Book Summary: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

Quick Summary: On Liberty explores the balancing act between authority, society, and individuality. This book combines abstract philosophical reasoning with concrete examples to provide a strong defense of personal liberty and self-determination that has been enormously influential on modern liberal societies and political thought.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

On Liberty Book Summary

Lesson 1: Citizens should only be held accountable to their governments when they cause harm to others. Otherwise, individuals should have complete autonomy.

Individuals will never be truly free if they are not free to act as they please in their society. Individuals should be free to act as they see fit, except in extreme cases where their actions may endanger others, such as attempted murder. Governments must resist the temptation to enact rules that force people to behave in certain ways. Of course, this principle only applies to adults who have full faculties; children and the mentally ill may require special assistance.

Accountability is required for crimes against humanity. However, any other action, no matter how ill-advised, can and should be permitted. The question of how much liberty can or should be sacrificed in the name of preventing crime remains unanswered. Governments may find themselves in a difficult situation.

In general, governments should err on the side of providing information rather than imposing restrictions. A governing body’s response to a crime is usually more appropriate than attempting to prevent it. If a dangerous substance, such as poison, is useful, it should be readily available on the market, but the contents should be properly labeled so that the consumer can make an informed choice.

The warning has no effect on personal liberty; it is simply information. People should not be forced, pressed, or coerced to accept advice or instruction. Personal freedom is violated when restrictions or policing are imposed, including the sale of poison.

Lesson 2: Majority decisions govern democracies. This raises the possibility that the ruling party will suppress or even oppress minorities.

Tyranny was imposed for much of history by governments that ruled by force. Rulers imposed their will on their subjects. Liberty was a concept that pitted people against their rulers in such contexts. As a result, sovereigns’ relationship with liberty was antagonistic.

People began to regard tyranny as a relic of the past as more government models shifted toward representative democracies. The hostility dissipated. An elected leader who represented the people could not be opposed to those people, especially since term limits were invented. People reasoned that they didn’t need to be protected from their own will because leaders embodied it.

The problem with this line of thought is that democracies do not always represent all people; rather, they represent the majority of people. This distinction is critical because it allows a majority leader to exercise power that has only been endorsed by a minority of people.

Minority parties may have no representation in government at all. As a result, the government’s power over individuals should be extremely limited; otherwise, it creates a dynamic in which a majority can abuse its power and suppress minority groups’ views. This point is especially important in terms of class differences, because a ruling social class will be incentivized to protect its own interests.

Tyranny does not always necessitate laws or leaders to enforce its demands from the top down in a democracy. Social pressure is an informal but effective method of maintaining the status quo. Prevalent attitudes can stifle individualism, resulting in a suffocating sense of sameness in how people think and behave. People may, for example, self-censor unpopular opinions even if free speech is guaranteed by law.

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Lesson 3: No one’s statements or opinions should ever be censored.

Freedom of expression, which includes thoughts, writing, and speech, is an essential requirement of a free society. No form of expression should ever be restricted or punished under any circumstances. Every opinion, regardless of its veracity, serves the greater good.

A given opinion can only be one of three things: true, false, or partially true. If an opinion is correct, it should be expressed. True beliefs, on the other hand, are generally suppressed when they are mistakenly regarded as false. Because human judgment is fallible, the truth of a matter is never absolute. Since there have been numerous instances in history where beliefs labeled as false were proven to be true over time, it would be foolish to dismiss any opinion as false without due consideration. Even when an opinion is deemed false, truth defenders should always keep the possibility of error in mind.

Even if a belief is false, there is no reason to suppress it. The truth is always energized by vigorous debate. This helps people on both sides of a disagreement better understand the issues at stake. Without such challenges, truth gradually loses its meaning over time. Instead of living, meaningful belief, it becomes habit or rote.

Because the truth is frequently nuanced and complicated, partially true opinions are useful. It is frequently difficult to see the entire truth of a given situation, and as a result, many topics become overly simplified. In such cases, a range of viewpoints aids in the development of dialogue on polarizing issues. Debate is an effective learning tool for revealing complex truths. People with disenfranchised opinions can help clarify issues in a democracy by challenging the views of the majority party in power. Their perspectives are critical to a functioning democracy.

Lesson 4: Over time, societies’ values and opinions change.

While a single worldview tends to dominate within a given society, such as when Christian values predominated in Victorian England, the values of a population are unstable over time. Most societies believe they are committed to truth, but absolute truth is an ideal rather than a realistic goal or fixed endpoint. The expectations that govern people’s behavior eventually loosen and change, and people collectively shift toward a new form of truth.

Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar, discusses how such shifts in social values and behaviors occur in his book How Change Happens (2019). People’s public reactions are governed by social norms.

However, people’s private reactions frequently differ from their public expressions. When a group of people realizes that their private reactions are shared by a larger population of people who feel the same way, sudden societal changes occur. It suddenly feels safe for such people to express feelings for which they previously feared ostracization. Norms that they previously thought were fixed and unquestionable are suddenly called into question.

A peculiar feature of this cycle is that people who overthrow old norms tend to regard the old norms as relics of a bygone era and the new norms as inherently true and even eternal. As a result, they may regard the new norms they impose as static and universal, when in fact, progress necessitates constant evolution.

Lesson 5: People have a natural tendency to believe that their own beliefs are unassailable.

Beliefs are frequently a matter of preference or circumstance rather than fact. However, powerful people are rarely prone to questioning themselves. Instead, they are completely certain of their beliefs, mistaking strong emotions for certainty and objective truth. They frequently underestimate how self-serving their beliefs are.

According to psychological research, even when people seek new information on a given subject, they tend to process data in a way that confirms their existing beliefs. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon that can influence the sources one consults, the interpretive lens through which one judges a situation, or even the way one retrieves memories.

