Mill On Liberty — Focused Summary
In his introductory chapter, Mill discusses the constant struggle between authority and liberty. Using historical examples from ancient Greece and Rome, Mill illustrates how governmental authority naturally becomes tyrannical when various modes of liberty — like a concept of rights, constitutions, democratic participation and representation, etc. — are restricted and/or absent.
As time went on through history, there was a shift in thinking about the role/responsibilities of the government. The government was changing its view of itself, from an omnipotent tyranny to an extension of the people. As a result, the government’s goals began to align with the people’s goals. Even though the goals of the government have gone through this shift and are focused on the betterment of the people, Mill notes that it can still oppress the liberties of the people in a few technical senses that are still evident today.
A common problem that arose with this shift is a kind of governmental oppression that ultimately doesn’t fulfill the need for liberty for all people at all times. Because this type of modern government is formed by a democratic system — an elected majority or minority — every individual person’s “liberties” cannot be truly free to express (Mill 6–7). In other words, because the personal preference of this elected majority or minority play key roles as motivators of change/policy, people will naturally disagree, and their liberties will not be met. To illustrate this point, if the government would restrict every US citizen to one fast food meal per week, this would restrict the people’s liberty in a substantial way. Despite the fact that it may be in the best interests of the people, it is ultimately up to the personal preference of the people not the personal preference of the elected majority or minority.
Social tyranny can also thwart personal liberty. Mill goes so far to say that this is potentially the most invasive form of tyranny because it is not limited to the public sphere but is often imbedded in private life and can be seen by how society manipulates of people’s personalities, changes their opinions, and robs them of their spontaneity. Since the rules made by society can create social tyranny and the laws made by the government are both largely determined by personal and arbitrary preferences, Mill introduces his Harm Principle as a way to base the limits of governmental control in such a way that isn’t arbitrary and is most universal. Mill’s Harm Principle establishes clear limitations to the government’s involvement in the people’s lives, thus reducing governmental power and maintaining the people’s liberty. It states that the government can only restrict the liberties of the people in order to prevent harm to other people. In all other cases, the people are free in their own liberty. In particular, the people are free to think and feel what they will, to like or dislike what they will, and the freedom of association (Mill 22–23).
In chapter 4, Mill elaborates on some of the social aspects of the harm principle, namely the limits of societal influence on the individual’s liberty. Mill comes against the idea of “selfish indifference” and clarifies that, though his political ideas promote individualism and personal liberties, there are communal aspects of his plan. He sets out in this chapter to categorize which aspects of human life should be individual and which should be social. He says that vices reflect a bad moral character but, unlike actions which harm others, do not justify punishment, only judgement. In chapter 5, Mill addresses how his harm principle would apply in various situations. For example, getting drunk in itself is a liberty that everyone has the right to. However, getting drunk and driving, because it will likely hurt someone else, should, under the harm principle, necessitate governmental restraint (Mill 185).
Mill, J.S. (2011). On Liberty. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm