by Ted Honderich

This paper considers the issue of whether there is clear sense in John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty. What does this reputed foundation of liberalism come to? Is it firm and true? More particularly, what is the one very simple principle of individual liberty that Mill promises to announce? If it has to do with causing harm to someone else, what is the harm that an individual must not do if he or she is to be left alone by society and the state? How much does the liberty in question have to do with free speech and individuality, to which On Liberty is the most resolute of paeans? How much does it have to do with not giving offence to somebody else's morality? Does an individual's being left alone by the state and society depend instead on his or her respect for the rights of others? What sort of rights then? What do they have to do with the Greatest Happiness principle of Utilitarianism? And do these various questions in fact leave a lot out? The paper gives answers, not indefinite ones, and raises a general question about liberalism. The paper's several aims include the scholarly one of getting straight what somebody wrote. It is taken from Ted Honderich's collection of papers published by Edinburgh University Press, Political Means and Social Ends.

Mill's essay is renowned. It is a work so established that a decent academic bookstore, in this day and age, may carry three or four editions. It is the founding document of the tradition of liberalism, certainly liberalism of the English and American kind. As you read through the following 15 passages from it, Mill's sentences, you may also wonder if it is a mess. It is my own response to that idea [1] that prompts me to begin by putting the evidence of so many of so much of the essay before you. Maybe it is no bad thing, either, where there has been endless dispute about the understanding of a thing, to have it served up on a plate straightaway.


1. "The subject of this essay is...civil or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." [2]

2. "The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penaltities, or the moral coercion of public opinion. 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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right."

3. "...I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorise the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control only in respect to those actions of each which concern the interest of other people."

4. "A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury. The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make anyone answerable for doing evil to others is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception."

5. "...there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance; for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency will receive consideration in the sequel."

6. "...the appropriate region of human liberty...compromises, first, the inward domain of consciousness, demanding liberty of conscience in the most comprehensive sense, liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character... without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them...  Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals."

7. "What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? ... ...everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be found to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. This conduct not injuring the interests of another; or rather certain interests, which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights; and secondly in each person's bearing his share...of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation."

8. "As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself."

9. "...the inconveniences which are strictly inseparable from the unfavourable judgement of others, are the only ones to which a person should ever be subjected for that portion of his conduct and character which concerns his own good, but which does not affect the interest of others in their relations with him. Acts injurious to others require a totally different treatment. Encroachments on their rights...are fit objects of  moral reprobation, and, in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment."

10. "The distinction here pointed out between the part of a person's life which concerns only himself, and that which concerns others, many persons will refuse to admit. ... No person is an entirely isolated being.... I fully admit that the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect...those nearly connected with him, and, in a minor degree, society at large. When, by conduct of this sort, a person is led to violate a distinct and assignable obligation to any other person or persons, the case is taken out of the self-regarding class. ... Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law."

11. "There are many who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct which they have a distaste for, and resent it as an outrage to their feelings; as a religious bigot, when charged with disregarding the religious feelings of others, has been known to retort that they disregard his feelings, by persisting in their abominable worship or creed. But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it; no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the desire of the right owner to keep it."

12. " is not difficult to show, by abundant instances, that to extend the bounds of what may be called moral police, until it encroaches on the most unquestionably legitimate liberty of the individual, is one of the most universal of all human propensities. ... Suppose...that in a people, of whom the majority were Mussulmans, that a majority should insist on not permitting pork to be eaten within the limits of the country. ... Would it be a legitimate exercise of the moral authority of public opinion?"

13. "... two maxims...together form the entire doctrine of this essay... The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.... Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of the opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection."

14. "The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person's voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for him by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it."

15. "I have reserved for the last a large class of questions...which, though clearly connected with the subject of this essay, do not, in strictness, belong to it. These are cases in which...the question is not about restraining the actions of individuals, but about helping them; it is asked whether the government should do, or cause to be done, something for their benefit, instead of leaving it to be done by themselves, individually or in voluntary combination. secure as much of the advantages of centralized power and intelligence as can be had without turning into government channels too great a proportion of the general activity, is one of the most difficult and complicated questions in the art of government. ... ...the practical principle...may be conveyed in these words: the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information, and diffusion of it from the centre."


