On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

To grant people the personal autonomy they require to truly thrive, governments must restrict their own oversight in punitive and regulatory matters. The distinction between causing harm to oneself and causing harm to others is critical and foundational to society.

Daniel Sanderson
Jan 1, 2019
10 min read

A Critic's Meta Review:

On Liberty (1859) by John Stuart Mill is an influential philosophical treatise that argues societies can be free only when they celebrate diversity and promote individual freedom. Mill believed that conformity is a blight on human happiness, creativity, and social progress. People should be free to express themselves and act in any way they choose, so long as no harm comes to other people.

To grant people the personal autonomy they require to truly thrive, governments must restrict their own oversight in punitive and regulatory matters. The distinction between causing harm to oneself and causing harm to others is critical and foundational to society. It is an egregious overreach for governments to legislate against self-harm, however damaging the behavior in question might be. It’s simply not the place of government to weigh in on how individuals should conduct themselves. Values are a personal matter, and they are subject to change over time. Yet it is human nature to impose one’s values on other people, by law or through informal channels like social stigma. Public opinion is a powerful censor—sometimes more powerful than the hand of the law.

Despite the historical fact that value systems are always in flux, people and especially leaders tend to regard their own personal values as inherently correct, airtight, and permanent. Truth is not absolute, so it’s incumbent upon people—particularly those with power—to remain open to different interpretations of the truth. Other people’s opinions are always helpful in the pursuit of truth, even when those opinions are false. Truth becomes anemic and even meaningless if it is never challenged. With argument, truth grows stronger and more robust, in part because debate clarifies it.

A healthy society should always seek to improve itself, and debate is the natural engine of social progress. But debate can’t happen without diversity of opinion and experience. Therefore, diversity of opinion is inherently good.

The tension in representative democracies derives from the fact that representatives are chosen by a majority, but even a majority is only composed of some, not all, people. The ruling party will have undue influence over laws and social norms that exert control over individuals. Inevitably, some people will have power and others will be disenfranchised. Those in power can never be challenged if the disenfranchised people don’t feel empowered to speak truth to power.

As a result, powerful people have made terrible mistakes that only became clear over time. Great thinkers like Socrates who were out of step with their own time were persecuted by people who were convinced they were acting in the service of truth. It’s easier to spot historical errors such as these than to recognize the possibility that similar errors could occur in the present day. Powerful people aren’t in a good position to interrogate their power because it usually contradicts their own interests. Only outsiders can effectively administer such a critique; therefore, their valuable perspectives must be protected and engaged. Instead, there is a troubling tendency for societies to suppress any challenge to the status quo. This tendency serves no one.

To feel truly free, people need choices and creativity, not customs and laws. This freedom will allow them to create societies that can improve and evolve. Liberty dictates that governments have no right to encode a value system devised by the majority in formal law or informal customs. The government only has the right to respond to actions insofar as they harm others.

Citizens should only be answerable to their governments when they harm other people. Otherwise, individuals should enjoy unrestricted autonomy.

If individuals aren’t free to behave as they wish, the society in which they live can never truly be free. Outside of extreme circumstances in which a person’s actions may harm others, such as attempted murder, individuals should be able to act however they please. Governments must avoid the impulse to legislate rules that make people behave in certain ways. Of course this principle only applies to adults who have all their faculties; children or people who are mentally incapacitated may require special guidance.

Crimes against humanity demand accountability. But any other action, however ill-advised, can and should be permitted. An open question is how much liberty can or should be compromised in the name of preventing crime. This can be a difficult dilemma for governments to navigate. Generally speaking, governments should err on the side of providing information as opposed to imposing restrictions. It’s usually more appropriate for a governing body to respond to a crime than to try to prevent it. A dangerous substance like poison, for instance, should be readily available on the market if it is in any way useful, but the contents should be properly labeled so the consumer can make an informed choice. The warning doesn’t infringe on personal liberty in any way; it’s just information. Advice or instruction can be administered, but people should not be forced, pressured, or coerced. Restricting or policing behavior, including the sale of poison, is an infringement on personal freedom.

