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John Stuart Mill: Liberty and Rights

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Note: Something quite uncharacteristic of me and not my usual content–A paper written for Philosophy 2001. Sorry folks!

Like philosophers before him, John Stuart Mill struggled with the standards by which society should judge what is “moral” and what is “right” or just. He believed something that is “moral” must be so because it is inherently good, independent of any divine approval. By doing so, morality’s purpose becomes a mechanism for creating an ideal society.

And it is under these premises John Stuart Mill designed his theory of utilitarianism, which formed the basis for his standards of liberty. Mill believed that if everyone had true freedom, society would be better off if we embraced the power of individualism and dissidence.

The Mills Definition of Liberty

JS MIll - On Liberty

To define the limits and standards of liberty, Mill had to define modern liberty. Previously, Mill explained that liberty was “freedom from a tyrannical ruler.” However, early in the first chapter of On Liberty, he noted that people wanted leaders to be servants of the people. However, he recognized that people with power would exercise that power over others if given the opportunity. This included the majority.

Mill saw that, without challenge, the majority could become the tyrant, and public opinion could infringe far more on individual liberty than any absolute ruler. For Mill, the struggle between the individual and society was the cause of conflict rather than resources. Therefore, defining liberty limited the power of the public to protect the individual from the oppressive majority since society often confused the strength or prevalence of a belief with its correctness.

Mill believed the only time society should ever be allowed to impose on an individual’s rights or belief are when it protects society as a whole–something being “for your own good” or to defend yourself wasn’t a good enough reason. In modern terms, Mill was attempting to justify the belief that people have a right to be stupid and do the wrong thing so long as they aren’t harming anyone but themselves. “…[O]ver his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” If society went against this, it was coercive.

The Importance of Dissent

Central to Mill’s definition of liberty and the limits with which individuals and societies must operate was the importance of dissent and nonconformity. The reasons for this are simple: Mill’s liberty of opinion is based on the idea that the dissenting opinion may be correct. After all, just because an idea is prominent doesn’t mean it’s correct.

Mill argues that society benefits even if the nonconforming opinion is wrong because societies can question its opinion by questioning the dissenter. They can strengthen their belief in that opinion because it withstood the test of being challenged.

While somewhat radical, Mill’s view of dissent and nonconformity isn’t all that rare in more modern times. Famed social theorist Emile Durkheim believed crime is a vital social function in a healthy society. Essentially, his theory is that you can’t have rules or decide that something is a crime if it has never happened before. Laws, morals, and other social constructs are formed, adjusted, and refined as we are faced with things we don’t like or disagree with. It challenges our view of right and wrong. It allows us to draw a line in the sand in a place where we are comfortable.

Emile Durkheim and his work on dissent and crime in society.

“There is no society known where a more or less developed criminality is not found under different forms. No people exist whose morality is not daily infringed upon. We must, therefore, call crime necessary and declare that it cannot be non-existent, that the fundamental conditions of social organization, as they are understood, logically imply it.”

Durkheim, 1897

The second reason behind the importance of dissent lies in the liberty of action–Should people be able to act on their opinions without societal repercussions. Mill believed that, while action required stronger limitations than the liberty of opinion, liberty of action was still a vital component of a healthy society. His reasoning was much the same as it was for the liberty of opinion: the majority could be wrong, and expressing individuality strengthens society.

Respecting an individual’s right to act forces society to strengthen its foundational beliefs, bond its members together, and avoid societal stagnation. Lastly, just because something isn’t a widely accepted opinion or action doesn’t mean it has no use. Individuals are unique and have unique needs. Therefore, society may harm an individual by denying him or her the ability and opportunity to operate in a way that benefits them without harming others.

The Limits of Individuality

Almost as interesting as Mill’s definition of liberty and the need for dissent is his definition of the constraints placed on these rights. For Mill, individuals owed society a certain level of decorum and civility in exchange for the protection and benefits of living within a society. Individuals had a duty to defend society and individuals from harm.

However, Mill defined a distinct difference between society and its laws: An individual could be punished by society for an unpopular opinion, for example, but not punished by law. This gave society precedence over individuals in situations where someone’s actions may harm someone else or society as a whole. Mill believed that it was wrong to make someone feel bad or treat them poorly merely for having an opinion that harms only the dissenting individual.

Criticisms of Mill

Perhaps the most prominent criticism of Mill’s view of liberty today is his definition of whom that includes. Immediately in the first chapter, Mill notes that liberty doesn’t apply to minors or “backward” societies. In his case, Black individuals, women, or societies that fail to meet the western European definition of “civilized” would all be refused liberty. Mill posits that liberty could only be granted to those capable of holding a conversation and arguing. Otherwise, society must take care of them. So, doesn’t this harm society as a whole since it could achieve much more with all members included and granted liberty?

Mill’s work was also based on Victorian values. This means “good” citizens are those who worked hard, were thrifty, and behaved respectably. And who judges those traits? In today’s world (as it was in Mill’s time), it was society’s affluent, white segments. The poorly educated surely wouldn’t meet their expectations when discussing opinions, values, and morals.

Another popular criticism of Mill’s On Liberty is the author’s failure to clearly define what harms an individual versus what constitutes harm to general society. He did state that if you harm someone indirectly, you should be held legally liable. For example, Mill explored a scenario where, if an individual fails to save someone’s life, he or she is indirectly harming the victim at risk. But the problem with this view can be explained by examining suicide.

Technically, by committing suicide, the only person harmed is the one who died. However, doesn’t the family suffer? The community suffers the loss of the individual and any future productivity (or dissenting opinions), as well as any future benefits that individual might have bestowed on society.

We should also consider the classic Sheriff Scenario. In this situation, we can pretend that a sheriff is holding a man in custody. The incarcerated man is innocent of the charges he is accused of, but the angry mob outside doesn’t care. They demand the right to lynch him. In this situation, the sheriff will harm the individual in custody or society by denying them their need for justice and satisfaction. Failing to allow the mob to lynch the incarcerated individual could destabilize the community and lead to a mass killing. In this scenario, someone will be harmed. Whose rights and needs take precedence?


While there is no denying that John Stuart Mill’s theory of liberty and its limitations have issues, it forms the foundation of many people’s beliefs today. Some of the most famous examples include John Locke, Leo Tolstoy, and Robert Nozick. And we see these ideals play out repeatedly in today’s society–everything from seatbelts and drunk driving to masks and economics include a libertarian and highly individualistic view of laws and the limits of society. However, the argument of where to draw that line has shifted. Instead of arguing what does and doesn’t constitute harm to society or an individual, individuals today seem to have forgotten that limitation altogether. And the repercussions are devastating.

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Emile Durkheim – verapatricia_28

John Stuart Mill – Martin Beek