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From On Liberty by J.S. Mill

July 8th, 2020
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Mill’s work On Liberty explains the aspects of freedom of ideas expression. It is a presentation of philosophical arguments that people in the minority side (the ruled) must be at liberty to express their ideas and opinions, even if they are divergent from the popular belief or are opposing those of the rulers. The arguments are based on a background of colonialism and dictatorship and represent the view that the ruled have rights. Mills successfully brings this out in his argument.

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The Argument

John S. Mill’s writings are based on the concept that liberty is necessary in ensuring there is a progress for both the individual and the society. The state of progress is attainable in a form of democracy that is representative and where there are no differences between those in power and those who are ruled. It is the kind of democracy that is transparent and the rulers truly represent the desires of the ruled. However, to envision this is a problem even to Mills, reducing the oppression of the poor by the powerful majority is a challenge (Mill 13).

In the book, Mill addresses the liberty issue using several perspectives. First, he states that in a society that upholds liberty, denial of freedom to express one’s feelings and opposing views is illegitimate. According to him, all individuals must be allowed to voice and express their viewpoint even when they are absolutely different or wrong. Silencing any opinion is morally wrong. Secondly, although the people may be allowed to hold and express unpopular views, acting on these views has to be controlled by the society. Mill claims that actions are not as free as ideas. The society must limit the actions whose implementations are harmful.

The third perspective of Mill’s argument is that although the society is perceived as an entity that offers protection to individuals, being a part of it should not be in a form of contract. For anyone to acquire this protection, they are obligated to limit their individual liberty to avoid harming others (Mill 19). The concept of society offers limits to individual liberty which leads to the other perspective that an individual is not accountable to the society for the actions that involve only him or her. The accountability of an individual starts from those actions that harm others and for these, the society is obligated to control and punish.

From these premises, Mill concludes that for there to be a progress of individuals and the community, liberty is necessary. Individuals are at liberty to have divergent ideas, but the society has to control their actions to ensure that there is no harm to others. However, if the actions only involve the particular individual, no accountability to the society is placed on the individual.

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The inductive component that Mill brings out clearly throughout the text is liberty and its importance. It has been brought out strongly in the contexts of colonialism and dictatorship. The fact that the views of the ruled may differ from those of the rulers does not mean they are curtailed. Everybody must be allowed to express their individual viewpoints which is inductive because it is strongly agreeable as a moral and legitimate way of society (Pospesel 35).

The deductive component in the book is harm. It has been brought up strongly as a product of the liberty wrong use by the individuals. Such component explains when the individual liberty may be curtailed or limited which is deductive because it pushes us into a search for deeper truth and reasoning about harm and what can produce it. We are forced to follow the concept of liberty from the opinion to the action to identify instances that can result into harm (Hamburger 114).

The Counterargument

The counterargument for this will be that unchecked liberty is an enemy to progress. Mill’s argument is that liberty is a necessity for progress and his perspective only provides a control for the extent of freedom at the level of action. In such counterargument, the limitation of an individual’s level of freedom must be ensured right from the generation of ideas through to the implementation or acting out of those ideas. The premises for this are that there is no action that is not born from an idea. An idea develops into an individual and grows to become an action. When people therefore are limitlessly allowed to express their ideas as bad as they may be, controlling their actions is difficult. An individual will first express an idea in fear, once it is allowed, he gains strength and is able to influence even a larger group and the action from such an idea if negative becomes more harmful. For instance, if an individual contemplates mass murder and as a result expresses his opinion and thoughts, according to Mill, he should be allowed to talk about it as long as he does not act it out (Howland 54). However, I find it illogical to allow such opinions because when allowed, he may get like minds and plan their actions with no opposition, in the name of freedom of opinions. By the time we think of limiting, a harmful action will have taken place.

Mill accordingly mentions that there are actions to which an individual is not accountable, actions involving only them. It is, however, disputable because in a society there is no action that involves one person. Even the simplest of the actions that appear to be self-directed such as suicide have a harmful implication on the society. There is therefore nothing in existence as actions against self. An action, such as suicide, affects the whole society and has an impact on every aspect of life of those left. My argument is that all actions have to be controlled by the society since none really affect a single person. From such premises, it is possible to make a conclusion that liberty has to be scrutinized and checked at every level of its manifestation, right from the opinions and ideas to the action itself. Further, all actions affect the whole society and no individual can be immune of accountability for any action.


Although I strongly agree with Mill on the rule of liberty and the deductive component of harm, I fail to understand his concept of actions directed at self and the aspect of freedom of opinions. If Mill’s notion of opinions and ideas was more elaborate to indicate only the positive, then the counterargument would be weak. However, the generalization evident in the premises that he presents strengthens the counterargument which would, however, be invalid if there were actions that a person would do solely directed at self and have no impact onto the society. But as long as a man is a social being, none of his actions have such a narrow aspect as to affect only self.

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