Members of a particular political party, for example, may be more likely to consume news from partisan sources, to allow political bias to influence their analysis of current events, and to forgive or forget the flaws of party leaders more readily than those of their opponents. Confirmation bias is significant because it suggests that our own perspectives are limited in subtle ways. Other people’s perspectives are more likely to enrich our own than self-directed research.

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Lesson 6: Diversity should be encouraged rather than discouraged.

It is critical to promote diversity in society. The human experience is brimming with incredible diversity. Individuals must be allowed to pursue their unique talents and interests in order to feel fulfilled and happy. Obsessive conformity, whether imposed by laws or social norms, stifles individual expression, which is detrimental to personal development. A good life is made up of multiple paths that can be taken at any time.

Another reason why individuality should be encouraged in society is that creativity is a valuable resource. This side of the pro-diversity debate is more pragmatic and utilitarian, emphasizing that what is good for individuals is also good for society as a whole. Individuals who are happy are ultimately beneficial to humanity. Repressed people, on the other hand, are unable to fully contribute to society because the pressure to conform limits their ability to be productive and creative.

Diversity is inherently beneficial, in part because it inspires. A society full of people who all do the same thing creates a stagnant environment in which change is difficult to imagine. People coming together and bouncing ideas off one another fuels social progress, inspiring novel concepts and unlikely connections.

Lesson 7: Conformity is a natural but dangerous phenomenon.

People’s behavior is frequently dictated by their desire to conform. People are naturally pressured to conform to the expectations of others and act accordingly. This influence, even if not enshrined in law or expressed openly, is a powerful motivator—and it can be counterproductive and even harmful.

Consider a group of friends riding mountain bikes together. If two of the riders have a lot of trail experience, the third rider may feel pressured to keep up with them. In that situation, admitting difficulty has low stakes because more experienced riders would likely empathize, slow down, or switch to a different trail. However, the third rider, hoping to fit in, may still feel compelled to remain silent. Conforming to the behavior of more experienced riders may feel mandatory, even if it isn’t—and the ruse may result in a painful accident.

Conformity can also be harmful in the workplace and in society as a whole. Volkswagen, for example, came under fire in 2015 for using software in its diesel vehicles that obscured emissions levels. Volkswagen drivers were unknowingly breaking the law by exceeding emission standards. Millions of customers were duped by the company.

When Volkswagen came under fire, many people wondered why no one had come forward to alert leaders to the problem, especially given that the company employed over 500,000 people. Employees were afraid to speak up in an environment where everyone else was silent, according to the answer. Conformity pressure was ultimately harmful to the company, its customers, and the environment.

Lesson 8: Governments should not be paternalistic

People have the ability to make their own decisions. Any government, no matter how well intentioned, should not attempt to influence people’s physical or moral behavior in any way. Adults who do not harm others should never be held accountable to a higher power, even if some will inevitably behave in perverse or self-defeating ways. People are accountable for their own well-being, and their autonomy should be revered.

One acceptable intervention strategy is to provide information, particularly information that people are unlikely to have on their own. Consider a bridge that has been damaged during a storm. A sign informing users of the damage is useful because most people would avoid using a damaged bridge.

They would almost certainly turn around and take a different route. Individuals who choose to ignore the warning and use the bridge, on the other hand, should not be barred from doing so, even if doing so is extremely dangerous. People should be allowed to assess risks for themselves in general.

Only if the bridge is completely inoperable should a more forceful intervention, such as a physical blockade, be used. Only if a person was certain to be injured while crossing the bridge—for example, if a portion of the bridge was missing, rendering a body of water impassable—would it be appropriate to close the road.

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On Liberty Review

This is a solid work that everyone should read, regardless of political affiliation. How do we balance societal needs with personal liberty? As the government’s will becomes the majority’s will, how can we ensure the minority’s rights? What is so desirable about free speech and diversity (even eccentricity) in the first place? Mill offers some thoughts.

This is one of the most practical pieces from the utilitarian thinkers of the era. Almost prescient on many matters (his genealogy of Christian morality, proto-feminist thinking, and atheism in religious diversity).

Despite that, I don’t believe Mill resolves the concept of social tyranny in this work, which he gives serious thought to. Also, there is some (unsurprising) apologia for imperialism and some over-optimistic assumptions about the role of Parliament as representative of the people.

In spite of these quibbles, I think this is a must-read for political philosophers.

About The Author

John Stuart Mill wrote his work on liberty in Victorian England, a conservative society where people’s behavior was strictly policed by strict rules of etiquette. This is probably why Mill emphasized social norms as a means of majority control in addition to more obvious forms of control such as laws.

Mill’s views on the destructive nature of oppression were most likely influenced by his relationship with his wife, Harriet Taylor, whom he met when she was married to another man. Taylor married after her first husband died. Although nothing unusual happened, the situation led to a social scandal that shaped Mill’s views on the harmful nature of a censorious society. Mill was not religious, which explains his measured criticism of Christianity, which was prevalent in his society at the time.

Mill received an unusually strict upbringing from his father, James Mill, although he had no formal education and never attended a college. James had worked closely with the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who founded the utilitarian school of thought. As a result, Mill’s thinking is influenced by pragmatism.

At the same time, Mill was strongly influenced by the poets of Romanticism, whom he began to read after a serious mental illness in his early twenties. This new influence, diametrically opposed to utilitarianism, changed Mill’s perspective in the sense that he realized that his earlier education had shown him only part of a larger truth that he could now see more clearly. On Liberty contains romantic elements, particularly in Mill’s ideas about what constitutes a good life and the importance he places on creativity. Mill’s life project of reconciling utilitarianism and romanticism is exemplified by this text.

Mill was a progressive social politician for his time, especially with regard to education and the equality of women.

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