Democracies are led by majority decisions. This poses the risk that the party in power will suppress minority viewpoints, or even oppress minorities.

For much of history, tyranny was imposed by governments that ruled by force. Rulers imposed their will upon their people. In such contexts, liberty was a concept that pitted people against their rulers. The relationship of sovereigns to liberty was therefore antagonistic.

As more government models shifted toward representative democracies, people began to regard tyranny as a relic of the past. The antagonism faded. An elected leader who represented the people could not be opposed to those people, particularly following the invention of term limits. Leaders embodied the will of the people, and the people reasoned that they didn’t need to be protected from their own will.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that democracies don’t necessarily represent all people; rather, they represent the majority. This distinction is critical because it creates the potential for a majority leader to exercise power that has only been endorsed by some. Minority parties may not have their views represented in the government at all. For this reason, the government’s power over individuals should be extremely limited; otherwise, it creates a dynamic in which a majority can abuse its power and suppress the views of minority groups. This point is particularly salient with regard to class differences, since a ruling social class will be incentivized to protect its own interests.

In a democracy, tyranny doesn’t necessarily require laws or leaders to enforce its demands from the top down. Social pressure is an informal, but effective, way to protect the status quo. Prevailing attitudes can inhibit individualism, leading to a stifling sense of sameness in the way people think and behave. For example, people might self-censor unpopular opinions even though freedom of speech is protected by law.

No one’s opinions or statements should ever be censored.

A vital requirement of a free society is freedom of expression, which extends to thoughts, writing, and speech. Under no circumstances should any form of expression ever be controlled or punished. Every opinion, regardless of its truthfulness, is ultimately in service of truth.

There are only three possibilities for a given opinion: it is true, false, or partly true. If an opinion is true, it should be shared. But true beliefs are generally suppressed when they are mistakenly regarded as false. Human judgment is fallible, so the truth of a matter is never absolutely fixed. Since there have been many episodes in history in which beliefs that were labeled as false were borne out as true in the fullness of time, it would be foolish to disregard any opinion as false without due consideration. Even when an opinion is deemed false, defenders of truth should always remain open to the possibility that they are wrong.

Even if a belief is false, there is still no reason for it to be suppressed. The truth is always invigorated by robust debate. This helps people on both sides better understand the issues at stake in a disagreement. Without such challenges, truth is slowly drained of its meaning over time. It becomes habit or rote instead of living, meaningful belief.

Partly true opinions are useful because the truth is often nuanced and complicated. Often it’s difficult to see the full truth of a given matter, and as a result, many topics become overly simplified. In such cases, a spectrum of opinions helps build dialogue on polarizing issues. Debate is a powerful learning tool that helps reveal complicated truths. In a democracy, people with disenfranchised opinions can help clarify the issues by challenging the views of the majority party that holds power. Their views are vital to a healthy democracy.

The values and opinions of societies change over time.

While a singular worldview tends to dominate within a given society, as when Christian values predominated in Victorian England, a population’s values are unstable over the long term. Most societies think of themselves as committed to truth, but absolute truth is an ideal, not a realistic goal or fixed endpoint. Eventually the expectations that govern people’s behavior loosen and change, and people collectively move toward a new form of truth.

In How Change Happens (2019), legal scholar Cass Sunstein discusses how such shifts in social values and behaviors occur. Social norms dictate people’s public reactions. But very often, people have private reactions that differ from those public expressions. Sudden societal changes occur when a group of people realize that their private reactions are shared by a larger population of people who feel the same way. Suddenly, it feels safe for such people to express feelings for which they once feared they would be ostracized. Norms that they previously understood to be fixed and indisputable are suddenly called into question.

A curious feature of this cycle is that people who overthrow old norms tend to regard the old norms as relics of a backwards world and the new norms as inherently truthful and even permanent. They might therefore see the new norms they impose as static and universal, when in fact, progress demands constant evolution.

People have a natural tendency to regard their own beliefs as unimpeachable.

Beliefs are often a matter of preference or circumstance, not of fact. But powerful people are rarely in the habit of questioning themselves. Instead, they feel perfectly confident in their beliefs, mistaking strong feeling for certainty and objective truth. They often underestimate the degree to which their beliefs are self-serving.

