Mill’s Libertarianism

On Liberty falls into four broad parts:

  1. Introductory: Mill sets out his reasons for writing the book and the abstract propositions he will defend (ch. 1).
  2. Liberty of Thought and Expression: Mill argues for liberty in one particular set of cases, thought and expression (ch. 2).
  3. Liberty of Action: Mill defends liberty for actions in general (chs. 3-4).
  4. Specific policy implications (ch. 5).

Today we talked about the third and fourth parts: Mill’s defense of liberty in general, rather than liberty for the special case of thought and expression, and the policy implications of his views.

In these chapters, Mill makes a 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 is similar to his case for liberty of thought and expression. He argues individuals need to discover things for themselves and society benefits from the innovations of unusual people.

One point I tried to make in the lecture is that Mill puts a lot of weight on the importance of self-development.

The Harm Principle

In the introductory chapter, Mill says that his project is to find a principle for deciding when society may and may not limit individual liberty. Then he announces what that principle is.

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (ch. 1, par. 9)

This is known as the Harm Principle. It seems to be quite uncompromising: we are only allowed to limit an individual’s liberty for the sake of preventing that person from harming others, period.

Offense and Safe Spaces

One thing that Mill seems pretty clear about is that there is a distinction between actions that harm others and actions that merely offend others. According to the harm principle, society may limit liberty to prevent harmful actions, but it may not do so in order to prevent merely offensive ones. Mill’s argument for this distinction is on the second page of the handout (ch. 4, par. 12).

We used that distinction to return to a topic that Sabrina and Taylor raised last time: would Mill disapprove of safe spaces and other manifestations of “PC Culture”? On the face of it, the question amounts to this: assuming that safe spaces, etc. limit some people’s liberty, do they limit behavior that is harmful or behavior that is merely offensive?

In order to answer this, we listed a variety of things that we think people mean by “safe space.” What we came up with was that the discussion of some topics can cause some people genuine psychological distress. And a “safe space” is created when people are warned before starting a discussion of those topics.

Psychological distress seems to me to count as a harm and a request for a warning does not strike me as a way of suppressing anything. So, for these cases at least, I cannot see that Mill would have a problem with safe spaces.

That said, in order to fully consider this case, we would have to look at the kinds of arguments that Mill himself makes when confronted by cases in which individuals misuse liberty. Even if limits on liberty would be justified in these particular cases, he argues, it is undesirable to give the public the power to limit liberty because it will be misused. It is possible that if we looked at the broader effects of creating safe spaces, we would find a similar kind of argument to be made against them.

If you look at critics of PC Culture, you will see that this is pretty much what they do. They have general theories about how we are likely to misuse any power that we have over others and they bolster these theories with specific instances of how, in their opinion, the power to create safe spaces has been misused. Sometimes, they add that they think even those who suffer harm (or offense) would be better off if they tolerated the behavior they find harmful or offensive than they would be if it were regulated. Others argue that these worries about abuse of power are vastly overblown, especially on college campuses, that the genuine harms of some forms of speech are underestimated. And, of course, they have their own theories about power and how it is misused by the majority that are not too different from Mill’s own ideas about how individuals face strong social pressure to conform.

The general rule is that with utilitarianism you cannot stop with the immediately good or bad effects of a particular action. You have to consider the broadest range of effects that you can reasonably predict.

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 make a case for liberty even when individuals do 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.

Harm and Rights

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 there is reason to wonder if this is what Mill has in mind since he lists several cases in which society can force people to do things for the benefit of others as opposed to preventing them from harming others; these are listed on the handout.

The beginning of chapter 4 suggests something different. There, Mill defines “harm” as a violation of an individual’s rights. If that is what he means, it 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.

Mill does not go into this. But I think he is rhetorically suggesting the first while actually relying on the second.

Slavery and Marriage

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. People who sell themselves into slavery lose the chance at development. Since Mill’s case for liberty rests on its role in individual development, it does not extend to this case. Just to be clear: that is speculation on my part, it is not something that Mill explicitly says.

I think we will miss the point if we get hung up on the specific example of slavery, however. Mill is not actually worried about the widespread use of voluntary slavery contracts. His real target is divorce laws that made it very difficult for women to get out of bad marriages. Here is what the law was like in his time, according to Colin Heydt, the author of the entry on Mill in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

(1)  British women had fewer grounds for divorce than men until 1923; (2) Husbands controlled their wives personal property (with the occasional exception of land) until the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882; (3) Children were the husband’s; (4) Rape was impossible within a marriage; and (5) Wives lacked crucial features of legal personhood, since the husband was taken as the representative of the family (thereby eliminating the need for women’s suffrage).

Mill is saying that marriage in his time was similar to voluntary slavery. This is a theme he expanded on in his On the Subjection of Women (1869).

Key Concepts

  1. The distinction between harm and offense.
  2. Why individual liberty of action makes individuals better off.
  3. Why individual liberty makes society better off.
  4. 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: 13.MillHarmPrinciple.handout.pdf