Weeks 13-15 January 7 – 26 , 2013
John Stuart Mill: On Liberty & The Subjection of Women
The following are some key terms in Mill's political philosophy: foundationalism,
Mill replies to Kant in his philosophy. He is a heavy supporter of utilitarian morality,
which is a moral theory to replace Kantian ethics. Unlike Kant, Mill believes in the moral
significance of consequences. He recognizes a need to put moral weight on consequences
instead of intent. He uses utilitarian morality to do this: an action is good if it brings about the
most happiness for the most people and smallest amount of human suffering (net utility). The
intentions of actions do not matter.
Mill takes this moral theory and applies it to politics, leading to a liberal democracy.
Note that liberalism goes back to the 17 and 18 centuries (was not invented by Mill) and
also that when philosophical doctrines are applied, they tend to be very loose translations.
Thomas Hobbes sort of started liberalism, but did not endorse a liberal society.
John Locke's liberalism now takes philosophical form.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau justified a somewhat different liberal philosophy.
Immanual Kant believed in a kind of liberal democracy.
John Stuart Mill believed in a new, different liberal democracy.
Each of these philosophers was a foundationalist in epistemology (with regards to
moral and political knowledge). They believed that in order to find a rationale for politics, we
must start with an understanding of human nature. This means to take human beings as they
are and design a political institution around them; not to re-invent human nature, but to make
social relations more free, peaceful, and rational.
Principles of Liberalism
The principles listed here are only core principles to an extent. Liberalism is complex
and has many thoughts and interpretations behind it. As liberalism changes so much
overtime, it is hard to highlight a few core components. Liberalism seems to constantly
change and evolve, always taking a few steps to the left on the political spectrum. For
example, Mill's liberalism is a few steps left of Locke's, and in the 1930's Liberalism took
another few steps left where it remains today. However, Liberalism is not as “left” as socialism
1. State neutrality regarding “the good”/”the good life”.
The State shouldn't actively legislate on moral questions. The people should be
able to decide for themselves what actions are moral. The only time when the
State should take a stand on moral philosophy is when there is a consensus
that an action is morally wrong.
2. State neutrality on religion.
This is based on the idea of separation of Church and States; that political
power should be apart from religion. All humans are rational and equally moral
so they should not be subject to laws based on a religion. The State should not
tell people what to believe.
3. Primacy of humathrights.
This is an 18 century invention; it was not around in the ancient or middle ages. th th
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Every individual possesses rights by nature (or by consensus) and the purpose
of the government is to recognize and protect human rights. The State should
not pursue a political value or expectation if it violates human rights,
4. Separation and balance of powers.
Power always corrupts, so it won't do to have people with “divine rights” (like
Kings). We must rule by consensus. For example, in the United States and
Canada we have 3 branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.
This makes it so that one person does not hold absolute power, instead it is
divided among 3 groups of people. Furthermore, legislative government is
divided into the House of Commons and the Senate to balance out the power of
law making. The executive branch is divided into the Prime Minister and the
Cabinet to balance out the power of executing laws. The judicial branch is
represented by the Supreme court and other courts, which are divided into
judge and jury to balance out the power of applying and interpreting laws in
People are sovereign and power belongs to individual citizens which is invested
by voting, for example. There are also the conditions of majority rule and
6. Rule of Law.
The law rules the people (rather a person or group of people ruling the people)
which means that no one is above the law.
Each human being has the same basic nature meaning we are equally rational
so we have moral and political equality.
8. Public vs Private Sphere.
In the private sphere we have the liberty to act however we want (relatively
autonomous). In the public sphere there is more direct State involvement.
9. Capitalism/Free Market.
We each have property rights that must be protected and freedom in the realm
of economic production and consumption. Commitment to this becomes softer
with Mill and by the 1930's. Here, a need for a welfare State is recognized as
the economy is so subject to depression/recession. A free market leaves people
too highly vulnerable to the highs and lows of economy. Thus, we have a social
safety net, employment insurance, and a welfare State.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was created mainly by Trudeau and
Chretien. It has since been negotiated. It is not purely liberal as it is a lot of ideas (such as
liberal, conservative, feminist, socialist, Marxist, etc.) put together in a compromise.
A just society was envisioned by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. This was
performed using a thought experiment in which human beings are transported back to their
state of nature: a pre-social condition (no institutions like government, church, the economy).
We then ask ourselves: what social contract or government would we agree upon?
