Mill on Liberty 3: Application and Evaluation

The final Chapter of Mill’s On Liberty concerns the application of its principles to society at large and deserves close analysis. First, however, I want to return to the end of his defense of individual liberty, where he says:

A civilisation that can thus succumb to its vanquished enemy, must first have become so degenerate, that neither its appointed priests and teachers, nor anybody else, has the capacity, or will take the trouble, to stand up for it. If this be so, the sooner such a civilisation receives notice to quit, the better. It can only go on from bad to worse, until destroyed and regenerated (like the Western Empire) by energetic barbarians. [1]

A free nation can only remain free where its leadership, including religious leadership, and its educational systems provide the necessary leadership and education upon which freedom depends. It is often said that democracy cannot be defeated from without until it has degenerated from within. This is a sentiment with which Mill would have agreed. While freedom of thought, opinion and action are to be reasonably protected, these freedoms are worth nothing if those who have that freedom do not use their freedom in ways that support and undergird the society and legal system that makes possible freedom of thought, speech and action. This is a point to which we will return at the end of this week’s blog.

Fundamental Principles

Mill begins his final chapter on application of the principle of liberty of thought, opinion, speech and action by restating the fundamental principles that underlie his work:

  1. Freedom. Individuals are not accountable to society for actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but themselves.
  2. Restraint. As to actions that are prejudicial to the interests of others, individuals can be held accountable, and may be subjected to social and/or to legal reprimand, in order for the public interest to be protected. [2]

In the case of actions that do not impact others, society may and should give advice, instruction, and engage in persuasion. A person may be avoided by others if thought necessary for their own good or the good of the public. These are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of conduct that does not significantly impact other people.

As simple and straight forward as these principles may be in the abstract, they are not easily applied in concrete situations, as we shall see in the discussion that follows.

Extensions of the Principle of Liberty

First, there are situations where an action may be prejudicial to the interests of others but still society should not permit such action to be rested, two of which are described by Mill as follows:

  1. The Competition Extension. Where people engage in competition to secure some advantage or honor, the party who is disappointed cannot complain or restrain the competition because of their personal disappointment. For example, if a society grants a prize for the best poet and 100 poets enter a competition, the mere fact that they have lost the competition does not entitle them to complain about the success of the winner.
  2. The Commerce Extension. Similarly, a person may not complain that they were unsuccessful in a business simply because another competitor was more successful. Again, it is in the nature of economic competition in a free society that some competitors are unsuccessful or less successful than others. Some may fail completely. This lack of success is not grounds for restrictions on the rights of their competitors.

In these situations, of course, the exemption is not absolute. Restrictions on fraud, deceit, unfair trade practices, abuse of monopoly, and a host of other behaviors may be justified, especially in the case of economic competition. Quality control standards, applicable to all competitors equally, are not restrictions on competition, rather they are ground rules for the functioning of a free enterprise system. The same may be said for environmental, worker safety, and a host of other restrictions that are not restraints on competition but simply rules applicable to all participants. [3]

One area of importance in freedom of commerce has to do with how far liberty should be extended where a product has an potential for damage or illegal use. For example, many agricultural chemicals could be used as a poison in a murder scheme. Perhaps more a matter of the public conscience today has to do with the sale of firearms, which in the United States are subject to a constitutional right of citizens to possess them. Laws that restrain children, previous offenders, and the incompetent from possessing dangerous chemicals or weapons might not be subject to challenge as restraints on freedom. (Though in the United States, this does not necessarily answer the constitutional arguments for possession of firearms.) In these cases, Mill is of the view that governments should indulge in the minimum restraint necessary to protect the public against crimes. In the case of medicines, poisons or firearms, no freedom is unduly restricted by laws requiring sellers of potentially dangerous products keeping lists of purchasers, their addresses, and the like. [4]

Restraints on “Victimless Crimes”

Certain crimes which involve behavior that society deems immoral or injurious to society are by their nature personal. For example, public drunkenness, certain drug use, prostitution, gambling, and the like are behaviors in which society may have a limited interest in condemning, restraining, or regulating, but which experience indicates are difficult to eliminate and sometimes not of significant social impact.