These 15 passages are in the sequence in which Mill produces them, but seemingly not in a good or logical order. Still, do Mill's passages 1, 2 and 15 make it clear enough what he is up to?

You may say it is the endeavour of arguing what laws the state or government is right to enact in order to force people to act and live in certain ways, and what moral or social as against legal pressures the society in question is right to bring to bear on them for the same purpose. Mill is is looking into the questions of to what extent a state and society can restrict the liberty or freedom of its members. He is establishing to what extent a state and society can interfere in that freedom of individuals that consists in their voluntariness, their being able to do what they want. He is establishing, more particularly, to what extent a state and society can compel or coerce or go against the wills of individuals, as distinct from taking action to help or benefit individuals or improve their lives by providing health care, old-age pensions, and so on.

That is not quite right, or at any rate it is very misleading. It mistakenly assumes, as Mill seems to assume, that the two things, restrictions on liberty and help or benefit, can be separated. But of course help to members of a society by the state will involve coercion by the state, if only in the form of income-tax laws to raise the money for the help. In fact Mill's real concern, as passages 2 and 15 in particular make clear, is what liberty or freedom there ought to be on the prior assumption that there will be no significant governmental limits on individual liberty in order to help individuals -- the same or other individuals -- by way of anything like a welfare system or National Health Service.

That is, his concern is not all possible restraints on liberty, but the possible restraints that are left after other possible restraints, of much importance in other political philosophies, are ruled out by an assumption or fiat. With respect to a large category of freedoms -- freedoms from kinds of taxation and the like -- he does not open the question of whether they are to be significantly limited. He assumes freedoms of this kind are something like sacrosanct. That is not to say his remaining questions are not of importance, or that his assumption has not been shared to a greater or lesser extent in the tradition of libralism.

From passage 2 you might suppose there is no doubt about Mill's answer to the questions, his principle of liberty.

It is that the state and society can intervene in the life of an individual against his will, either by the force of law or public opinion, if and only if by his action he causes harm or the risk of it to someone else (other than a fully-consenting partner) or to the public. Harm to himself or to consenting or combining partners is not enough for intervention. Nor is any unharmful `immorality' in which he may indulge. If he is doing wrong without doing harm to others, or going against his own good, he is to be left at liberty to do so. To this first understanding of Mill's principle, you need to add from the widening passage 4, importantly, that the harm in question can be done by omission as well as commission.

    This is what is still most commonly reported, by casual readers and certainly by politicians of lesser education, as Mill's principle of liberty. [3]

    It had better not be, since it is fatally vague in its main term, harm. So too in talk of things from which other people need protection, evil, prejudicial effects, injury, damage, mischief, and the like. What is to count as harm? Consider the matter of an individual's not making any effort to contribute anything to himself or to society, but, as his detractors say, living off society. Remember that that one can do harm by omission. It is plain that until harm is defined, it is uncertain whether the given principle of liberty allows us to interfere with him, make him work. It is plain, further, that this principle is in general unclear.

There are other proofs, as indeed they are, of the uselessness of this first understanding of Mill. Until more is said, a homosexual teacher's advocating the gay life to children may or may not be a case of harming them. A union's demanding equal pay for all of a group of its members may or may not be a harm to more diligent workers in the group. Also, it is possible and arguable that any real self-harm will also in effect be a harm to others -- by way of making a self-harming individual less able to rescue or sustain others, maybe keep her own children from harm.

In fairness to Mill it needs to be added that he himself reports more or less this very problem. He does not think his own talk of harm and the like is sufficiently explicit. Look at passage 5, a page or two after it was announced, in passage 2, that a man's harming himself and consenting partners is not ground for legal or social interference. In passage 5 Mill in effect allows that we may indeed think about understanding `harm' in such a way as to make it include a great deal, the secondary or indirect effects on others of self-harm. If so, a lot of state and social interference will be justified. Does Mill intend this? We may rightly object that the principle is unclear. But he promises in 5 to clear things up `in the sequel' -- i.e. later in his essay. In effect he promises to clarify his principle of liberty.

As I have said, Mill's essay has commonly been reported by sympathetic readers, even the likes of English judges, as advancing the vague and useless principle -- no interference with someone except on account of harm to others. Is this to be explained by no more than ordinary human frailty, ordinary intellectual frailty? Just the fact that we are not all close readers and clear thinkers?