Aristotle and Socrates's foundation for philosophical justice came from the philosophy
of human nature. In the liberal's thought experiment, we see this has been recovered, but we
see that human beings are regarded in terms of their individuality and social separateness, th th
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which is very different from the Ancient Greek's conception (remember Socrates would rather
be executed than banished). In ancient times, our essence was our social involvement and
our stance in society. In modern times, our essence is the things that make us unique. In
modern times, we see social involvement as a contingency and a choice, not an essence of
what it means to be human. We see ourselves as stand alone agencies who take part in
society by choice. If it is in our rational self interest, we will take part in society and if not we
A social contract needs to reconcile the ancient idea of sociability and the modern idea
of individual rights. It needs to create a government agreeable to every individual pursuing
with rational self interest.
Hobbes believed that a pre-social environment is human nature. The human nature
theorists listed above (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant) disagreed on what might have been
if human beings were fully rational, free, and in a pre-social state (the results of the thought
Hobbes believed that human nature was constant conflict and warfare. Human beings
are naturally competing and enemies because we all want similar or the same things. We
must fight for these desires because our rationality alone isn't enough (everyone has the
capacity to be rational). So, our state of nature is war, an intolerable thing. Therefore, the
purpose of the government should be to make war impossible. This would require an absolute
sovereign (somewhat like a King).
Locke, Rousseau, and Kant thought that Hobbes exaggerated the conflict aspect of
human nature, but agreed that there is a constant tendency for human relations to deteriorate
to war (but are peaceful in the beginning). So the government, or a social contract, should
force humans to give up their rights to create a government and then submit to it. Rousseau
thought that general will should rule (a liberal democracy). Locke and Kant believed that
individual rights should trump general will.
Locke believed in a limited government that places itself fully in the service of
individuals. He thought that Hobbes' idea of an absolute sovereign was no better than the
current “disease”. Later philosophers (such as Mill) agree with Locke, and agree on liberalism
as a political philosophy.
However, remember that liberalism continues to take steps to the left: Locke's limited
government is now defended by conservatives. The late 19 and early 20 century saw a
“progressive” turn of liberalism from a limited government (centre-left) to the moderate left. In
present day, a philosophy like Mill's would be considered centre-left, rather than left.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) th
Mill was one of the greatest 19 century British philosophers (and great on a world
scale of the era too). He focused mainly on ethics and politics, but contributed some to logic
and the philosophy of science. He was known as a political radical at the time, especially with
the release of his book “Subjection of Women” which supported women's rights. His book “On
Liberty” was published in 1859.
Chapter One (Introduction)
“The subject of this essay is not the so-called liberty of the will ... but civil or social
liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over th th
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the individual” (p.5).
Mill did not accept undemocratic alternatives. Democracy was the only option he would
consider, but he understood that it still had problems. Mill was a supporter of democracy and
human rights, but routinely come into conflict. For example, can a democratic majority do
anything it wants with the rights of the minority or individuals who “lost” or are there limits to
its power? The government can override individual rights (called democratically sanctioned
injustice). For example, Socrates was executed by majority vote. How do we reconcile
majority rule with human rights, when human rights should trump majority rule.
Many of Mill's worries about democracy were taken directly from the Greeks (like the
belief that it is a bad idea to invest power in citizens who may not be knowledgeable or
virtuous; who will misuse their power). However, remember that democracy in Ancient Greece
(direct participatory democracy) and modern representative democracy are quite different.
Nonetheless, Aristotle and Socrates would presumably still disagree with it, especially due to
the habit of the democratic majority to misuse power to oppress the minority.
Majority rule needs a remedy to correct the misuse of power. This is the problem Mill
tries to solve. Democracy literally means rule by the people (the ancient Greek translation =
power/rule + people). Democracy is popular sovereignty.
Mill first tackles a number of false abstractions. The general will is a false abstraction.
Society is just composed of individuals. General means all so 50% + 1 does not make general
will; it just means that the majority wins. “Self-rule” is another false abstraction. There is no
self in society – there is no social whole, just a sum of individuals. Society is not an agent;
individuals are agents and society is simply the sum of individuals. Society itself is an
abstraction since they don't think, act, vote – individuals do. There is no such things as self-
rule, Kant's self-imposed morality, and no such thing as self-government.
In reality, some have power and win, others don't have power and lose. We must focus
on the rights of the “losers” as these people don't make the law, but still have it imposed upon
them. How can we guarantee that majorities won't misuse their power? By identifying the limit
of their power: liberty.