This does not mean that the public may have no interest in some forms of regulation. For example, while drunkenness of itself may not be regulatable, many violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. As a result, society is justified in restricting those who sell alcohol and the future behavior of those who have engaged in criminal behavior while under the influence of alcohol. This same principle is also be applicable to those who take legal drugs of any kind.

Prostitution is another such behavior. History testifies to the inability of governments to successfully prevent “the world’s oldest profession.” However, the inability to eliminate a behavior is different from regulating it in the public interest. Prostitution is associated with the spread of venereal diseases, crime, the breakdown of families, and a number of social ills. Therefore, while society might not be entitled on utilitarian principles to completely prohibit the behavior, restricting significant limitations on the activity, such as requiring registration, testing for disease, restricting brothels to certain areas which can be effectively policed for violent crimes, and the like are not prohibited on utilitarian principles.

In this particular instance, Mill has an interesting discussion on whether pimping could be held illegal even if prostitution were not illegal. Mill is inclined towards the principle that if a behavior cannot be restricted, then those who encourage or advise the behavior should not be restricted. However, he recognizes that there are reasons why this might not be the correct result. Those who encourage or advise the sale alcohol, drugs or sex do promote an “intemperance” and related social evils, which may in and of itself justify some kind of restrictions on behavior. In addition, those who encourage an undesirable behavior create social costs which must be borne by society. This may justify restrictions on what might be called “enabling behavior.”

Use of Taxation and Regulation as a Restraint

Mill is aware that taxation can be used to render uneconomic a behavior in which people would otherwise engage. Thus, gambling, alcohol, marijuana where legal, and other commodities are sometimes taxes in ways that restrict their use. In general, Mill is opposed to using taxation in ways that impinge of human freedom. Once again, his fundamental fairness inclines him to see another side to the argument. For example, where a social cost can be identified, taxing a product in order to pay the costs of, for example, addiction treatments, can be justified, and the utilitarian principle does not prevent such a tax, since the tax is associated with a feature of the freedom being exercised that has a social cost that can be identified and quantified to some degree.

The same can be said of regulations that may restrict entry to a business by some persons. Where a product has a potential danger to society, regulating who can engage in such commerce is a response to the danger not a restriction on liberty. For example that, preventing former violent offenders, or proclaimed terrorists from engaging in the business of selling weapons and explosives is a legitimate use of the power of regulating a dangerous activity. Restricting the ability of known alcoholics to own bars and liquor stores is another area in which some kind of restriction on entry might be permitted.


From my perspective, one of the most important sections of On Liberty has to do with divorce, since it was important in creating a social climate favorable to divorce. Mill was a proponent of what in our day we would call “no fault divorce.” [5] In particular, he was of the view, common until recently, that divorce was actually good for the children involved for it freed them from an unhappy home.

In the 1960’s in America this particular defense was often used for creating liberal divorce laws. This has been questioned by many studies. [6] Divorce does have economic impacts on both partners and economic and emotional impacts on children. As I said in another venue:

The excessive individualism of our culture breeds a society in which children many times lack the kind of close emotional intimacy with their parents that breeds healthy, well-balanced children. Too often, parents are emotionally absent from children as they seek business success, affluence, personal satisfaction, and personal pleasure. It is possible that the individualism of our culture is a reaction to the excessive communitarian nature of pre-modern societies. What is needed is a balanced recovery of the importance of extended family and community within the life of children. This may be especially true in America where families and communities have become almost pathologically weak during the past century. [7]

It is worth recognizing that Mill was reacting against much more restrictive laws prevalent during the 19th Century in England. I am uncertain when society. will change to recognize the importance of the family to personal happiness and social stability, but I am very sure it must do so for our society to survive and prosper. As a pastor, I can testify to the emotional damage divorce can create for everyone concerned. In our society there has developed a personally unwise degree of individualism and self-seeking, that needs to be balanced by commitment to family, children, and marriage.