Or rather, does it have to do with the nature of a political tradition? Is there a special uncertainty in one political tradition? Is there a kind of inclination or willingness for writers in to leave things indeterminate or a little vague, and for readers in the tradition to accept this? It is a question that will arise again as this small inquiry into the understanding of Mill's essay and the political tradition of liberalism proceeds.


To go forward, it is in passage 10 and thereabouts in the essay that Mill makes good his promise to clear things up, clarify his principle. We have it from 10 that a person may affect others for the worse, harm them, in two ways. He may do so, maybe by omission, without thereby failing in or violating a distinct and assignable obligation to them. Or, he may harm another or others and thereby indeed fail in or violate a distinct and assignable obligation to them.

Passage 10 has been brought together, and indeed does go together, with passages 8, 9 and 13. There we have it, in short, that an individual is to be left to himself in affecting others adversely -- if he is not going against the interests or rights of others.

In general, for someone to have an interest in something or a right to it is for them to have a claim to it -- which is to say a claim that has some kind of support or legitimacy. To have a right to something in one particular sense is to be able to call on the support of the law of the land to get or keep the thing in question. To have a right in a second sense is to be able to call on the support of customary or established morality of the society. Similar remarks are to be made about distinct and assignable obligations.

Mill's sentences and these facts have led, unfortunately, to the conclusion that Mill's principle of liberty is as follows.

The state can intervene in the life of an individual against his will if and only if (i) he offends against the established legal interests or rights of someone else or the public, or, what comes to the same thing, violates his legal obligation to them, or (ii) he offends against interests or rights accorded to someone else by customary or established morality in the society. Neither other harm caused by an individual to them, or other immorality, or his own good, justifies and permits intervention by the state and society. [4]

This second understanding of Mill's essay, if not so common as the one merely in terms of harm, has been accorded much respect, notably by political theorists. [5] This is lamentable, nearly absurd. Mill's object in his essay, as you will not need reminding, is to settle two things: what laws limiting individual liberty there ought to be, on a certain prior assumption about the possible laws, and what social pressures of the same sort there ought to be. To that question, the worst of answers is: the laws that exist and the social pressures that there are.

In saying so I do not indulge at all in moral superiority about a particular body of laws or a particular society's attitudes, or in any resistance whatever to conservatism as often understood or the like. The point is not political at all. Rather, the point is that the given understanding of Mill's essay provides no answer at all to the questions he sets himself. This is so because patently there exist many different bodies of law and different sets of attitudes, about as many as there are societies and states. On Liberty was to tell us which of these, if any, is right. What it does, on the given understanding, is to bless all of them. The given understanding, as they say, is entirely relativistic.

Do you have the idea that perhaps Mill is to be taken as declaring, in answer to the question of what body of law and what social attitudes there ought to be, that the English ones are right? That all the world and England's future should run on the model of the England in which he was writing? No reading of Mill's damnation of a relevant and main side of that society early in his essay can save the idea. He speaks of the `tyranny' of prevailing opinion and feeling in England, an ascendant class and the yoke it puts on thought and expression, and so on. [6] Further, such an answer, a piece of pointing at a nation at a time, would be no articulated answer to his questions.

There is more to be said against this second understanding of the essay, but life is short. There is another more natural and more arguable understanding of Mill's talk of interests, rights and obligations. Before coming to it, however, it will be useful to put aside a couple of things.


Passage 5 in the essay is followed immediately by 6. The latter is actually the continuation of the former. Each of them certainly purports  to be a general statement of Mill's principle. Passage 6, although it does not touch on the matter of consenting partners, is the more explicit. This has led occasional writers on the essay to a certain supposition.

It is that Mill's principle of liberty is simply that the state and society cannot intervene in the lives of individuals to curtail in any way either freedom of thought and expression or freedom in 'tastes and pursuits', what he elsewhere calls 'experiments of living'. [7] Sometimes the latter have been taken to include kinds of private sexual activity, behind closed doors.

Whatever is to be thought of the basis or recommendation of this third proposal, it cannot conceivably be all of Mill's principle of liberty. This is made obvious by a moment's reflection. Did Mill intend to exclude the state and society only from interfering with your thinking, speaking, and experiments of living? Obviously not. He wished also to exclude the state and society from interfering with your going for a walk, didn't he? He wished, rightly, despite his perfervid concern with persons of genius and the like, to exclude the state and society from ordinary life that has nothing to do with reflection, expression of opinions, and experiments of living.

