Analysing On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
POLS1300 / by Joy Qin
Humanity’s attempts to study the state of society have stretched back throughout the ages. From forefathers such as Socrates or Aristophanes to the great enlightenment philosophers of Locke or Voltaire, all have grappled with the questions of how humanity best functions as a collective. John Stuart Mill, hailed as a paradigmatic liberal political philosopher, continues this tradition of thought in his work On Liberty published in 1859. Mill’s major argument made is that the individual is sovereign in their actions insofar as they do not impeach upon the rights of others. His justifications centre strongly on the principles of utilitarianism, providing a model he believes to offer the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Through specific analysis it can be seen that he optimizes societal benefit by placing import on individuality but conversely justifying exactly when governance and restraint need to be exercised. Overall, his conclusions are an attempt to unify two competing social factors, individual liberty against circumstances in which power can be exerted over another, articulated in what has become known as the ‘harm principle’.
The first and most fundamental principle Mill holds is outlined in the introductory chapter and describes the necessity for man to be free over “Over himself, over his own body and mind” (Mill, 1859: 31). Individual liberty is not only considered personally fulfilling, but also beneficial to the progress of civilisation for “Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest” (Mill, 1859: 33). It is important to note that Mill does not endorse freedom of expression for its own sake but for the greater purpose of stimulating discourse “His argument for liberty of expression is in fact an argument for liberty of discussion” (Larvor, 2006: 3) To support his claims,...
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