Summary And Analysis Of John Stuart Mill’S Essay On Liberty
John Stuart Mill’s essay, On Liberty, outlines the significance of power: who has it, how it’s used, and how it divides us. The salient aspects of this essay play prominent roles in the western world today. By underscoring the relevance of Mill and his words, the challenges of liberty faced today will show their relevance.
Mill introduces his essay by laying the groundwork for the definition of liberty. Traditionally, liberty is understood as “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life, behavior, or political views” (Webster). Mill doesn’t distort that definition, but tweaks it. He states that he will discuss Civil Liberty: “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (p. 5). The power imbalance in Greece, Rome, and England was significant. Tyrannical political rulers had all the power, and liberty was simply the act of protection against this ruler. The people were acting in defense. Referring to the previously mentioned definitions of liberty, one is defined as “the state of being free”. Whereas Mill’s definition is defined as “the natural limits of power”. This distinction is one that Mill makes. It is not about the level of power the ruler has, it is about the perspective of their power. The ruler and the people being ruled should stand on even ground. Instead of having tyrannical power tower over the people with small changes being made to slowly limit the level of power, the ruler should stand with the people, an advocate for them.
This brings up an intriguing distinction, Mill notices. Power appears in a number of different ways. Not only can it be viewed as a ruler and the ruled, but it may have a more personal existence: the majority and the minority. Public opinion, if strong enough, has the power to tyrannize over the unpopular. Mill says that there must be a protection against public opinion and the imposition of society. With that being said, there is an obligation to protect these tyrannized people against the societal pressures of an overwhelming public opinion.
His second chapter in this essay discusses the value of opinion itself. Should anyone be allowed to invalidate one’s opinion? Mill writes, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it” (pg. 19). He goes on to say that all opinions should be valid because they all possess the potential to be true. Limiting one’s thoughts due to public opinion or governmental rule is a disservice to society. Furthermore, Mill writes that by maintaining the importance of one’s opinion lends itself into the importance of debate and objection. If opinions aren’t contradicted, then the true meaning of a definition is lost. Fair and civil debate are cornerstones to the validation of a true opinion.
Carrying over to the third chapter, Mill expresses the distinction between free opinion and free action. One’s opinion, which should always maintain a level of validation, is not equated to one’s actions. When actions interfere with the rights of others, there is an obligation to intervene. However, action in terms of decision making carries an important weight. Decision making, and refusing to conform to the standards of society, upholds one’s individuality. This, according to Mill, is an important pillar of the human experience. There’s an increase in value and excitement when one’s individuality is expressed and shared with others. Following the rules of society is limiting and reels in the potential for new thoughts and ideas to arise. This then limits one’s opportunity to express opinions. Overall, in order to develop and grow as a society, it is imperative to allow and advocate for individual expression.
When actions only affect the person committing the action, no one has the right to interfere. However, if the person is violating the obligations they have to society, intervention is then expected. Mill goes on to give an example about a man who lived extravagantly, and refuses to pay his debt. By failing to pay a debt back to those he is obligated to, there is a need to intervene. When it comes to his decision to live extravagantly, however, that is his right. Self expression and individuality, as mentioned previously, are essential to an ever growing society. Acting on one’s individuality and making decisions is one’s right, but if the actions that one is making interfere and cause harm to others, those actions have a right to be punished.
Finally, chapter five talks about the applications of the argument. There are two principles that Mill enforces again: people are not accountable for actions that only involve themselves, and society can punish those whose actions hurt others. In terms of “hurting others”, Mill is referring more to the actions of committing crimes.
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