Psychological research suggests that even when people seek out new information on a given subject, they tend to process data in a way that confirms their existing opinions. The phenomenon is known as confirmation bias, and it can influence the sources one consults, the interpretive lens through which one judges a situation, or even the way in which one retrieves memories. For example, members of a certain political party might be more likely to consume news from partisan sources, to let political bias influence the way they analyze current events, and to forgive or forget the flaws of party leaders more readily than those of their opponents. Confirmation bias is important because it suggests that our own perspectives are limited in ways that are difficult to discern. Other people’s viewpoints are more likely to enrich our perspectives than self-driven research.

Diversity should be celebrated, not discouraged.

It’s important to foster diversity in society. The human experience is filled with incredible variety. For individuals to feel fulfilled and happy, they must be permitted to explore their unique talents and interests. Compulsive conformity, whether it’s enforced through laws or through social norms, stifles individual expression, which is anathema to personal development. A good life consists of multiple paths that are freely chosen.

Another reason that individuality must be nurtured in society is that creativity is a precious resource. This side of the pro-diversity argument is more practical and utilitarian because it emphasizes that what is good for individuals is also good for society at large. Happy individuals are ultimately a boon to humankind. Repressed people, on the other hand, can’t fully contribute to society because their capacity for being productive and creative is compromised by the pressure to conform.

Diversity is inherently good, in part because variety is inspiring. A society filled with people who are all doing the same thing cultivates a stagnant atmosphere in which change is difficult to imagine. Social progress is fueled by a variety of people coming together and bouncing ideas off one another, inspiring novel concepts and unlikely connections.

Conformity is a natural, but deeply unhealthy, phenomenon.

The desire to conform often dictates people’s behavior. People naturally feel pressured to conform to others’ expectations and comport themselves accordingly. This influence, even though it’s not enforced by law or even expressed out loud, is a powerful motivator—and it can be counterproductive and even damaging.

Take the example of a trio of friends riding mountain bikes together. If two of the riders have a lot of experience on the trail, the third rider might feel pressure to keep up with their skill level. Admitting difficulty in that situation has low stakes, because the more experienced riders would likely empathize, slow down, or switch to a different trail. But the third rider, hoping to fit in, might still feel pressured to remain silent. Conforming to the behavior of riders who are more experienced might feel mandatory even though it isn’t—and the pretense might cause a painful accident.

Conformity can also be damaging within businesses and in society at large. For example, in 2015, Volkswagen came under scrutiny for using software in its diesel cars that obscured its cars’ emissions levels. Quite unwittingly, Volkswagen drivers were breaking the law by exceeding emission standards. The company lied to millions of customers. When Volkswagen came under fire, people wondered how no one stepped forward to alert leaders to the problem, especially given that the company employed more than half a million people. The answer was that employees were afraid to speak up in a climate where everyone else was silent. The pressure to conform was ultimately damaging to the company, its customers, and the environment.

Governments should not be paternalistic.

People are fully capable of making their own decisions. Any government, however well intentioned, should not seek to influence people’s physical or moral behavior one way or another. Adults who don’t harm others should never be answerable to a higher power, even though some will inevitably behave in ways that are perverse or self-defeating. People are responsible for their own well being, and their autonomy should be regarded as sacred.

One acceptable means of intervention is to provide information, particularly information that people aren’t likely to possess on their own. Consider the example of a bridge that has been damaged in a storm. A sign that informs users of the damage is helpful because most people would not want to use a damaged bridge. They would likely decide to turn around and take a different route. If, however, individuals choose to ignore the warning and use the bridge, they should not be barred from doing so, even if that course of action is extremely unsafe. Generally, people should be allowed to assess risks for themselves. The only reason a more forceful intervention, such as a physical blockade, should be used is if the bridge is absolutely nonfunctional. Only if a person were certain to come to harm crossing the bridge—if, for instance, a portion of the bridge were missing, making a body of water unpassable—would it be appropriate to close the road.

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