On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

MILL'S essay On Liberty appeared in 1859, eleven years after the publication of his Principles of Political Economy and in the year after the death of his wife, in collaboration with whom it was thought out and partly written. The treatise goes naturally with that on Utilitarianism. Perhaps the primary problem of politics in all ages has been the reconciliation of individual and social interests, and in an age when legislation is ever tending to become more socialistic, Mill's view has a most interesting relevancy to modern social movements.


PROTECTION against popular government is as indispensable as protection against political despotism. The people may desire to oppress a part of their number, and precautions are needed against this as against any other abuse of power. So much will be readily granted by most, and yet no attempt has been made to find the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control.

The object of this essay is to assert the simple principle that 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, either by his action or inaction. The only part of the conduct of anyone 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.

This principle requires, firstly, liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense, liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological--the liberty even of publishing and expressing opinions. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, so long as we do not harm our fellow-creatures. Thirdly, the principle requires liberty of combination among individuals for any purpose not involving harm to others, provided the persons are of full age and not forced or deceived.

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Mankind gains more by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

Coercion in matters of thought and discussion must always be illegitimate. If all mankind save one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing the solitary individual than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of opinion is that it is robbing the whole human race, present and future--those who dissent from the opinion even more than those who hold it. For if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; and, it wrong, they lose the clear and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility and, as all history teaches, neither communities nor individuals are infallible. Men cannot be too often reminded of the condemnation of Socrates and of Christ, and of the persecution of the Christians by the noble-minded Marcus Aurelius.

Enemies of religious freedom maintain that persecution is a good thing, for even though it makes mistakes, it will root out error while it cannot extirpate truth. But history shows that even if truth cannot be finally extirpated, it may at least be put back centuries.

We no longer put heretics to death; but we punish heresies with a social stigma almost as effective, since it may debar men from earning their bread. Social intolerance does not actually eradicate heresies, but it induces men to hide unpopular opinions. The result is that new and heretical opinions smolder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons who originate them, and never light up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light.

The price paid for intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human race. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects too timid to follow out any bold, independent train of thought lest it might be considered irreligious or immoral? No one can be a great thinker who does not follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. In a general atmosphere of mental slavery a few great thinkers may survive but in such an atmosphere there never has been, and never will be, an intellectually active people; and all progress in the human mind and in human institutions may be traced to periods of mental emancipation.

Even if an opinion be indubitably true and undoubtingly believed, it will be a dead dogma, and not a living truth, if it be not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed. If the cultivation of the understanding consists of one thing more than another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one's own opinions, and these can only be fully learnt by facing the arguments that favour the opposite opinions. He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. Unless he knows the difficulties which his truth has to encounter and conquer, he knows little of the force of his truth. Not only are the grounds of an opinion unformed or forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the very meaning of the opinion.

When the mind is not compelled to exercise its powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being. In such cases a creed merely stands sentinel at the entrance of the mind and heart to keep them empty, as is so often seen in the case of the Christian creed as at present professed.

So far we have considered only two possibilities--that the received opinion may be false and some other opinion consequently true, or that, the received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to a clear apprehension and feeling of the truth.

But there is a commoner case still, when conflicting doctrines share the truth, and when the heretical doctrine completes the orthodox. Every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of the truth which the common opinion omits ought to be considered precious with whatever amount of error and confusion it may be conjoined.

In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary factors in a healthy political life. Unless opinions favourable to democracy and to aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and to competition, to sociability and to individuality, to liberty and to discipline, and all the other standing antagonisms of practical life are expressed with equal freedom, and enforced and defended with equal talual talent and energy, there is no chance of both elements obtaining their due. Truth is usually reached only by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.

It may be objected, 'But some received principles, especially on the highest and most vital subjects are more than half-truths.' This objection is not sound. Even the Christian morality is incomplete and one-sided, and unless ideas and feelings not sanctioned by it had contributed to the formation of European life and character, human affairs would have been in a worse condition than they are.


