Mill on liberty of action

We talked about Mill’s case for liberty of action. Specifically, individuals should be free to do nearly any self-regarding action, that is, anything that concerns mainly their own lives.

His case for liberty of action emphasizes similar themes as are found in his case for liberty of thought and expression: individuals need to discover things for themselves and society benefits from the innovations of unusual people.

But the case has to be different because actions have more significant effects on others. It’s one thing to let people say whatever they want and another to let them do what they want.

Individual benefits of liberty

Mill is a utilitarian, so he has to show that the extensive individual liberty that he advocates is the best way of promoting utility. He tries to do this by showing that individual liberty benefits individuals and also that it benefits society.

Mill’s first line of arguments for the individual benefits of liberty are pretty much what you would expect. He maintains that individuals will, generally speaking, make choices that make themselves happy. So leaving individuals at liberty to decide what to do is a good way of making them happy. This is probably true but not terribly interesting: anyone could have thought of this so we don’t need Mill’s big brain to make the point.

What I think is most interesting about his case is that most of the arguments cover the possibility that individuals will not make good choices. After all, no one is perfect and we are all subject to well known flaws in our decision making. More importantly, the people Mill is arguing against will typically believe that individuals do not make the correct choices for themselves. Mill side-steps their arguments by maintaining that individual liberty is still superior to the alternatives even if individuals do not choose well.

Why? One kind of argument concerns individual self-development. Mill maintains that individuals learn from their mistakes and they only learn by trying things for themselves. So even if they are bad decision makers, the only way to make them better is to leave them at liberty. (I suppose he was assuming that improved individual decision making is far superior to constant social paternalism. It would be interesting to spell out exactly why that is so.)

On the other side, Mill has many arguments for the conclusion that the alternatives to individual decision making are all worse. Society knows less and cares less about an individual’s life than that individual does. So even if the individual chooses badly, society would be worse. Hence, the individual should be left at liberty.

Social benefits

As a utilitarian, Mill has to show that society ultimately benefits from individual liberty. That is where the greatest number of people are.

One way he could do this is by saying that the cumulative effect of happy individuals is a happy society. The main way he went about it was to say that society can learn from the innovations made by unusual individuals who make discoveries about new, unconventional ways of living.

This is where I can’t help thinking about Mill and Harriet Taylor.

Samuel pointed out a way that an argument could cross from the individual to the social side. Even if individuals make terrible choices, society can learn from their errors. This would apply even to terrible choices that cannot be reversed, like addictions. The individual who decides to try heroin may not benefit from the realization that life as an addict is terrible, but the rest of us might do so. That is unsettling, but undeniably clever.


We ended the class with a short discussion of Mill’s famous claim that individuals should not be free to sell themselves into slavery.

That seems to run afoul of his idea that individuals should be free to do any merely self-regarding act that they choose. It’s my life, after all, why can’t I spend it as a slave if that’s what I want?

I offered an interpretation that would make Mill’s position seem less paradoxical. The idea was that liberty is important for self-development. Someone who sells himself into slavery loses the chance at development and so there is no case for individual liberty to do that.

I’m not sure if this is what Mill had in mind. And I am not sure he could have said it while also maintaining his opposition to interference with merely self-regarding actions. For instance, you could say similar things about decisions to drink too much, use drugs, or spending your time on the worthless pursuits of a couch potato. But Mill wanted to defend individual liberty to do all of those things. So that is why I am unsure about my story about slavery. I offered it to you because it’s the best thing I have to say about what he might have been thinking.

Key concepts

  1. Why individual liberty of action makes individuals better off.
  2. Why individual liberty makes society better off.
  3. Mill’s views about selling oneself into slavery.