On Liberty

On Liberty
On Liberty  
Author(s) John Stuart Mill
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Philosophy
Publication date 1859
Media type Print

On Liberty (1859) is a philosophical work by British philosopher John Stuart Mill. It was a radical work to the Victorian readers of the time because it supported individuals' moral and economic freedom from the state.

Perhaps the most memorable point made by Mill in this work, and his basis for liberty, is that "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign". Mill is compelled to make this assertion in opposition to what he calls the "tyranny of the majority", wherein through control of etiquette and morality, society is an unelected power that can do horrific things. Mill's work could be considered a reaction to this social control by the majority and his advocacy of individual decision-making over the self. The famous Harm Principle, or the principle of liberty, is also articulated in this work: the state or any other social body has no right to coerce or restrict the individual unless the individual causes harm to others, crucially, the individual's own physical or moral harm is not justification for constriction of their liberty. All branches of liberalism—as well as other political ideologies—consider this to be one of their core principles. However, they often disagree on what exactly constitutes harm.

On Liberty was an enormously influential work; the ideas presented in the book have remained the basis of much liberal political thought ever since. Aside from the popularity of the ideas themselves, the book is quite short and its themes are easily accessible to a non-expert. It has remained in print continuously since its initial publication. To this day, a copy of On Liberty has been passed to the president of the British Liberals, and then Liberal Democrats, as a symbol of office and succession from the party that Mill helped found.



According to Mill's Autobiography, On Liberty was first conceived as a short essay in 1854. As the ideas developed, the essay was expanded, rewritten and "sedulously" corrected by Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor. Mill, after suffering a mental breakdown and eventually meeting and subsequently marrying Harriet, changed many of his beliefs on moral life and women's rights. Mill states that On Liberty "was more directly and literally our joint production than anything else which bears my name." The final draft was almost completed when his wife died suddenly in 1858. Mill suggests that he made no alterations to the text at this point and that one of his first acts after her death was to publish it and to "consecrate it to her memory." Despite Mill's own assertion of her involvement, Robson and Stillinger, authors of Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill: Artist and Scientist, debate the extent to which she influenced his thought.

The composition of this piece was also indebted to the work of the German thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt, especially his essay On the Limits of State Action.



Mill opens his essay with a discussion about the "struggle between authority and liberty" describing the tyranny of government, which, in his view, needs to be controlled by the liberty of the citizens. Without such limit to authority, the government has (or is) a "dangerous weapon". He divides this control of authority into two mechanisms: necessary rights belonging to citizens, and the "establishment of constitutional checks by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power". As such, Mill suggests that mankind will be happy to be ruled "by a master" if his rule is guaranteed against tyranny. Mill speaks in the aforementioned section in terms of monarchy. However, mankind soon developed into democracy where "there was no fear of tyrannizing over self". "This may seem axiomatic", he says, but "the people who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised". Further, this can only be by the majority, and if the majority wish to criminalize a section of society that happens to be a minority — whether a race, gender, faith, or the like — this may easily be done despite any wishes of the minority to the contrary. This, in his terms, is the "tyranny of the majority".

In Mill's view, tyranny of the majority is worse than tyranny of government because it is not limited to a political function. Where one can be protected from a tyrant, it is much harder to be protected "against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling". People will be subject to what society thinks is suitable — and will be fashioned by it. The prevailing opinions within society will be the basis of all rules of conduct within society — thus there can be no safeguard in law against the tyranny of the majority. Mill goes on to prove this as a negative: the majority opinion may not be the correct opinion. The only justification for a person's preference for a particular moral belief is that it is that person's preference. On a particular issue, people will align themselves either for or against this issue; the side of greatest volume will prevail, but is not necessarily correct.

According to Mill, there is only one legitimate reason for the exercise of power over individuals:

"That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

This is the first mention in On Liberty of the harm principle. The only limiting factor of liberty in Mill's view should be harm in the form of either physical or moral compulsion. If a person is thus harmed, then his or her sovereignty over self is impaired because sovereignty is exercised either through action or judgement. Children and those who cannot take care of themselves are allowed to be interfered with beyond the harm principle as they may well harm themselves unintentionally; they do not, and cannot, have sovereignty over self. Furthermore, Mill states that one may accept despotism over "barbarians" if the end result is their betterment; this implies that barbarians are of "nonage" and cannot be sovereign over self. As soon as people are capable of deciding for themselves, they should then be given liberty from authority. To illustrate his point, Mill uses Charlemagne and Akbar the Great as examples of such compassionate dictators who controlled and supposedly helped "barbarians".

At this point, Mill divides human liberty when in private into its components or manifestations:

  • The freedom to think as one wishes, and to feel as one does. This includes the freedom to opinion, and includes the freedom to publish opinions known as the freedom of speech,
  • The freedom to pursue tastes and pursuits, even if they are deemed "immoral," and only so long as they do not cause harm,
  • The "freedom to unite" or meet with others, often known as the freedom of assembly.

Without all of these freedoms, in Mill's view, one cannot be considered to be truly free.


Mill then spends the next several chapters examining these freedoms and their implementation, beginning with the liberty of thought and discussion, moving to individuality, the limits of the authority of society over the individual, and ending with applications.

Connection to Utilitarianism

Mill makes it clear throughout On Liberty that he "regard[s] utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions." This he inherited from his Utilitarian upbringing under his father James Mill, a follower of Jeremy Bentham. Because of this, the specific justifications he gives for each of the freedoms listed above rests not on any form of natural rights but rather on the fact that he believed these freedoms would bring positive consequences for society. Thus, both advocates and critics of Mill's views have argued that he does not take liberty as an absolute standard of value, prizing above it diversity, equality and social progress.

Mill does make an appeal to human nature, which he sees as requiring freedom of action: "To give any fair play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives." Mill's main argument indeed comes from utility, but he appeals to human nature in arguing about the utilitarian consequences of giving or denying freedom.

An early critic of Mill's position in this essay was the lawyer James Fitzjames Stephen who attacked it in his Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873–1874).

Published editions of On Liberty

Online editions of On Liberty

Secondary literature (online texts)

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