of struggles which citizens have had for finding balance between liberty and authorities of power, or subjects and the upper classes, in the past.

The aim…of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities…which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which if he did infringe, specific resistance or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second…was the establishment of constitutional checks; by which the consent of the community…was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Mill continued by recalling how struggle between authority and liberty had progressed through the centuries and into the 19th century. He noticed that within democracy it was also possible for the majority of a nation to become, sort of, tyrannical over the rights of individuals based on custom or prevailing attitudes and so, argued there must also be a process to protect the rights of individuals from that of the majority.

It was now perceived that such phrases as…”the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The people who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or…active part of the people; the majority…: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

…in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Mill was a very utilitarian man who sought to do, with policy, the most good possible and the least harm possible for citizens of his country. He believed that by focusing on maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness he could shape the best version of his society. He also believed that the happiness of any one person mattered equally to the happiness of any other, and that as long as a person was not harming anyone else, they should be able to do as they please.

Contrary to Edmund Burke, Mill concluded that tradition and custom could be quite the hindrance to progress for humanity because it cemented certain rules and attitudes in society without even so much as a discussion as to why they are right.

The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Mill also, quite tactfully, argued against prevailing opinions due to matters of religion which is also very contrary to the philosophy of the more conservative Edmund Burke. He claimed that the servitude of mankind to their gods was both essentially a selfish desire and gave rise to feelings of contempt towards those not aligned with their own sentiments, therefore religious beliefs could run contrary to the interests of society which are best met with rational unbiased contemplation and morality.

Mill continued by attesting that freedom of religion was never given out lightly by societies in centuries past, but at best with mild toleration, and even then, it’s often that individuals only tolerate a number of other religions but not all. He continued…

…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.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

He did not believe that it was for the government or society at large to tell any one individual how they ought to lead their lives, unless that individual was causing harm to another. Aside from that one basic rule, every person should be free to live the life they prefer.

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.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Afterward he continues by stating that children are an exception until they reach adulthood because having their freedom restricted is for their own benefit and to protect them. He also believed that “barbarians” could justifiably have rules enforced upon them as long as the end result was their own good and civilization for which they will ultimately find liberty. At this time in history England was colonizing many other countries around the world and so Mill of course needed to address this, yet it does detract somewhat from the sentiment of the entire essay.

Personally, I very much agree with Mill’s political philosophy and the right of individuals to decide for themselves. These sort of sentiments are what have carried on into modern day liberalism with greater rights for the individual and an opposition to too much government interference except to protect others and for support. However imperfect the philosophy may be, it was absolutely moving in the right direction to provide greater quality of life for all citizens rather than just the prevailing majority and for this reason, I will continually support those values.

How do you feel about all of this?

Thoughts? Comments? Leave them down below!

Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives…

I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it. Suppose any party, in addition to whatever share it may possess of the ability of the community, has nearly the whole of its stupidity, that party must, by the law of its constitution, be the stupidest party; and I do not see why honorable gentlemen should see that position as at all offensive to them, for it ensures their being always an extremely powerful party . . .

There is so much dense, solid force in sheer stupidity, that any body of able men with that force pressing behind them may ensure victory in many a struggle, and many a victory the Conservative party has gained through that power.

John Stuart Mill

4 thoughts on “Classic Liberal Thought by John Stuart Mill

  1. Well researched and written, my friend! His essay is a must read for anyone who seeks to understand words like “freedom”, “rights”, and “power”. I have always agreed with his view of individual sovereignty and have held that as a core belief my whole life. I, too, understand the need for him to address “uncivilized” societies during this time of global colonization, but to today’s ear is does detract from what is otherwise a striking and eloquent dissertation on individual freedom. We also hear in his words the argument supporting the separation of church and state. The only true way to insure that religious freedom remains a freedom for all religions, even those who do not profess one. Although these ideals sit at the edge of liberalism, they are still worthy to be moving towards. Loved this post Mathew, but I am a sucker for your writing! Hope you and yours remain safe, well, and happy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As human beings we are both individuals and community members. This is not an either/or. I am an individualist and an artist and like to pursue my own passions; that way I’m for liberalism. But I’m also a community member and thus part of rules and ruling authority; that way I’m for sharing in a democracy. I believe we can do both. In my mind we need to provide for a healthy basic life for all but within that life anyone who likes to go further and explore should be able to do so. No matter where we find ourselves, it is important we treat our lives responsibly and with respect. That way we know to do that with each other as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like Mill. He is still very modern. His books can be read as if he wrote them today. That’s, to me, what distinguishes a philosopher: the ability for the actualization of his writings. Otherwise, it would be a waste of time to read. Great review my friend! Will reblog this one to be published on tuesday!

    Liked by 1 person

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