Near the end of On Liberty, Mill engages in a long discussion of the subject of education. In his day, it was a matter of dispute whether parents should be required to see to the education of their children. Mill is a supporter of requiring that parents or guardians educate their children. He feels that this requirement is necessary in order that the future economic and social potential of children not be harmed by parents who, for example, would put them to work in factories in order to supplement family income. (As a side-note, my wife and I have seen in mission work this phenomenon at work in underdeveloped countries, especially with intelligent and capable female children who are put to work in situations where there is little chance of advancement in order to help with family finances.)

Interestingly, Mill is not in favor of a governmental monopoly on education. At one point he makes the following comment:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State, should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence. [8]

Mill believes that, while parents should be required to fulfill their duty to educate their children, the state should not have a monopoly on such education. In fact, it is undesirable that they do so. The means by which the state should enforce universal education is by providing and encouraging alternatives and testing for results and providing for exceptional testing, for example to prepare people for law, medicine or other professions requiring special capacity.[9]


Mill has such a fair and fertile mind that I could analyze and appreciate his work for many blogs to come, but I do not have time to do so within the constraints of the project in which I am engaged. It is fair to describe Mill as a classic political and economic liberal, who believes that the state should be restricted to those activities and laws that cannot reasonably be effectively done by individuals. In many cases, even if government could possibly do something more effectively, it should not do so where it would inhibit the full development of people. [10] Mill sees in Czarist Russia and in France the results of an excessively centralized and bureaucratic state, in which government tries to do too much at the expense of personal responsibility. The result is either ineffective despotism or destructive revolution. [11] He uses 19thCentury America as an example of the beneficial results of a nation populated by a free people accustomed to solving their own problems. Such a people, Mill believes, “will not let themselves be enslaved by any man or body of men.” [12]

We see signs that the centralization and bureaucratic growth in the United States may have reached an undesirable level and that people may have become too accustomed to feel that all social ills are to be solved by government intervention. Mill’s warning that the wise government allows individuals to solve as many of their own problems as possible remains good advice, whatever size or structure state, local, and national governments may take.

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968), at 113, hereinafter “On Liberty”.

[2] Id, at 114.

[3] Id, at 115-116. This is an area in which Mill seems to mistake all restrictions of any kind as restraints on freedom. He views restraints of any kind as an “evil”, rather than structural features of a competition. To take an example from a sport, the rule that all batters in baseball must stay within the batter’s box is not a restraint or restriction on the freedom of batters; it is a rule of the game. Similarly, were Congress to pass a rule that all makers of cell phones must arrange for the complete recycling of parts of the phones when no longer in use, that would not be a restraint on trade but a rule of the business of making cell phones.

[4] Id, at 118. Mill has an interesting argument in these situations from Bentham’s notion of “pre-appointed evidence.” Where certain information is required to be kept on sales and the like, it only becomes important if a crime is inf fact committed. So for example, if a certain chemical is used in farming and purchasers must supply information, that record may become evidence that a particular defendant had purchased the means of committing the alleged crime.

[5] Id, at 126ff. It is not an argument against a philosophical position that the person making a claim may have some personal prejudice, but in the case of Mill’s feelings on divorce, the long years that he and Harriet had to wait in order to marry may have a bearing on his views.

[6] See Whitehead, Barbara Defoe & Popenoe David, “The State of our Unions: Social Health of Marriage in America 2003” 10 Theology Matters No. 2 (March-April 2003), 1-8.

[7] G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 112. The subject of the importance of family life to developing wisdom is dealt with in Chapter 8.

[8] On Liberty, at 129.

[9] Id, at 130.

[10] Id, at 133.

[11] Id, at 136-137.

[12] Id, at 137.

John Stuart Mill 2: Freedom to be Yourself

By now, it is clear I am a fan of John Stuart Mill and appreciate both his thought and character. I hope the minor critique contained in this week’s blog will not be seen in any way as diminishing my respect. The history of ideas is an unfolding process, and the human experience is one of continual unfolding. This unfolding of human understanding means that every contribution, even those we may think mistaken, is a part of getting the human race where it is today.

Last week’s blog dealt with the beginning of On Liberty. [1] Mill begins his work by introducing his theme and its importance. He defends the role of freedom of thought, speech, and action as necessary for a free society and for the achievement of practical wisdom in government. In Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of On Liberty are devoted to the importance of individuality to human well-being, the limitations that ought to be put on the authority for society to limit human freedom, and certain applications of the doctrines.