WE have seen that opinions should be freely formed and freely expressed. How about actions? If a man refrains from molesting others in what concerns them and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgement in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free prove also that he should be allowed to carry his opinions into action. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is useful that there should be different experiments of living, that free scope should be given to varieties of character short of injury to others, and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. When traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

No one's idea of excellence in conduct is that people should do absolutely nothing but copy one another. On the other hand, it would be absured to pretend that people ought to live as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence or of conduct is preferable to another. No one denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth as to know and benefit by the results of human experience. But it is the privilege of a mature man to use and interpret experience in his own way. 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, on the other hand, who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties--reasoning, foresight, activity, discrimination, resolution, self-control. We wish not automatons, but living originating men and women.

Nevertheless it may be maintained that strong desires and passions are a peril and a snare. Yet it is desires and impulses which constitute character, and one with no desires and impulses of his own has no more character than a steam-engine. An energetic character implies strong, spontaneous impulses under the control of a strong will; and such characters are desirable, since the danger which threatens modern society is not excess but deficiency of personal impulses and preferences.

Everyone nowadays asks: What is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances, or (worse still), what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? The consequence is that through failure to follow their own nature, they have no nature to follow; their human capacities are withered and starved, and are incapable of any strong pleasures or opinions properly their own.

It is not by pruning away the individual but by cultivating it wisely that human beings become valuable to themselves and to others, and that human life becomes rich, diversified and interesting. Individuality is equivalent to development, and in proportion to the latitude given to individuality an age becomes noteworthy or the reverse.

Unfortunately, the general tendency of things is to render mediocrity the ascendant power. At present, individuals are lost in the crowd, and it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. And public opinion is the opinion of collective mediocrity and is expressed by mediocre men. The initiation of all wise and noble opinions must come from individuals, and the individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought is necessary to correct the tendency that makes mankind acquiesce in customary opinions.


WHERE, then, does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality and how much to society?

To individuality should belong that part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.

Society, in return for the protection it affords its members, and as a condition of its existence, demands, first, that its members respect the rights of one another; and, secondly, that each person bear his share of the labours and sacrifices incurred in defending society or its members. Further, society may punish acts of an individual hurtful to others, even if not a violation of rights, by the force of public opinion.

But in all cases where a person's conduct affects or need only affect himself, society may not interfere. Society may help individuals in their personal affairs, but neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to any human creature that he may not use his own life, so far as it concerns himself, as he pleases. He himself is the final judge of his own concerns, and the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgement of others are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which affects his own good, but which does not affect the interest of others.

But how, it may be asked, can any part of the conduct of a member of society be a matter of indifference to the other members?

I fully confess that the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect those nearly connected with him, and even society at large. But such contingent and indirect injury should be endured by society for the sake of the greater good of human freedom, and because any attempt at coercion in private conduct will merely produce rebellion on the part of the individual coerced. Moreover, when society interferes with purely personal conduct, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong places, as the pages of history and the records of legislation abundantly demonstrate.

Closely connected with the question of the limitations of the authority of society over the individual is the question of government participation in industrial and other enterprises generally undertaken by individuals.

There are three main objections to the interference of the state in such matters. In the first place, the matter may be better managed by individuals than by the government. In the second place, though individuals may not do it so well as government might, yet it is desirable that they should do it, as a means of their own mental education. In the third place, it is undesirable to add to the power of the government. If roads, railways, banks, insurance offices, great joint-stock companies, universities, public charities, municipal corporations and local boards were all in the government service, and if the employees in these looked to the government for promotion, not all the freedom of the Press and the popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name. And, for various reasons, the better qualified the heads and hands of the government officials, the more detrimental would the rule of the government be. Such a government would inevitably degenerate into a pedantocracy monopolising all the occupations which form and cultivate the faculties required for the government of mankind.

To find the best compromise between individuals and the state is one of the most difficult and complicated questions in the art of government. It is, in a great measure, a question of detail, in which many and various considerations must be kept in view and no absolute rule can be laid down. But I believe that the ideal to be kept in view may be conveyed in these words: the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information, and the diffusion of it from the centre.

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