It cannot be true, even, despite the attention that Mill gives to free speech, that thinking, speaking, and experiments in living are a large part of what Mill intended to protect from state and social interference. There is all of manufacturing and commercial activity for a start, not to mention home-life, work, public activities of various sorts, travel, and so on.

To move towards another thing to be put aside quickly, a fourth proposal, it has to do with passages 11 and 12. From passage 11 we learn that a religious bigot's feelings should not carry the day against the feelings of ordinary people. Mill reaches or states this conclusion by way of the curious analogy of the thief and the right owner of the purse. The bigot has the role of the thief. Do ordinary people stand in analogy to the purse-owner because their interests or rights are or will be violated? This thought brings the passage into line with the second understanding of the essay already rejected, and also another one to be considered.

Passage 12, although it contents itself with asking a rhetorical question, is definite enough in its context. A majority of Muslims in a society, with their strong feelings against eating pork, should not have the liberty of preventing others in the society from eating it. In the following pages of the essay, Mill goes on to discuss various other things that are or would be wrong: Roman Catholics prohibiting Protestant worship, puritanical Calvinists and Methodists getting their way about music and dancing, American democrats getting everybody to dress the same, a Socialist majority somewhere limiting people to a small amount of private property, workers securing equal wages, people or whoever else restricting the free market and free trade, Prohibitionists stopping drinking, and Sabbatarians passing laws to keep Sunday a day for only church-going.

    It is pretty clear from this mixed bag that Mill's principle of liberty is such that for some reason or other people are to be at liberty to engage in many activities and practices, such as eating pork, Protestant worship, and getting unequal pay and private property, even if this upsets or outrages the feelings of others. But the mixed bag has also contributed to a philosopher's idea that is part of two several-sided claims as to how Mill's principle is to be understood. [8]

    This fourth idea is that if a first individual or group causes harm to a second, but the harm, whatever it is, is also owed to the second individual's moral belief that the action was wrong, the harm is irrelevant to any judgement about intervention by the state and society in the first's action. You don't have to think about that harm at all in figuring out whether there can and should be intervention. Such morality-dependent harm, whatever its magnitude, can never count at all towards interfering with the liberty of the first individual or group.

    Against this understanding of Mill, for a start, there is the fact that he never so much as mentions the given idea. There is no evidence whatsoever that he had it. He writes, as you have read in passage 11, that `there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it'. That is not a way of saying that you know in advance that harm owed to the feeling of the second person counts for literally nothing, that you don't have to think about it at all.

Are we to suppose Mill thinks, and are we to contemplate, that you don't have to worry if the second person will kill herself because of the combination of her own moral feelings and what has been done by the first person? It is obvious, on the contrary, that Mill takes the feelings and claims of the bigots, Muslims, socialists and so on to be outweighed by those of the other parties to the disputes. There is little doubt he would contemplate or support intervention in related cases, maybe lies about genocidal massacres. It is notable that he does more than contemplate, but indeed asserts, the propriety of intervention in something similar, violations of public decency and good manners, say public sexual intercourse. [9]

This understanding of Mill depends in part on thinking that some or many moral beliefs will be 'false' for Mill, which is to say other than utilitarian, [note to desk editor: there are two usages in what follows -- `utility'/utilitarian' and `Utility'/Utilitarian'] and so can be put entirely out of consideration -- in the way that someone engaged in a factual or scientific inquiry, or in mathematics, of course puts aside literally false propositions and gives them no weight. This ignores both the fact that moral beliefs are not true or false literally speaking, and that, even if they were, going against them could be bound up with dissatisfaction, distress or worse.

    Fortunately, life is short, and so we need not go further with this. [10] It is mentioned, really, for an ulterior purpose of mine.

Liberalism consists importantly in discussion of such texts as On Liberty. [11] It consists pretty importantly in philosophical discussion of them -- moral and political philosophy. Is liberalism so peculiarly inexplicit or uncertain in its commitment as to tolerate seemingly wilful invention, self-indulgent speculation of a philosophical kind? Is it different from other political moralities, say the political morality of Conservatism in England and America, or the political morality of the Left in its several parts?