In these chapters, Mill develops a common Enlightenment notion of the nature and limits of human freedom. In so doing, Mill also betrays a typical 19th century “human atomism,” that sees society made up of isolated individuals, just as Newtonian science saw the material world as made up of atoms. Based upon this world-view, Mill is positively concerned to create a zone of freedom within which human beings can be free to develop themselves as autonomous individuals. [2] We shall see how successful he might be in this endeavor.

The Utilitarian Principle, Liberty, and the Individual

Mill begins his defense of Individuality with a clear statement of the approach of a Utilitarian to the subject:

Such being the reasons which make it imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; and such the baneful consequences to the intellectual, and through that to the moral nature of man, unless this liberty is either conceded, or asserted in spite of prohibition; let us next examine whether the same reasons do not require that men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril. This last proviso is of course indispensable. No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. [3]

The first two chapters of Mill’s work set out the necessity for freedom of thought and opinions as well as speech. In the third section of the treatise, he turns his attention to the extent to which human beings should be free to act upon their ideas. There are two principles which Mill defends in this section of On Liberty.

  • First, people should be free to form and express hinderances without restriction.
  • Second, however, the right to express opinions and act upon them is only absolute when they are formed and acted upon at their “risk and peril” and without significant risk and peril to others.

Actions that impact others, can be restricted legitimately. In addition, where an opinion is being voiced with the intention of instigating a “mischievous act,” it can be restricted. [4]

Mill was aware that all actions may be said to impact others, and in some small sense may do so. His point is that, where the negative impact on others is not significant, persons should be free to speak and act. However, where the speech or act might cause measurable, significant harm to others or society, the situation is not so clear. For example, freedom of thought, speech and action concerning a public event does not entitle one to blow up a public building filled with citizens. Nevertheless, where the potential harm to the public is not significant, freedom of thought, opinion, speech and action is to be protected by civil authorities.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that utilitarian thought is an inevitable feature of public decision-making. Even under tyrannies, there are limits to the police power of the state and the social control of majorities. The decision to prohibit an opinion, restrict speech, or criminalize an action is subject to the prudential nature of those in government. Not every idea, opinion or act that the state thinks wrong-headed can or should be restricted. In this sense, utilitarian thought is an inevitable feature of government.

However, in contemporary society, freedom cannot be defended strictly upon utilitarian grounds because there are  always reasons why any opinion or act could be considered beneficial or harmful. A feature of contemporary America is increasing restrictions on the ability of people to voice unpopular opinions or act upon them. As Mill and others foresaw, in a democracy there is a constant danger that thought, opinion, and speech will be forced to conform to law and majority public opinion. In my view, this is where what I have called a “Politics of Love” comes into play. To value the other is to allow the other to be his or herself, form his or her opinions, voice them, and act upon them to the maximum extent possible, even when we disagree and where there is some risk in so doing.

Mill and Formation of the Individual

To say that “individuals” should be free to form, hold, voice and act upon their own opinions begs the question as to the nature of the individuals to whom this right may be said to apply. Mill does think that the freedom of which he speaks is a substitute for parental guidance and training of the young, for education, and for the proper formation of the mind and will of people. In speaking of tradition, Mill wisely remarks that:

No one would assert that people ought not to put into their mode of life, and into the conduct of their concerns, any impress whatever of their own judgment, or of their own individual character. On the other hand, it would be absurd to pretend that people ought to live as if nothing whatever had been known in the world before they came into it; as if experience had as yet done nothing towards showing that one mode of existence, or of conduct, is preferable to another. Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. [5]

In order for human civilization to exist and progress, every idea and thought, every notion of human good, every pragmatic test of right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness cannot be rediscovered and reinvented in every generation. Therefore, youth do need to be taught and formed so that they might live successfully and form their characters wisely when they have arrived at the age when their own individuality can and should be expressed.

This is an area in which our culture is vastly deficient and much of the mischievousness of the deficiency is built upon a misunderstanding of the kind of freedom to choose that is reasonable for people to have at various stages of life. If a politics of love is required to undergird the utilitarian notion of freedom of thought, opinion, speech and action, a “politics of wisdom” is needed to undergird these very same freedoms.

