Mill’s “On Liberty”

Type 1: Focused Summary

John Stuart Mill provides a central argument throughout the text that compares liberty and authority, and people and society. Chapter 1 begins with the topic of tyranny by political rulers. Mill explains that this could be sometimes seen as dangerous, as they have the power to use against their subjects, who did not vote them in. To combat this and avoid tyranny, the people set their own boundaries: gaining liberties, or rights, that can not be infringed on and secondly constitutional checks. People eventually wanted their leaders to be chosen delegates who reflect their views so there is a lesser chance of tyranny. He then, however, uses this as an opportunity to showcase how those delegates may not always best serve the people, but create a tyranny of the majority of powerful people. Not only can the majority oppress the minority, but the values of some can project on to the individuality of others. He states that all men are subject to their own views and beliefs, but that one should not subject someone else to those beliefs. The only time in which this is acceptable is for self-protection when that person’s actions are potentially harmful. Coercion is not acceptable, and you may only reason with another person.

He continues to pursue the idea of Utilitarianism in which the best thing to do is the thing that provides the greatest positive outcome for the greatest number of people. The idea that if someone is going to cause harm, society can punish him for the greater good. He also promotes the three ideas that outline everyone doing what is best for them, as long as it does not infringe on anyone else and allows everyone else to do the same. First, the domain of consciousness, secondly the liberty of tastes and pursuits, and thirdly the freedom to unite. These liberties all allow people to each focus on the greater good by pursuing their own good and allowing others to do the same.

This reminds me of the current debate of political parties in the United States. Each party seems to be trying to promote their own ideas rather than actually compromising and looking towards a more socially and economically acceptable future. That being said, many people infringe on other’s happiness and rights rather than focusing on their own achievements and growth which is a huge issue, and people could benefit from Mill’s ideas.

In chapter 4, Mill seems to be touching on the idea of societies power over individuality. He states that no one knows oneself better than themselves, and no one has better interest in a person than themselves. He states that people should not make comments towards people that infringe on their liberty, yet because they have their own liberty, may exercise that right. It seems to me that here he is stating that people should be able to point out the discrepancies in other people’s behavior and call out what they do not like, legally, but can not hold someone back from doing what they wish in life. If I am reading into this right, I agree with what he is saying. I think this relates to current topics and debates such as abortion or marijuana. Many people have different beliefs, but is to no harm of anyone else what an individual does because it does not affect them. People are entitled to their opinions, yet they should not be allowed to determine the track of another persons life, because that person has their own best interest in mind.

In chapter 5, he begins pg 185 with the example of the drunk man. Being drunk in itself is not a crime, but causing harm while drunk is the crime. This person is subject to punishment- not for being drunk, but for committing a crime. This does not subject all drunk people as committing a crime. He touches next on the idea of free personal will. That someone persuading someone to do something is not their fault because that person will do it with their own will. However, when the persuader profits off of promoting bad decisions, it gets questionable. But in the end the bad decision is reflected on the person who committed it. There is still a question of who should be punished, and if certain things should be characterized as an evil or as an infringement of liberty. This last chapter confused me a little but I believe his main idea is that people should only be held accountable for actions that concern other people.


Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store