    Let us go back to Mill's passages having to do with interests, rights and obligations -- 10, 8, 9, and 13. Maybe 11 too, about the right owner of the purse. It was remarked by me that what it is for someone to have an interest in or a right to something, and for somebody else to have a distinct and assignable obligation with respect to the thing, is for the first person to have a claim that has some kind of support. Two kinds of support were mentioned -- the law of the land and customary or established morality in a society.

    There is also another kind of support or legitimacy. Few things are commoner, in this neighbourhood, than someone's asserting that an individual or a group has a right to something when they do not have a right either in law or in their society's customary or established morality. Further, the asserter of the right knows the individual or group lacks rights of the two kinds.

My newspaper is sometimes concerned with child-labour in what it takes, correctly, to be primitive or otherwise objectionable societies. Children, it says, have a right to their childhood, a right not to be treated that way. So too is a right to food asserted on behalf of people starving to death. Nor is this kind of right something that turns up in only one part of the political or moral spectrum. A farmer is said to have had a right to defend his lonely farmhouse, in effect to shoot a burglar in the back. Peoples are said to have rights to their homeland and tradition, in effect a right to ethnic cleansing.

What is meant here, when someone asserts a right of someone to something, is that they ought to have the thing -- and that this judgement has the support of a moral principle or the like. This principle may be a known thing, despite not being written into or a reality in any society's customary or established morality. It may be what is now called a principle of human rights. Or it may be a principle without wider support but advocated with confidence by whoever is asserting the right of someone to something.

Time could usefully be spent on looking into and clarifying and elaborating this fact about talk of rights, but the fact itself is a plain one. It is also plain that Mill's passages 10, 8, 9, 13 and maybe 11 can be regarded in just this way. He can easily be taken as speaking of such interests. Surely he must be taken to be speaking of such interests, incidentally, in referring to 'the permanent interests of man as a progressive being' in passage 3 -- of which you will be hearing some more.

What we come to, then, is a fifth understanding of Mill's principle of liberty, which makes it into this: the state and society can interfere in the life of an individual if and only if he violates certain moral rights of someone else or the public -- neither legal nor customary or established moral rights.

This is perhaps the best understanding of the passages in question. There is also something else to say for this understanding, which is passage 7. In it, incidentally, Mill gives the distinct impression that he is getting around to giving us what is to be taken as the summative or canonical form of his principle. The passage is the beginning of a chapter of his essay called `Of the Limits of the Authority of Society Over the the Individual'. What 7 comes to, putting aside the bit at the end about national defence, is this: the state and society can interfere in the life of someone if and only if he injures what ought to be the legal or the customary or established moral rights of somebody else.

That is explicit and it comes to just what we are considering by way of the other notion of rights -- i.e. that the state and society can interfere with an individual if and only if he offends against certain moral rights of someone else or the public -- maybe rights advocated by one person, rights resting on a principle advocated only by that person. [12]

It would perhaps be unkind to belabour Mill for this nullity -- certainly it is a nullity, of no use at all as a principle of liberty until we are told what these moral rights of mine are that you are not to violate without facing state and social intervention against you. It is of no use whatever to be told that we are not to injure what ought to be another's legal rights if we are not told what those claims are.

It would perhaps be unkind to assign the nullity to Mill, despite his words in passages 10, 8, 9, 13 and maybe 11. It would perhaps be unkind since he does glance at the essential question in another passage -- 3. What the passage says is that he gives some or other utilitarian answer to all ethical questions, including the question before us of what moral rights an individual possesses, what legal and customary rights he ought to have. The answer to the question is a principle of utility -- some such principle.

Jeremy Bentham's well-known statements of the Principle of Utility or the Greatest Happiness Principle are tolerably clear. One is that the principle is the one `which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish...happiness.... [13] Another is that an action `may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility...when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community than any it has to diminish it.' [14] This is one of a number of very different consequentialist principles in morality, the principle of simple maximizing of consequences of satisfaction to which Bentham's 'felicific calculus' is attached.

The principle can be brought up to date as follows. An action, policy, society or whatever is the right one when according to the best information and judgement it is the one, compared with all the other possibilities, that will produce the greatest total balance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction, taking into account everyone affected and making no special differences between them.

