On Liberty – Chapter 1 Summary – Introductory


On liberty was first published in 1859. In chapter 1, Mill tackles the following ideas:

  1. that the book is not about freedom of the will as understood by the philosophy of Necessity but about social liberty.
  2. that the struggle between liberty and authority is a very ancient one and has divided mankind since Greece and Rome.
  3. the what was meant by liberty then, was liberty against the oppression and tyranny of the state.
  4. That dealing with despotism went through 2 states: 1) that of securing concepts and recognition of political liberties and rights and 2) the establishment of constitutional checks to control the power of the authority. That the latter was less successful.
  5. That after a while, it was recognized that instead of mitigating the power of a state which was always seen as antagonistic to the people’s interest, it would be better that the power actually reflects the same interests, that the rulers identified with the people, ideas that would lead to the birth of modern democratic ideals.
  6. that this ideal of democracy was not perfect and that axiomatic concepts like “self government” and “power of the people over themselves” don’t reflect the actual state of things because the people who exercise the power are not the same as those over which the power is exercised and that it is not the government of each by himself but each by all the rest.
  7. that one of the major adverse effects of democracy now well recognized is the “tyranny of the majority“. Mill believes this tyranny to be an even stronger form of oppression than political tyranny because “it leaves few means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself”. and so is needed protection against the tyranny of the prevailing opinions which prevents the formation of individuality not in harmony with its ways.
  8. Mills then introduces the need to place a limit on the influence of social control and that a lot remains to be done in terms of practical implementation and rules of conduct.
  9. Mill believes most people don’t think much about the rules according to which they ought to live and instead rely on the customs put in place, as something that is self evident. However Mill admonishes customs and the thinking of one that everybody ought to live the same way as he, that he possesses the right standard of judgement. Mills says that one’s judgement, when not supported by evidence, is but one’s own opinion. That men would not understand other ways of conduct than the one given to them by some religious creed. That in a state of oppressors and oppressed, it is the morality of the oppressors that dominates the general conduct, which only encourages a principle of servility for the preferences of the ruling masters.
  10. People who disagreed with this authority have dealt with it by inquiring into what are good conducts and then endeavoring to convince others into favoring the view they had adopted as heretical. Mill thinks instead they should make common cause in defense of freedom.
  11. That the first ground over which the break with tradition happened was over religious liberties and over the moral right of freedom of consciousness as an indefeasible right.
  12. Mill says there is no recognized principle over which to judge the propriety or impropriety of government interference, with regards to control of individual behavior. He therefore gives the one which is the object of the essay, “one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which making are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant”. He further says, “Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign
  13. Mill believes that this applies to all men or women who have reached the level of maturity in a modern society, not in a barbarian society (where for example, despotism is a better type of government in improving the state of the people). Compulsion is not the right method anymore when people are now able to learn and guide themselves by persuasion and conviction.
  14. Mill also says his principle is not based on an idea of abstract rights that are not based on utility (such as apriori rights or natural rights). That his principle’s utility is seen as benefiting the progressive development of human being. So only if one does harm to another, there is prima facie case for punishing him.
  15. He make a distinction between doing something wrong and preventing a wrong from happening, in the latter case, to be dealt with more cautiously. There are often times good reasons not to hold someone accountable and not involving government because the individual is more likely to know better than the government what to do or because forcing him to do something might actually incur another worse harm.
  16. Mill discuss the domain of human liberty, a sphere of action in which society has only an indirect interest. He says it is comprises of 3 parts: 1) the inward domain of consciousness; demanding “liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects; practical or speculative, scientific moral or theology. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions. 2) The liberty of tastes and pursuit, of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: 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. 3) the liberty within the same limits of combination among individuals, freedom to unite for any purpose not involving harm to other: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age and not force or deceived
  17. Mill continues by saying that even though this doctrine seems a truism, it is the opposite that has been in practice for a long time, where philosophers and societies advocated the control of every part of private conduct. Even today Mill sees the same assault on liberty in modern theories such as Comte’s religion of Humanity which he accuses of being despotic to the individual to a level never before contemplated.
  18. Mill finishes the chapter by warning that the increase in power, particularly of the masses as is happening with the adoption of democracy, will only increase the pressure of society over individual’s liberty, and that a strong barrier of moral conviction must be raised against the mischief that we must expect in the present circumstances


See the Summary of Chapter 3 in the next post in this series:


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