Liberty or human rights is the limit of the majority's power. Human rights trump the laws
of the majority. Mill suggests the harm principle to sketch out the limits of State power. The
harm principle states that the limit on State power is that they must not harm someone by
violating their human rights any more than that person could harm another's (Wikipedia: no
one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not
invasive of the free acts of others). Note that Mill uses the term “harm” to refer only to
violating one's human rights.
Using this principle, Mill rejects the idea of State paternalism: when laws are designed
to protect an individual from oneself (not from others or the State), on the principle of self-
harm. Mill argues that we can't have this because one can not violate their own human rights,
only the rights of others. This is not the proper function of the government. The idea of
paternalism (a parent taking care of their child) is not transferable to the State viewing citizens
as incompetent. The State should not intervene (but friends, family, etc. can).
Mill now responds to the distinction between the public and private spheres. It was
commonly believed in Mill's time that the State should not legislate on matters in the private
sphere, meaning in the home. However, we need legislation on some matters in the home (for
example, domestic abuse). So instead, Mill suggests the distinction between self-regarding
actions and other-regarding actions.
Self-regarding actions are private acts that concern only or primarily oneself. They th th
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don't carry consequences that could harm anyone else. The State has no business legislating
on these acts. Other-regarding actions are acts that seriously concern other people (such as
voting, occupation) and are State-legislatable.
Mill anticipated criticism of his argument and responded to it in his book. The criticism
is that there are no such things as self-regarding actions. For example, we may think that
listening to music alone on our drive to work is a self-regarding action, but there are others
involved such as the artist, writer, publisher, and whether or not you bought the music or
came by it illegally. Another example would be which religion we subscribe to. We may think
that our personal religious belief is a self-regarding action. But we tend to teach these beliefs
to our children and in that case it regards others. With Mill's self-regarding / other-regarding
actions distinction, there is really no limit to State power as there appears to be no real
examples of self-regarding actions.
Mill responds by elaborating on what he means by self-regarding actions. They are
acts that directly, vitally, and significantly concern oneself, alone. If others are interested or
affected, it is trivial, indirect, and overall doesn't matter. It is perfectly within one's rights to tell
another that these acts are none of their business. This distinction is ambiguous, but it is very
important in order to draw the limit on State power.
There are many political values such as liberty, protection from attack, democracy, etc.
but liberty must come first. In Ancient Greece, Socrates and Aristotle thought that it was more
important that people act in a just way than it is that they have the freedom to pursue their
own happiness. On page 15, Mill states that “it is proper to state that I forgo any advantage
which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent
of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in
the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”
By abstract rights he means any theory of justice that is removed from everyday
observations of human nature. An example is Socrates's theory of the good life. Mill also
refutes the thought experiments of human being's theoretical state of nature in order to create
a social contract. Abstract, theoretical thought experiments are of no use, especially when we
can observe human nature as is.
Mill's conception of human nature is based on utility. This means that Mill must use
utility in all aspects of philosophy relating to human nature (ex. politics, ethics, etc.). Due to
his belief in the primacy of human rights, he must prove that human rights serve the common
good (utility) better than any alternative.
Mill turns now to the idea of individual freedom as special and important. This is not a
new idea, and by Mill's time it has mostly been agreed upon, so why does Mill have to remind
his readers of it? Mill explains this need in that people and institutions act against liberty in
small ways, but often so that they add up. This is because belief in liberty has become a
truism – a truth we take for granted and forget to carry into our material world and lives.
Instead, other issues come to the forefront and individual liberty is lost, taken for granted.
Mill also in concerned with social conformity. The ways people act and laws that are
created is going awth frth individual liberty and towards social conformity. Mill worries that
society (in the 19 /20 centuries – and probably even more so in our society today) is a highly
conformist one. The doctrine of liberty is often confessed, but it is commonly undermined by
Chapter 2 (Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion)
In this chapter, Mill presents the heart of his argument. Note that this is the longest and th th
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most significant chapter of the book. Mill clearly is very focused and concerned with the liberty
of thought and ideas in particular.
Mill focuses on the freedom of thought, the mind, the conscience. He cares so much
about freedom in the realm of ideas instead of outward actions because we won't have a free
society if individual minds are not free.
We expect the government to not tell people which beliefs to hold unless the
government and the majority hold the same view and so combine to force the minority to
coerce to their beliefs. Mill believes that the government should not concern itself with the
beliefs of the people, even ones that, if acted upon, would be dangerous. For example, in the
cold war a Western government may have censored communist thoughts and legislated
against communist sympathizers – even if they had not acted upon it. The government should
not have the right to legislate in an effort to change someone's mind.