Needless to say, despite the fact that this principle remains the principal contribution to morality by English philosophy, it involves questions of further clarification. It is open to a conclusive objection having to do with justice. To be very brief, this principle carries the possibility of lying about and punishing a wholly innocent man to get a needed result of preventing offences. [15] It also carries the possibility of sanctioning a very happy society with some slaves in it. But that is not what is most relevant now. What is most relevant now is that the principle is tolerably clear as it stands.

Mill, as all know who know anything about him, could not tolerate such clear maximizing, such deciding between right and wrong just by judging and comparing total amounts of satisfaction in a plain sense. This had nothing to do with the objection from injustice or inhumanity, the problem about the innocent many and the slaves. In his essay Utilitarianism he embraced a principle of utility that compares actions and the like not only in terms of anticipated quantities of satisfaction but also what he called qualities of satisfaction. [16] You get the general idea, some general idea or other, when you hear that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Also when you gather that the pleasure of poetry is higher-quality than the pleasure of pornography.

It should be as widely known to all who know something about Mill that he provided no real answer at all to the inevitable question of how little higher-quality satisfaction is to be regarded as equivalent to how much more lower-quality satisfaction. Certainly no answer is given by his advice to go and ask the only competent judges, those who have experienced both the higher-quality and the lower-quality satisfaction. To give this advice is to fail in his philosophical obligation. The indeterminacy and obscurity imposed on the real Principle of Utility has rightly led subsequent thinkers of a utilitarian cast, including a good many economists, to ignore Mill's principle, so-called, and in effect to contemplate Bentham's principle in one form or another.

Yet more reason for uncertainty about Mill's principle of utility is supplied by Mill's further thinking in On Liberty. See passage 3. He lets us know that he judges things by utility -- presumably happiness or satisfaction -- but `utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being'. What this comes to is terminally obscure. It is easy to say that Mill's fundamental ethical principle is somehow to the effect that we are to maximize satisfaction of a kind that serves an end having to do with individuality, diversity, talents, development, creativity, non-conformity, self-perfection, higher faculties, persons of genius and so on. [17] This high-minded hodgepodge is useless. Does it give one a society of an elite, or one of egalitarian opportunity, or what? A society of what liberties? Where do ordinary people end up? To ask is not necessarily to worry about them, but just to want to know.

It as often been said that On Liberty is inconsistent because Mill's commitment to utility conflicts with his commitment, whatever it is, to individual liberties. [18] If Mill were committed to what there is indeed reason to call the real Principle of Utility, he might indeed be committed to something inconsistent with his commitment to some liberties and his denial of others. There is no such constraint put on him by the principle of `utility...grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being'.

It was remarked earlier that it would be unkind to assign a nullity to Mill -- the fifth principle that the state and society can intervene if an individual violates some moral rights or other, with these being left entirely unclear. Would it be unkind to assign to Mill the sixth principle -- that there can be intervention if an individual violates moral rights based on some principle having to do with utility, quality as well as quantity of satisfaction, man as a progressive being, individuality, diversity, development, creativity, and so on?

Well, unkind or not, it is necessary. No doubt, given the general obscurity, it would be better to say that Mill's liberty principle of liberty is that there can be intervention if an individual violates moral rights supported not by a principle of utility, or indeed any principle,  but by an attitude or a collection of attitudes having to do with utility, quality as well as quantity of satisfaction, man as a progressive being, individuality, diversity and so on.

This sixth principle is close to a nullity. If it is not so uninformative as the fifth principle -- that we are to guide ourselves by some moral rights or other left wholly unidentified and uncharacterized -- it can give no real guidance with respect to individual freedom. You get an impression of a sort of life and society Mill favours, with a lot of room for individualistic characters financially and otherwise able to carry out their experiments of living and enlarge their personalities, but no clear principle that sums it all up, or begins to tell us about the satisfactions of those doing ordinary jobs or raising children. We do not really know why Mill makes particular recommendations and does not make others.

We are about as far away as conceivable from that `one very simple principle' promised in passage 2.

So there is the fact that Mill's essay leaves itself open to the six different interpretations at which we have glanced [19] -- if several are hopeless after a little reflection, what he actually says in his essay has allowed them all to come into existence. And there is the fact that the sixth and best interpretation is itself a congeries of stuff. It does indeed inspire persons sympathetic to Mill's attitudes but it can do no more than that.

