Mill’s Libertarianism

We talked about Mill’s case for thinking that 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 when 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. However Mill’s frequent claims that the mass of society is strongly conformist suggests that few people will actually make much use of their liberty: they will stick to conventional values just as strictly as they would have done if they were compelled to do so.

As Will P. pointed out, the chief social benefit of individual liberty comes from the rare eccentric geniuses who will use their liberty to discover new ways of living. These discoveries, in turn, can spread throughout the rest of society, making everyone better off.

The Harm Principle

The Harm Principle maintains that society is permitted to restrict individual liberty only to prevent harm to others.

The most natural understanding of “harm” is an action that makes someone worse off than they would have been without the action. But this is evidently not what Mill has in mind. He says that individuals can be compelled to help others by testifying in legal cases, providing aid in emergencies (1.11), or making contributions to public goods (4.3). He also says that individuals can be prevented from doing things they do not want to do (such as cross a broken bridge) (5.5) and that the government can refuse to enforce contracts that are inconsistent with liberty, even if they are freely entered (5.11).

The beginning of chapter 4 makes it clear that Mill defines “harm” as a violation of an individual’s rights. As Audrey noted, that pushes the question back to what rights we have. I think Mill has to choose between two options:

  1. A list of rights drawn roughly from common sense, kind of like the one Locke uses.

  2. A list of rights derived from utilitarianism, as Mill suggests in chapter 5 of Utilitarianism.

I think he is rhetorically suggesting the first while actually relying on the second.


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 don’t mean to be flip. I could agree to an onerous labor agreement in order to support my family. Or maybe I think it is important to commit myself to my marriage without the possibility of divorce. These are both things that someone may rationally decide to do.

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.

As Will S. remarked, this is going to limit the case for individual liberty in ways that Mill would have found unwelcome. For example, Mill is in favor of allowing individuals to drink alcohol or use drugs. These substances, however, arguably interfere with self-development.

One final remark here. Mill is not actually worried about societies returning to slavery through the route of voluntary slave contracts. Rather he is making a feminist point. His real target is marriage. He is opposed to very strict divorce laws on the grounds that they make marriage into a lifelong contract of the sort that can hinder self-development.

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 and marriage.


Mill, John Stuart. (1859) 2000. On Liberty. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.


There was a handout for this class: 17.MillHarmPrinciple.handout.pdf