John Stuart Mill – The Father of Modern Liberalism

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.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In last week’s post I wrote about Edmund Burke, who was considered to be one of the fathers of modern day conservatism, and this week I am hopping across the political spectrum to one of the fathers of modern day liberalism.

John Stuart Mill was also a British member of Parliament, just like Burke, however he was born in the beginning of the 19th century just a few years after Edmund Burke`s death. Mill was a strong supporter for the abolition of slavery, women`s rights movement and for freedom of speech. Mill described liberty as a citizen’s right to protect themselves from abuse at the hands of their own government. He understood that for any real freedom to be possessed by a citizen, there had to be checks and balances which hold the head of state accountable, so that certain freedoms could not be infringed upon without great difficulty or an open rebellion.

One of Mill’s most famous essays was named “On Liberty,” and it is this piece of political writing that will be the focus of this post today. So let’s begin…

Mill begins his essay by drawing attention to the history of struggles which citizens have had for finding balance between liberty and authorities of power, or subjects and the upper classes, in the past.

The aim…of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of certain immunities…which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which if he did infringe, specific resistance or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second…was the establishment of constitutional checks; by which the consent of the community…was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Mill continued by recalling how struggle between authority and liberty had progressed through the centuries and into the 19th century. He noticed that within democracy it was also possible for the majority of a nation to become, sort of, tyrannical over the rights of individuals based on custom or prevailing attitudes and so, argued there must also be a process to protect the rights of individuals from that of the majority.

It was now perceived that such phrases as…”the power of the people over themselves,” do not express the true state of the case. The people who exercise the power are not always the same people with 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. The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or…active part of the people; the majority…: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

…in political speculations “the tyranny of the majority” is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Mill was a very utilitarian man who sought to do, with policy, the most good possible and the least harm possible for citizens of his country. He believed that by focusing on maximizing happiness and minimizing unhappiness he could shape the best version of his society. He also believed that the happiness of any one person mattered equally to the happiness of any other, and that as long as a person was not harming anyone else, they should be able to do as they please.

Contrary to Edmund Burke, Mill concluded that tradition and custom could be quite the hindrance to progress for humanity because it cemented certain rules and attitudes in society without even so much as a discussion as to why they are right.

The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Mill also, quite tactfully, argued against prevailing opinions due to matters of religion which is also very contrary to the philosophy of the more conservative Edmund Burke. He claimed that the servitude of mankind to their gods was both essentially a selfish desire and gave rise to feelings of contempt towards those not aligned with their own sentiments, therefore religious beliefs could run contrary to the interests of society which are best met with rational unbiased contemplation and morality.

Mill continued by attesting that freedom of religion was never given out lightly by societies in centuries past, but at best with mild toleration, and even then, it’s often that individuals only tolerate a number of other religions but not all. He continued…

…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.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

He did not believe that it was for the government or society at large to tell any one individual how they ought to lead their lives, unless that individual was causing harm to another. Aside from that one basic rule, every person should be free to live the life they prefer.

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.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Afterward he continues by stating that children are an exception until they reach adulthood because having their freedom restricted is for their own benefit and to protect them. He also believed that “barbarians” could justifiably have rules enforced upon them as long as the end result was their own good and civilization for which they will ultimately find liberty. At this time in history England was colonizing many other countries around the world and so Mill of course needed to address this, yet it does detract somewhat from the sentiment of the entire essay.

Personally, I very much agree with Mill’s political philosophy and the right of individuals to decide for themselves. These sort of sentiments are what have carried on into modern day liberalism with greater rights for the individual and an opposition to too much government interference except to protect others and for support. However imperfect the philosophy may be, it was absolutely moving in the right direction to provide greater quality of life for all citizens rather than just the prevailing majority and for this reason, I will continually support those values.

How do you feel about all of this?

Thoughts? Comments? Leave them down below!

Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives…

I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it. Suppose any party, in addition to whatever share it may possess of the ability of the community, has nearly the whole of its stupidity, that party must, by the law of its constitution, be the stupidest party; and I do not see why honorable gentlemen should see that position as at all offensive to them, for it ensures their being always an extremely powerful party . . .

There is so much dense, solid force in sheer stupidity, that any body of able men with that force pressing behind them may ensure victory in many a struggle, and many a victory the Conservative party has gained through that power.

