On Liberty by John Stuart Mill: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:03 Freedom and Authority
  • 0:51 John Stuart Mill - Background
  • 1:48 Summary of ''On Liberty''
  • 3:59 Analysis
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

John Stuart Mill's 1859 book 'On Liberty' is considered one of the most important works of political philosophy ever written. In it, Mill expounds on his theories of utilitarianism and individual freedom. In this lesson, we will summarize and analyze the book.

Freedom and Authority

How should a government guarantee the safety and well-being of its citizens while also protecting their individual freedom? This has been one of the central questions at the heart of political philosophy, the branch of philosophy that focuses on government, for quite some time. One of the most important political philosophers of all time is John Stuart Mill, and his most popular work is his 1859 book On Liberty.

In On Liberty Mill applies his philosophical system of utilitarianism, actions based on their consequences, to the government and argues that a government's primary goal should be protecting its citizens' individual liberty. It was widely read at the time, and in the century and a half since it was published, it has proven to be one of the most influential books of political philosophy of all time.

John Stuart Mill - Background

John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806. He was given a rigorous education by his father, a political philosopher himself and a friend and follower of Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and social reformer, said to be the founder of utilitarianism. Mill's father deliberately set out to create a genius who could carry on Bentham's philosophy of utilitarianism. Mill spent his career as an administrator for the British East India Company, the company charged with ruling the colony of India, and later as a university administrator, while constantly studying and writing about utilitarianism and other philosophical subjects.

Utilitarianism, the philosophical movement started by Bentham, is a theory of ethics that argues that the most moral action in any given situation is the one that maximizes utility. Utility has been defined in various ways, but Benthem generally defined it as 'aggregate pleasure:' whatever brings the most pleasure to the most amount of people.

Summary of On Liberty

Benthem's philosophy of utilitarianism had generally focused on individual actions, but in On Liberty, Mill takes a different direction and applies the concept to actions of the government and creates rules governments should follow to create the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest amount of people. And for Mill, the greatest way to ensure pleasure was to protect individual liberty, arguing that people should generally be free to do what they choose, so long as it does not harm anyone else.

With these ideas in mind, he lays out three basic liberties:

  1. The freedom of thought and emotion
  2. The freedom to pursue tastes
  3. The freedom to unite

Of these three, Mill clearly thought the first was most important, so he spends the greatest amount of time on it. Basically, he argues for a freedom of speech: the ability to give voice to any thoughts or emotions no matter how unpopular. He argues that this freedom is most important not just for the individual but for society. Why? Because an unpopular opinion may end up being the correct one.

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Additional Activities

Group Discussion for On Liberty by John Stuart Mill:

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty is focused on government's protection of individual liberty, especially in economic affairs. Is there an inherent tension between individual liberty and social equality? How do you think Mill might respond to that question? Do you agree with Mill that protecting individual liberty is the primary role of government? Why or why not? Can you think of a situation in which a government's action might curtail individual liberty but promote the best interest of the community as a whole?

Writing Prompt for On Liberty by John Stuart Mill:

Imagine you are a government official in a nation that does not promote individual liberty, but instead government power and communal living. You have heard that John Stuart Mill's On Liberty has become very popular on college campuses throughout the nation. Write a review of the book focused on Mill's key themes, arguing against his utilitarian view of government and individual rights.

Additional Questions to Consider:

  • How did Jeremy Bentham define utility? How did John Stuart Mill apply Bentham's original philosophy?
  • Pure democracy is rule by the majority. Do you think Mill would advocate for such a democracy? Why or why not?
  • Although freedom of religion is not an explicit focus for Mill, do you think it fits into one of his three categories? Which, and why?

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