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ON LIBERTY by John Stuart Mill


by John Stuart Mill, W.L. Courtney LL.D. (Introduction)

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3,208141,733 (3.91)54
Authors:John Stuart Mill
Other authors:W.L. Courtney LL.D. (Introduction)
Info:London: Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd.
Collections:Your library
Tags:Philosophy & Religion, Literature, EBook

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On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1859)


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This is a lucid, powerful, and extremely influential defense of individual liberty. It's short, too, less than 150 paperback pages, very accessible and worth knowing whatever your beliefs. After all, as Mill himself says, if something is true, we should learn it--if something is false, it can still illuminate truth through its errors. Although I think there are some fatal defects, I also find much that is persuasive and wise. I like his arguments for the utility of freedom of speech and opinion and the dangers of conformity. Mill states his object from the start:

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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

For me so far, so good. I see two major problems with his arguments though, defects that are undermine the above. First, there is his insistence in grounding his argument on Utilitarianism:

It is proper to state that 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.

And then Mill makes a curious move. He states his arguments don't apply to children that those "who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury." Fair enough. But then he goes on to say that:

Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.

That in my opinion is what always lets the tyrant in the door. It's for their own good! Wasn't after all that the argument for everything from black chattel slavery to colonialism? If you don't ground individual liberty as a right, then the argument can always be made that a individual person or even the majority of the people don't know their own good. Who is to say when humankind has reached the age of majority? And indeed you can see that in Mill's own evolution. In this essay he argues for the free market--but eventually would become a socialist. So... ( )
2 vote LisaMaria_C | Sep 20, 2013 |
Apart from the small print and huge paragraphs, this is a supremely readable and insightful tome of political philosophy. I can agree in general with his ideas, but in response to all of those free market neo-liberals worshipping at his feet I would point to page 80:

Whoever succeeds in an overcrowded profession, or in a competitive examination; whoever is preferred to another in any contest for an object which both desire, reaps benefit rom the loss of others, from their wasted exertion and their disappointment. But it is, by common admission, better for the general interest of mankind, that persons should pursue their objects undeterred by this sort of consequences. In other words, society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors, to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere, only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit -- namely, fraud or treachery, and force.

That seems to succinctly condemn any of the hanky panky going on up there Wall Street-ward, and even allow for society (i.e. state) intervention to prevent it. Admittedly, it leaves the definition of "treachery" and "force" rather fuzzy.

I found deeply engaging his elegant conversation about freedom of opinion and expression in chapters 2 and 3. Among many memorable points, he proclaims the importance of keeping our beliefs alive and honed through honest and vigorous debate with opposing opinions. Also very interesting were his ideas about the school system in chapter 5. I´d be interested to hear what he had to say about universal health care. ( )
  blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
The ENTIRE BOOK is found (free) online at the Nader Library: http://www.naderlibrary.com/MILL.LIBERTY.1.htm ( )
1 vote | vegetarian | Nov 6, 2012 |
The seminal work on utilitarianism by it's intellectual founder. JSM's take on macro and micro economics (as we know them now) is critical to understanding our freedoms as tied to a economized society.

A must read for all libertarians and socialists. ( )
1 vote jgreenia | Oct 29, 2012 |
How did I get a college degree without reading this book? How did I even get a high school diploma? John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, written just before the US Civil War, is an amazing look at the concept of liberty, what we in the modern United States would call freedom. Although the book is a century and a half old the language is only slightly dusty and the issues are depressingly current. What is the proper role of government, should women have rights equal to men, should majority opinion create rules for the minority?

Mills’ believed that, as long an individual’s actions do not cause harm someone else, those individuals, those adult individuals, should be allowed to do whatever they please. His argument on the Temperance Movement of his era is directly applicable to the question of recreational drugs today, as are his comments on freedom of religion.

This book, along with Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” are the most important works I have read on the subject of freedom and the proper role of government, both are old enough that I doubt anyone could accuse the authors of these books of “partisan politics” unless, that is, they consider freedom and liberty of interest only the “other side”. ( )
2 vote TLCrawford | Jul 12, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (51 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Stuart Millprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Berlin, IsaiahIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Himmelfarb, GertrudeEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirk, RussellIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rapaport, ElizabethEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodríguez Huéscar, AntonioForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sainz Pulido, JosefaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.
Sphere and Duties of Government.
To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings -- the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward -- I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her as to me; but the work as it stands has had, to a very insufficient degree, the inestimable advantage of her revision; some of the most important portions having been reserved for a more careful re-examination, which they are now never destined to receive. Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feeling which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.
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The subject of this essay is not the so-called 'liberty of the will', so unfortunately opposed the misnamed doctrine of philosophical necessity; but civil, or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.
Orthodox Christians who are tempted to think that those who stoned to death the first martyrs must have been worse men than they themselves are ought to remember that one of those persecutors was Saint Paul.
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A single essay. Do not combine with books containing this essay in addition to others.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140432078, Paperback)

'Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign'. To this 'one very simple principle' the whole of Mill's essay "On Liberty" is dedicated. While many of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, from Adam Smith to Godwin and Thoreau, had celebrated liberty, it was Mill who organized the idea into a philosophy, and put it into the form in which it is generally known today. The editor of this essay, Gertrude Himmelfarb records responses to Mill's books and comments on his fear of 'the tyranny of the majority'. Dr. Himmelfarb concludes that the same inconsistencies which underlie "On Liberty" continue to complicate the moral and political stance of liberals today.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:17 -0400)

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In one of the most influential philosophical works ever writer, John Stuart Mill explores the risks and responsibilities of liberty. Examining the tyranny that can come both from government and from the herd-like opinion of the majority, Mill proposes a freedom to think, unite, and pursue our pleasures as the most important freedoms, as long as we cause no harm to others. GREAT IDEAS. Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves -- and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives -- and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140432078, 014144147X

Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300096100, 0300096089

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