John Stuart Mill

23 thoughts on “John Stuart Mill – The Father of Modern Liberalism

  1. Big fan of Mills liberalism (not so much utilitarianism though). I agree with both him and Plato that an unchecked democracy is just as, if not moreso, dangerous than an unchecked monarchy. This reminds me to get a copy of On Liberty for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do it up brother. This was part of an essential philosophy class that I had in Uni. He is definitely an inspiration I think. I would consider myself Utilitarian but I have no idea what the actual Utilitarian philosophy consists of. I think that might be something I need to look into! Good to hear from you. Have you been playing The Last of Us II yet??? So good.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have not, actually. I ditched my PlayStation a while back when the newest baby arrived and just haven’t felt inclined to get another one. I’ve watched some footage of people playing it though!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well-researched. This is a profound write-up on John Stuart Mill’s Liberalism. 🙂 I remember discussing him vs the conservative Burke with my students and they hated Burke because voilà, whatever “freedom” they’re experiencing today, they felt they owe to Stuart Mill. :)) Can’t blame them though, conservatism really has its flaws that’ll look so unappealing to this generation (and perhaps the generations to come). Thanks for sharing! It’s very educational. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha. I appreciate the compliment, thanks very much. It’s bits and pieces straight out of my University text as well as my interpretations and bits and pieces of what I remember from my professor as well. Are you a philosophy teacher?

      I agree with you on Conservatism. I think any working class person, if they were educated on what conservatism really is all about and liberalism, would understand liberalism is in their best interest. The fact that conservatism still manages to thrive baffles me honestly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cool! Maybe that’s why it’s so informative — you expounded ideas from your University text and now it’s beautifully written for a much wider audience. Good job! 🙂 I actually taught those topics under History. It’s not detailed though because I had to discuss the emerging ideologies over the centuries so it was more of a general view of each ideology.

        Right, those traditional thinking (that many people still believes in today) is really cringey. It’s kinda hard to change that though because even if someone’s educated, the family’s tradition and religion still usually overpowers the student’s thinking…and Conservatism’s very evident in religion so 🤷‍♀️

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    1. Yeah well this is classical liberalism and it has changed quite a lot since the 1970s when neoliberalism became a thing, then both parties became kind of greedy, but liberalism at its core was to fight for individual right and the welfare of each. Conservatives were more eager to keep the status quo, follow tradition and religion and do just enough for the people to maintain power. But neoliberalism and neoconservativism are both of those ideologies hijacked by capitalists and have helped to separate the wealthy elite from the average person by huge margins because of “trickle down economics” and they’ve both been somewhat corrupted because of it. We desperately need to bring back some classical liberal values.

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      1. I think so, but what makes Libertarians unique seems to be that they don’t believe in needing to contribute to the social welfare of others. Seems kind of like “every man for themselves” mentality to me. I’m unsure of what Mill would think about that, but I’m curious now. Good question

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      2. I really enjoyed both books. But from what I can tell, a lot of libertarians look to Ayn Rand‘s work as supporting such a philosophy. I believe Rand called it objectivsm.

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      3. Hmmmm yeah I agreed with a lot if her philosophy actually but I think there should still be a little bit of room for cooperation with others. It was a bit extreme. Just my personal opinion. I actually bought a little book just on her philosophy a little while ago. Haven’t read it yet.

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  3. Very well written and articulated, my friend! Mill’s vision of a democratic society meshes almost seamlessly with my own thoughts on the subject. I particular lean to his wonderful analogies of religion’s role within the morals of society. I have also used his term, “tyranny of the majority” in numerous conversations discussing our own current state of affairs. He was a visionary of liberal thought. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes the great classical liberalism. We definitely need to get back there in many ways. I like that term too “tyranny of the majority”. What are some examples you cite that display this quality? I’m curious. Thanks again for the kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I believe the U.S. two party political system is probably the best example of “tyranny by the majority”, but the reluctance to legalize marijuana, attempts to overturn women’s health rights on abortion, and the continued dislike for other religious beliefs are all good examples of governing the individual in a way of controlling personal freedoms that do not impact society as a whole. Keep the good words coming, my friend!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And as Mill pointed out, not necessarily the majority but the most active political part of society. That’s why voter turnout makes a huge difference on important issues which it looks like Americans are beginning to understand!

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