On Liberty, judged in an ordinary philosophical way, indeed in an ordinarily intelligent and critical way, is indeed a mess. Nothing can save it from that judgement. To say, for example, that Mill is not to be regarded as a Utilitarian with inconsistent commitments to individual liberty, but rather a consistent liberal, takes us nowhere. [20] If liberalism is ostensively defined as the congeries of stuff in On Liberty, then we cannot know what liberalism is.

Just before passage 2 quoted at the beginning, Mill speaks of the need for a principle of liberty, as follows.

"There is, in fact, no recognized principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government influence is customarily tested. People decide according to their personal preferences. ... range themselves on the one or the other side in any particular case according to the general direction of their sentiments...but very rarely on account of any opinion to which they consistently adhere as to what things are fit to be done by a government. And it seems to me that in consequence of this absence of a rule or principle, one side is at present as often wrong as the other; the interference of government is, with about equal frequency, improperly invoked and improperly condemned." [21]

Mill entirely understates the need for consistency, the consistency that can only be provided by an explicit and summative principle and then elaboration of it that is both guided by it and gives further content to it. It is not only that judgements and activities, from some one point of view, say Mill's, will sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong if there is no principle and if there is inconsistency in its place. That is the least of it.

It is more important that an explicit and summative principle secures fairness -- the minimal but first kind that is the treating of like cases alike. But that is not all. Such a principle is needed for any morality worth the name, and in particular any political morality. We are all self-interested. We are all more than capable of self-deception, which is to say taking care to keep a question open by avoiding evidence and the like. The result of self-interest and self-deception is that we escape our reasonable natures -- our human existence as a reason-giving species -- if we do not try to restrain ourselves by the consistency of a principle that is not factitious but has a foundation in our nature. [22]

Had Mill actually stated an arguable  principle, he might well have discovered that its support of freedom of thought and experiments in living carried with it support for other things. He might have had to change his mind about things. He might have had to alter or develop his enlightened views of women's rights, or joined to them something about a right to work or equal pay. He might not have been able to approve of the infringing of of liberty that consists in laws against marriage unless the parties can prove they have the means of supporting a family. [23]

He might have had imposed on him what is in fact obvious, that you cannot treat of the whole and real subject of individual liberty by assuming or deciding in advance that no citizen is to have any freedom of his significantly infringed in order that a society and its government should help other citizens in distress or indeed him himself.

On Liberty is indeed something like a founding document of the tradition of liberalism. But are the shortcomings of the essay not those of its tradition but of Mill himself? Well, there is reason to think that the fault is in liberalism itself, the conflicting attitudes in it, and not in the author of On Liberty, not in his philosophical or conceptual or intellectual shortcomings. This is established by another work of his, a paradigm of clarity and cogency, A System of Logic. Nor, by the way, is this excusing of Mill as philosopher put in question by his `proof' of his principle of utility. Its notoriety has been owed to the mistake of taking it for a deductive proof. [24]  Mill was the greatest British philosopher of the 19th Century. [25]

  Shall we then suspect that liberalism is a political morality never really achieved, that it fails to come up to the level of our reasonable human natures? That it is not vicious, and a matter of good intentions, better intentions than are to be found in another political tradition that may come to mind, but good intentions not carried forward in consistency into an explicit political morality? Does liberalism arise out a generalized concern for people that then encounters the wants of a better-off class and its philosophers? Does it begin by recognizing the need for a general principle -- not necessarily the Principle of Utility certainly -- and then allow self-interest and self-deception to frustrate or divert it? Does it fail to achieve moral consistency? Does it bumble instead? [26]


1. My response in `The Worth of J. S. Mill On Liberty', Political Studies, 1974, was different. It also appears in `On Liberty and Morality-Dependent Harms', Political Studies, 1982.

2. In John Gray and G. W. Smith, eds., J. S. Mill On Liberty In Focus (Routledge, 1991) the passages and their pages are as follows: 1:23, 2:30, 3:31, 4:32, 5:32, 6:33, 7:90, 8:90, 9:93, 10:94, 11:98-99, 12:99-100, 13:108, 14:116, 15:122-127. All page references to On Liberty are to this edition.