This is because we can not know a false idea from a true one. Members of Parliament
and/or the majority do not know any more about what is true or the state of justice than any
other citizen does. Mill says on page 22 that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of
infallibility.” But politicians are just as fallible as the rest of us and public opinion is highly
Furthermore, novel ideas always arise as a minority view held by either one individual
or a very small group of individuals. The majority / public opinion is typically against these
new ideas at the beginning. It takes a lot of time for them to become widely accepted as true.
For example, Darwin's theory of evolution began as a widely refuted, doubted idea and has
over time become common knowledge.
However, we should not attempt to protect new ideas from criticism. By withstanding
the process of criticism and opposition through providing evidence and support for an idea,
we come to understand an idea as true. We should immerse new, minority ideas in criticism
because it helps to refine them and explain why they should be accepted as true.
We also don't know what's true forever. Ideas rise and fall. They rise through the
process of criticism until they become the majority view. They fall when newer ideas form and
begin to rise to replace them. No good comes from censoring ideas since we never know if an
idea is right or wrong and can be convinced otherwise. The only good comes from inviting the
minority to tell us more about their idea, then support their idea when we criticize it, and
observe how it stands up to criticism to decide if it is true or false.
We also can't assume that ideas will be known to be false (before a hearing, etc.). We
also can't assume that because the majority or presenter of an idea is confident in it, it must
be true. Also, true ideas are just as suppressed as false ideas. We can't assume that what
passes for knowledge and truth now will pass for knowledge and truth in the future. We may
very well be radically and fundamentally wrong in our view of the world. These are all reasons
why the State must be as open as possible on freedom of opinion.
Consider religious heresy: any departure from the conventional, established religious
doctrine. It is an ancient phenomenon that still carries into the modern day. Heretic ideas have
been suppressed throughout time. Any attempt to suppress religious heresy violates the
heretic's freedom of mind, but it also harms the suppressor. Both the suppressor and
suppressed become overly conventional in their thinking and afraid to think in novel ways for
fear of persecution. People become afraid to think and their minds go stale. On page 39, Mill
says: “no one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first
duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the
errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself than by the true opinions th th
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of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.”
Mill also thinks that what matters most is the manner in which we hold our beliefs. The
human mind is more finite than we often think and we must take our intellectual limits
seriously. So, we must negate any intellectual dogmatism. Self-certainty in our beliefs is
always unjustified, and we need to question and criticize ideas. Truths have a way of
becoming dead dogma – an idea we all salute and claim to believe but doesn't translate into
our actions. This happens when the mind is closed. This self-certainty is the attitude that is
held by most people most of the time. If we have a conviction of something we don't question
or criticize it ourselves or welcome others to do so. But our ideas must be challenged by new
Consider ideas we consider to be true. What characterizes these ideas is that they
tend to represent only part of the truth. When we are investigating the truth we takes parts of
each of these partial truths and combine them in a new way to form a new partial truth. As
these “truths” can always be recombined and reformed into new “truths”, we should never be
self-certain in our beliefs.
In conclusion, Mill believes that “if the teacher of mankind are to be cognizant of all that
they ought to know, everything must be free to be written and published without constraint.”
However, we must keep in mind that there are limits to the freedom of thought,
expression, and ideas which again is the harm principle. But very few thoughts, expressions,
or ideas are harmful in the sense Mill means it (violate human rights). Examples of harmful
ideas are slander or shouting fire in a crowded theatre. One might include hate speech as one
of these harmful expressions. When justifying a restricting law, one must prove that it's for the
Chapter 3 (Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being)
Mill has established the freedom of thoughts, expression, ideas, but what about the
freedom of action? It won't do for the State to treat rational beings as irrational, so long as the
rational being will not harm anyone. A rational being has almost unlimited freedom of
expression, but the freedom of action can't be as unlimited. However, we do have individual
freedom to pursue our own idea of happiness, so long as it abides by the harm principle.
Within that limit, we can do as we will because utility is optimized.
The common good it optimized by people pursuing their own happiness. There is no
fundamental, basic conflict between the pursuit of the common good and that of personal
happiness (the two usually – but not always – coincide). The pursuit of happiness is
necessary for the common good because utility requires that individuals be happy. The
common good does not require conformity or that we submit to society. Conformity is
conducive to the common good because the common good is made possible by the individual
freedom to pursue happiness. The common good is when differences of values and such are
The good life is one that uses independent mind, action, and so on. Mill says on page
68 that “It does not occur to them to have any inclination except for what is customary. Thus,
the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the
first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly
done; peculiarity of ta