In the end, Mill believes that human beings need freedom in order to develop their inborn capacities. He compares what he believes to be “an early state of society,” where people needed the discipline and control of external restraints on their behavior, to the current time (which would be Great Britain of the 19th Century where such restraints are no longer needed).

Mill is particularly critical of Calvinism, with its extreme notion of the results of the Fall, as Luther would have put it, its notion of the “Bondage of the Will,” that renders human beings incapable of wise and good actions. In keeping with Mill’s general appreciation of human capacity for moral and aesthetic progress, he rejects the darker implications of Protestant theology. Mill’s notion is that there needs to be a blending of the Greek ideal of self-development and a Christian notion of self denial. [6]

For Mill, the self-denial he sees in Calvinism, results in a drab uniformity of human character. What is needed is a wise cultivation of all human capacities:

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. [7]

Once again, it is my view that all Christians can join with Mill in this desire that human beings should be able to flourish in both the people they become and the works that they do. This is the fulfillment of human beings being made in the “image of God” and given the earth to cultivate and improve as a garden. It is the recovery of that image that motivates Christian conversion and sanctification. Where Christianity differs a bit from Mill’s vision is in a deeper appreciation for the capacities of the human spirit for foolishness, selfishness, and even evil.

This is not to say that Mill himself is not aware of the implications of his views of human flourishing, for he immediately conditions human freedom as existing “within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others.” From a Christian perspective the same freedom love bestows on the beloved also restrains Christians actions that negatively impact the rights and interests of others.

Among those who Mill wishes to protect from artificial restraints are those of genius, who must be allowed to “unfold itself freely in both thought and practice”. [8]  In Mill’s view, human history is characterized by an abstract appreciation of genius coupled with a tendency to suppress it in favor of mediocrity.

At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. This is as true in the moral and social relations of private life as in public transactions. [9]

In Mill’s view, the masses, and those who have power because of their leadership of the masses, are instinctively given to oppressing new ideas and challenges to the status quo they enjoy. In modern democracies, this ends up in the suppression of dissent and new ideas. The ideal of progress requires that genius especially be free to think, publish and experiment with as few restraints as possible. Therefore, not just genius in particular requires protection.

Sitting behind Mill’s views sits the instinctive hostility of the Enlightenment to tradition, or in the case of Mill, “custom.” Thus Mill writes:

The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement. The spirit of improvement is not always a spirit of liberty, for it may aim at forcing improvements on an unwilling people; and the spirit of liberty, in so far as it resists such attempts, may ally itself locally and temporarily with the opponents of improvement; but the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals. The progressive principle, however, in either shape, whether as the love of liberty or of improvement, is antagonistic to the sway of Custom,…. [10]

It is here that I think Mill can most justly be critiqued. Every society has customs or traditions that impact thought, opinion, and behavior. In fact, there is no possibility of constructive thought without a tradition. The Enlightenment itself is a continuation of a tradition that began in the Renaissance, but which has roots in both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization. It is not custom or tradition that is the enemy of progress but prejudice and a lack of openness to new ideas and change.


As indicated above, there is much about Mill that should resonate with contemporary people, since we see in social media and among some politicians the desire to eliminate views that challenge the received wisdom of the present age. However, the defense that Mill makes is less convincing, I believe, to modern ears precisely because of the understanding we have of the power of the media and the difficulty of discerning harmful opinions from those which are not harmful.  Furthermore, we live in an age in which the relativity of knowledge and the reality of an almost infinite range of perspectives and opinions on matters of public interest render public officials and the public itself desirous of cutting off debate, sometimes prematurely. This is the dark side of postmodernism where combined with a Nietzschean notion of the “Will to Power,” which I believe to be a characteristic our media and politics.

Finally, our current situation undercuts one of the primary postulates of utilitarian thought: the notion that it is possible to define areas of private opinion and action where there are negligible impacts on others. In point of fact, human society is deeply relational and almost nothing we think, say or do is without some degree of social consequences for ourself and others. Defining the boundaries of freedom of thought, opinion and action has become increasingly difficult as has maintaining public defense of such freedom.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968), hereinafter “On Liberty”.