3. It is unfortunate that it is also offered as the best summary of On Liberty in overviews of Mill's philosophy in good reference books. See, e.g. `John Stuart Mill' in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1995), ed. Ted Honderich.

4. The understanding was offered by J. C. Rees in `A Re-Reading of Mill On Liberty, in Political Studies, 1960.

5. See discussion of the Rees article in Gray and Smith, op. cit.

6. pp. 26-30

7. p. 72

8. See Richard Wollheim, `The Limits of State Action', Man and Society, 1963, `John Stuart Mill and the Limits of State Action', Social Research, 1973. See also C. L. Ten, Mill on Liberty (Clarendon, 1980). Cf. Wollheim, `John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin: The Ends of Life and the Preliminaries of Morality', in A. Ryan ed., The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford University Press, 1979), and in Gray and Smith, op. cit. Prof. Ten's paper `Mill's Defence of Liberty' is also in this collection.

9. p. 112

10. For a good deal more on this fourth view of the essay, see the second of my two articles mentioned above -- `On Liberty and Morality-Dependent Harms', Political Studies, 1982.

11. See D. J. Manning, Liberalism (Dent, 1976).

12. You will gather I am not much troubled by Mill's disavowal of `abstract right' in passage 3, which probably is not about rights but rather about what is right, or his carry-on about Lord Stanley's `social rights' on pp. 103-104. In neither place is he referring to ordinary moral rights as in this fifth understanding of his principle.

13. Mary Warnock, ed., Utilitarianism (Fontana Library, no pub year in book), p. 34.

14. op. cit.,  p. 35

15. Honderich, Punishment, The Supposed Justifications, 4th edn. (Polity Press, 1991), Ch. 3

16. Utilitarianism, ed Warnock, pp. 257-262

17. Ch. 3.

18. Cf. Gray and Smith, op. cit.

19. There are more interpretations than (1) to (6), of course.

(7) One I have not myself mastered one that tries to make On Liberty consistent with itself and with Mill's Utilitarianism by taking a view of Mill's view of morality and how it stands to other things. See Alan Ryan, 'John Stuart Mill's Art of Living', in Gray and Smith, op. cit.

(8) There have also been attempts to take Mill's utilitarianism as what is sometimes called rule-utilitarianism, and hence to bring it into harmony with his views in On Liberty and to bring those views into clarity and good order. (Cf. Jonathan Riley, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to On Liberty (Routledge, 1998). To my mind, vagueness and confusion in and about rule-utilitarianism gets in the way of this. By way of a plain formulation, rule-utilitarianism is this: the right action is one that is according to a rule whose existence is justified by the the Principle of Utility, even if in this instance the action is not in accord with that principle. Rule-utilitarianism is taken, for example, to commit you to truth-telling or promise-keeping in situations where doing so will go against utility and may be disastrous. The doctrine is ambiguous between an actual Utilitarianism, which certainly does allow for a reliance on good rules, and a doctrine that has in it some value entirely different from the maximization of satisfaction. This additional thing, sometimes disdained by critics as rule-worship, has never been adequately explained. Surely it makes for inconsistency. If we depend on rule-utilitarianism to give consistent sense to On Liberty, we are in trouble indeed.

(9) You can try to look at On Liberty for materials that go with and fill out a real Utilitarian principle of liberty. See, if you have time on your hands, the first paper mentioned in note 1 -- `The Worth of J. S. Mill On Liberty'. But it is wrong in its final implication that this makes some real sense of the essay.

20. Cf. John Gray, Mill On Liberty: A Defence, 2nd ed., Routledge 1996. C. L. Ten, Mill on Liberty.

21. p. 30

22. See Honderich, After the Terror (University of Edinburgh Press, 2002), Ch. 2.

23. pp. 121-122

24. Roger Crisp, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism (Routledge, 1997)

25. Cf. Alan Ryan, The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Macmillan, 1970) and John Skorupski, John Stuart Mill (Routledge, 1991)

26. The questions will come up again in Chs 4 and 5 in connection with the largest work of liberalism of the 20th Century, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice.

The paper is the first chapter of Ted Honderich's collection of papers, Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press). You can also look at some related pieces of journalism by Honderich and Sholto Byrnes.

HOME to T.H. website front page
HOME to Det & Free front page