Charles Petzold

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”

February 26, 2009
New York, N.Y.

In 1867, the British Parliament debated what was to become one of the most important bills of the 19th century: the Representation of the People Act 1867 (more commonly known as the Second Reform Act), which effectively doubled the number of Englishmen who were allowed to vote. On May 20th of that year, the well-known philosopher and writer John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), Member of Parliament for Westminster, celebrated his 61st birthday by introducing an amendment to change the word "man" in the bill to "person."

It was the first time a measure had been introduced in Parliament that would give women the right to vote. Mill defended this change using arguments from a book he had already written but not yet published entitled The Subjection of Women, as well as introducing some humor regarding the assumption that women have no experience in politics and economics:

Mill's amendment received 73 votes, but it did not pass. The women of England would not be allowed to vote on equal terms with men until 1928.

John Stuart Mill took a lot of flak for supporting women's rights in that long-ago era. The satirical magazines referred to him as the "women's member" of Parliament, and cartoons showed him wearing a dress. Mill's support of women's suffrage was perhaps the major issue contributing to his loss in the election in 1868, limiting his stint in Parliament to just three years. (It also didn't help that he contributed money to the campaign of radical atheist Charles Bradlaugh.)

The tendency of John Stuart Mill to be much ahead of his time came at a young age. Many years earlier, while walking through St. James's Park, he had discovered an abandoned and dead newborn. His response was to recruit a friend to help him distribute pamphlets about contraception to working-class families in London, and he was arrested for the promotion of obscenity. The year was 1823 and Mill was 17 years old.

During his years in Parliament, John Stuart Mill was considered to be a political radical. Nowadays his politics seem fairly mainstream in the Western world — who today would argue that women shouldn't be allowed to vote? — and even sometimes horrifyingly reactionary (his support of capital punishment, for example).

John Stuart Mill's most significant contribution to our culture goes much deeper than specific political issues. He was also responsible for developing a particular flavor of the philosophy of Utilitarianism that has become very influential, even if we don't quite acknowlege it.

In a very literal sense, Mill was raised in Utilitarianism. His father was good friends with Jeremy Bentham, and applied Utilitarian concepts to Mill's childhood education, famously recounted in Mill's Autobiography (1873). In Jeremy Bentham's formulation, Utilitarianism (basically, good is that which provides the overall greatest happiness) was rather crude, cold, easy to parody (Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens' Hard Times) and downright scary in its implications. (Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is a society founded on sound Benthamite principles.) John Stuart Mill knew the problems with Utilitarianism first hand: His Utilitarian education — and the mental collapse, despair, and depression that followed — nearly killed him.

Mill essentially rescued Utilitarianism by replacing the vague and slippery idea of "happiness" with a more modern concept of self-fulfillment. As he emerged from his depression, "I, for the first time, gave its proper place, among the prime necessities of human well-being, to the internal culture of the individual." (Autobiography, ch. 5) In Mill's Utilitarian universe, it is better to be smart, self-knowing, and not altogether happy rather than stupid, doped-up, and therefore blissful. Self-fulfillment, in Mill's view, is an on-going developmental process of personal growth and education that is unique to each individual.

John Stuart Mill's reformulation of Utilitarianism seems very much to be the implicit philosophy that currently guides many Western civilizations in balancing the needs of the many members of their populations. Even without much thinking about it, we feel that the best arrangement of society is that which allows people to become educated and cultured to explore their own individualistic paths. Whether we acknowledge it or not, Mill's philosophy is the one that dominates our culture. John Stuart Mill, c'est nous.

John Stuart Mill's most enduring book, On Liberty, was published 150 years ago this month, in February 1859. (I have not been able to determine the exact day of publication.) It joins several other 1859 books in making that a pivotal year in the transition of Western society from a religious orientation to a secular one.

On Liberty is a very short book, readily available in annotated Penguin and Oxford World's Classics editions, as well as several on-line versions, and there's really no excuse for never having read it. (I have not been able to find a first edition on Google Book Search but here's a rather marked-up second edition published later in 1859, just 207 pages with generous line spacing. It is well known that Mill made no changes to On Liberty in its various editions.)

The book itself is not quite what you might expect. You probably imagine a spirited defense of the freedoms of speech, press, and religion. But the book really begins with the assumption that we are at last free of government control in these areas. The second of the book's five chapters begins "The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necesary of the 'liberty of the press' as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical governments."

Mill is in favor of liberty of a much less socially acceptable variety. On Liberty is really an advocacy of extreme individuality, even eccentricity. The book warns of the dangers of conformance to societal norms and pressures, and the "tyranny of the majority."

