On Liberty (1859), of the most important documents of political liberalism, appeared in the same year that Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published. On Liberty is a rational justification of the freedom of the individual in opposition to the claims of the state to impose unlimited control and is thus a defence of the rights of the individual against the state. This work contained Mill's principle that only self-protection can justify either the state's tampering with the liberty of the individual or any personal interference with another's freedom -- particularly with respect to freedom of thought and discussion.

The only part of conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part, which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

In this essay Mill also warns of a second danger to liberty, which democracies are prone to, namely, the tyranny of the majority. In a representative democracy, if you can control the majority, then you can control everyone.

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant -- society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it -- its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism. [p.7]

The aim was to thus limit the amount of power the ruler should have to exercise over the community and this limitation was what he meant by liberty. Attempted in two ways, first by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty by the ruler to infringe, and which if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. Second was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposedly representative of its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power. The ruling power in most European countries was compelled, more or less, to submit to the first of these modes of limitations. However, it was not so with the second. To attain this, thus became the principal object of the lovers of liberty everywhere.

However came a time in the progress of human affairs, when men stopped thinking that it was natural for their governors should be an independent power. It seemed much better that the various magistrates of the State should be their tenants or delegates, revocable at their pleasure. In that way alone, it seemed they had complete security over the powers of government. This new demand for elected and temporary rulers became the prominent object of the exertions of the popular party and superseded the previous efforts to limit the power of rulers. It was now demanded that the rulers should be identified with the people, that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.

However, a democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth's surface, making itself felt as one of the most powerful members of the community of nations. Now, such phrases as "self-government," and "the power of the people over themselves," do not reflect reality. The "people" who wield the power are not always the same people as those over whom it is exercised, and the "self-government" spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. Moreover, the will of the people means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people. The majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority consequently may desire to oppress the minority within their number and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. Therefore the limitation of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community.

"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 penalties, 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 civilised 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. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." [p.13]

Bibliography and Web Resources

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty, Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts.

John Stuart Mill Institute

"John Stuart Mill" (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

ITL Web: Study Place: "Mill, John Stuart"


Victorian Overview J S Mill Victorian Philosophy Political History

Last modified 6 November 2000