John Stuart Mill: On Liberty

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke

6 Mondays, July 27 to August 31, 2010

Ever since its first appearance in 1859, Mill’s book has been generally considered the single most powerful and persuasive statement of the moral grounds for true or “classical” liberalism, the philosophy of the free society with free markets.  Its main thesis is summed up in Mill’s declaration 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.  …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 opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.  These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise.”

In the England of Mill’s day economic freedom, the freedom of contract or commerce, was already well established since the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in the previous century, and it was consequently a time of great economic advance. Mill therefore did not feel it necessary to argue for freedom of commerce but he directs his arguments mainly towards defending freedom of thought, opinion and discussion, for he felt that the Victorians were still narrow-minded. This is very like the situation we face in many societies at the present time. China, for example, and many Muslim countries, are open to free trade, but not to freedom of opinion, such as political or religious opinion. Even in our own universities, everyone is free to be left-wing, but it is widely believed that those on the right find it far more difficult to obtain employment. Mill’s book is directly relevant to our own time.