To counter this tendency, people should be allowed and encouraged to practice liberty "without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong." (ch. 1)

Mill is an advocate of free speech, obviously, but interestingly enough, not so much because people have "natural rights" to express their opinions. Mill advocates free speech from a Utilitarian perspective: The suppression of speech is actually dangerous to society. Without hearing contrary views, we never question our assumptions. Dissenting opinons are valuable to a society regardless whether they're right or wrong. "If the opinion is right, they [society] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." (ch. 2)

It is in Chapter 3, "On Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being," that Mill reveals the revolutionary nature of his book by extending the concept of free expression to individuals themselves:

There is, of course, much societal pressure not to engage in any "experiments of living" but to conform to pre-established modes. This, to Mill, does not guarantee personal growth: "Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develope itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing." (ch. 3)

Again, however, it is not just the individual that benefits from this unique individual growth, but society at large:

While it's important for individuals to challenge societal norms of behavior and conduct, sometimes these norms have also been written into law, and it is in Chapter 4 ("Of the Limits to the Authority of Society") that Mill examines legal regulation of what we now term "victimless crimes." Mill realizes that the urge to prevent people from harming themselves is a strong one, and "that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities." (ch. 4) Yet it must be resisted.

Among the victimless crimes that Mill specifically mentions are drunkenness (although he clearly acknowledges that some occupations should not allow drunken workers), working on the Sabbath (even though abstaining from work one day a week "is a highly beneficial custom"), gambling, and "fornication" (by which I'm pretty sure he's referring to prostitution). What people do to themselves or by themselves is none of society's business.

Mill's arguments in On Liberty were influenced somewhat by Wilhelm von Humboldt's Sphere and Duties of Government, first published in an English translation in 1854. Mill uses a quotation from the book as an epigraph to On Liberty and paraphrases von Humboldt's observations about the contract of marriage: "[Marriage,] having the peculiarity that its objects are frustrated unless the feelings of both parties are in harmony with it, should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it." (ch. 5)

Mill, however, does not go quite this far. He believes that divorce should be somewhat harder because the marriage might affect others besides the two married people. The difficulty of divorce in Victorian England was an issue very close to Mill: For about 20 years, John Stuart Mill and a married woman, Harriet Taylor, were in love with each other, and they were only able to marry after her husband died. They had seven years of married life together (accompanied by ill health) before she died. Mill considered many of his later works, such as On Liberty and The Subjection of Women to have been collaborations with Harriet Taylor, and On Liberty is dedicated to her.

The Subjection of Women would not be published until 1869, but Mill's feminism is on full view in On Liberty as well:

One of the most interesting passages in On Liberty tackles a still volatile topic: plural marriage as practiced by Mormons. Mill makes it clear that the current concept of marriage "far from being in any way countenanced by the principle of liberty, it is a direct infraction of that principle, being a mere rivetting of the chains of one-half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them." But given the existence of unequal marriage between two people, Mill can't see any problem extending the institution to more than two:

Mill also takes a radical view of the interests of society over parents in the care of children. He is rather against uniform State education (being "a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another") but very much in favor of compulsory education. For the child's (and society's) benefit, he wants to coerce parents into providing that education along with other care.

Despite Mill's bow towards the parents in this passage, he seems to have a decided leaning towards children's rights, and it would have been interesting to hear him expound on some more modern issues regarding the relative rights of children and parents.

The provocative nature of On Liberty has kept the book controversial for the past 150 years. The text remains unnerving to those who believe that government has a role to play in enforcing morals, including what goes on in private between consenting adults. (It is worthwhile remembering that the Lawrence vs. Texas decision is only six years old, and affected laws in 14 states.) Because Mill's ideas arise from a Utilitarian-based morality, On Liberty is particularly abhorent to those who believe that morality comes from an external source, e.g., a Supreme Being. At the extreme fringe are those who wish a return to Biblical Law, including the half dozen thought-crimes that form a majority of the Ten Commandments.

On Liberty didn't quite make the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries conducted by Human Events magazine, "Headquarters of the Conservative Underground," but it did get an honorable mention. On the other hand, conservatives of a more Libertarian bent sometimes find a kindred spirit in Mill. Liberals more prominently claim Mill for their side, although the big parternalistic "welfare state" governments common in the Western world are quite foreign to his more laissez-faire politics. In her introduction to an older Penguin edition of On Liberty, Gertrude Himmelfarb refers to this contradiction as a "schizophrenic" split of liberalism. (p. 47)

Everyone agrees that it's necessary to maintain a proper balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of society, but setting the fulcrum for this balance remains extremely devisive. The culture wars — abortion, gay marriage, drugs, pornography, guns — are all fought on the battlefield of On Liberty, and the book remains a bold assertion of the primacy of the individual over authority — whether that authority be religious, political, or even the collective coercion of others.