Book Review: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

Of late, I have bought a few editions in a series called ‘Great Ideas’ published by Penguin Books. They tend to be short works (or short abridgements of larger works) and represent a wide variety of influential writings covering the history of civilization.

I hadn’t actually planned on reading On Liberty at this time of year, but it so happens that I had an accident and needed to go to hospital to get something checked over. At the time, I was (and still am!) reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God as well as The Forsyte Saga, both of which are bulky books and which I didn’t want to carry around with me in A&E. So I grabbed the first slim book I could find and read through the first quarter of it while I was waiting to be seen, X-rayed and assessed. It was also intended as a first follow up from Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.

In sitting down to review this book, I must admit that I found myself in a little difficulty. The book is written as an argument for a particular point of view, though Mill takes a number of tangents which distract from the main thrust of the book. One could choose to enter into a full-blown study of all these tangents and how they branch off from and feed into the core of his point. But to do so would require a great number of essays and I am aiming for a review of no more than about 900 words. So I shall try to stick to the point.

As I began to read I found myself thinking “I agree, I agree, I agree.” The opening argument over a person’s right to liberty provided that it does not infringe on another’s was an argument I have heard before, sometimes from my own mouth, at other times from others citing Mill. The further I read and the more I thought about it, though, the more I doubted the soundness of the argument. Just to pick a few points, Mill slightly paraphrases the old adage “no man is an island” but doesn’t really follow through with this. After all, if it is right to state that the no person should be hindered from any thought or action that doesn’t affect anyone else, does such a situation exist in real life? While at first glance something I think in the privacy of my own home may seem as isolated as one can get, can one really think that it is isolated from every subsequent thought, and hence action, that I undertake? If any of those thoughts and actions affect another, can one really say that were devoid of influence from earlier thoughts and actions? I would post not, though it is another matter to question whether or not any influence on another is a form of impingement on their liberty; a question that Mill does not seem to properly address.

After his initial discussion on liberty, he turns his attention to religion. If you know me and are familiar with Mill’s views on the matter, it will come as little surprise that I disagree with him. His portrait of what religion is, in particular christianity, seem to be particular to his experience and from this experience he extrapolates to take his negative views to apply more widely than can reasonably be justified. It is rather unfortunate that his rather skewed views on this topic have perpetuated.

From here, he moves on to his view on individualism as the paramount virtue which much must be protected. Though he doesn’t use the word, this is a founding exhortation of libertarianism. In some places, he makes a very good case, particularly with relation to not inhibiting genius. In terms of the argument that is there, one could find it very convincing, as indeed many who call themselves neoliberals do. That is, until you think about it. What he does is to try to play a false dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism, without considering alternatives or properly following through the consequences of individualism.

What makes it doubly bizarre is that he appeals to Bentham on a couple of occasions, and others comment that this liberalism is grounded in utilitarianism. Yet the conclusion that Mill draws is that the needs of the individual are paramount. In other words (to twist the familiar summary of utilitarianism which may be found in a popular film), the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. I would disagree with Mill on this. Because of my christianity, I would favour a more “communitarian” approach whereby, whilst preserving our individual freedoms as much as possible, the needs of others must be put ahead of our own.

Whether you agree with me or with the view of Mill that I have portrayed here, I would encourage you to read it. Even though I would not wholly endorse his view, there is a great deal that is merit worthy contained within this small volume. Given its influence on modern thinking, it also serves as a useful education in the roots of how many neoliberals think.

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One response to “Book Review: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

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