[2] See, David Shultz “On Liberty” in the First Amendment Encyclopedia (downloaded January 5, 2022).

[3] On Liberty, at 67.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 70.

[6] Id, at 75-76.

[7] Id, at 76.

[8] Id, at 79.

[9] Id, at 80.

[10] Id, at 85-86.

Mill 1: “On Liberty” Part One

John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty” is one of the most important pieces of political philosophy that this series of blogs will examine. [1] Last year, I introduced Mill and reviewed his Utilitarianism. This week, we look at On Liberty. By common consent, On Liberty is the greatest and most enduring of Mill’s efforts as a political thinker, and the work has influenced American law and politics in a profound way, even to the current time, over a century after its publication.

At twenty-five, Mill met Harriet Taylor, who was then married to a businessman. Mill and Harriet Taylor became close friends, eventually marrying in 1851, after the death of her husband. For the next ten years, Mill and Harriet lived quietly together, and Mill credits her with the inspiration for his work. Mill wrote much of On Liberty before her untimely death in 1858, publishing it in 1859, untouched after Harriet’s death. He dedicated the essay to his wife in loving terms, calling her the inspiration for the work and co-author of much of the essay.

Tyranny in a Democratic Society

Mill was among the first to recognize that the advent of a democratic era changed the fundamental threat to liberty. In the ancient and medieval world, the fundamental threat to liberty was the king, emperor, the seat of all governmental power and authority. However, with the advent of democracy, the fundamental threat had changed. Now, the greatest threat to freedom was not the state, but the people themselves, or more properly a majority of the people or that portion of the people who have gained power. Here is how Mill puts it:

It was now perceived that such phrases as “self-government and “the power of the people over themselves” do not express the true state of the case. The “people” who exercise power are not always the same people over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the same 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 the most active part of the people—the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority, the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number and precautions are needed against this s against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein. [2]

I could spend the remainder of this blog unpacking the importance of this paragraph and the time spent reading it would not be wasted, for it describes the situation that presents the greatest threat to freedom in the West today. Mill recognized that, when translated into political institutions, Enlightenment notions like, “Will of the People” (Rousseau) and “Self-Government” practically mean the will of those in power and those who put them there. The fundamental threat to liberty, therefore, is the people themselves and their elected representatives.

This is important because elections do not always or even commonly reflect the “will of the people” but can and do reflect the will of political parties, media companies, “king-makers,” wealthy contributors, political activists, and the like. Elections can be rigged and votes purchased—and have been since the beginning of democratic institutions. “The people,” meaning “those not in power,” need protection from “elected officials and the people and those who put them there.” This is a fundamental challenge to any functioning democracy and is why checks and balances are so important as well as a strong tradition of freedom of speech.

Just as importantly, democracies, as de Tocqueville early observed, create restrictions on liberty by the very nature of majority rule and the desire of groups in power to stay there. Social pressure is much greater in a democracy than in other forms of government. In a nation where everyone is a Christian, Jews and other religions need protection from the majority religious faith. Increasingly in America, everyone of any faith needs protection from the elites who disbelieve in any kind of religion and simply play them off against each other for power. In a place where the majority are either Republican or Democratic, the minority group needs protection against the natural human tendency to force our beliefs on others. The same thing is true of moral and other positions that may be unpopular with those in power.

Thus, Mill observes that:

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 thought 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. [3]

Mill sees that social tyranny is the most devastating tyranny of all, reaching into every aspect of human life. Thus, a free society has an interest not just in the kinds of political tyranny that have besmirched human history, but also with social tyranny, which is just as bad.

Point of the Essay

Mill’s desire is to secure a place for freedom of thought and action within the context of modern society. His basic proposal is that legal and social compulsion is only warranted in order to prevent harm to others. Absent a harm to others, people should not be compelled to secure their own best interests or happiness. [4] Mill immediately exempts from this freedom minors and those lacking in the capacity to seek their own best interests or happiness.[5] This exemption also applies to societies which lack the capacity to act wisely. [6] This particular exemption seems to me to be both a justification of British colonial policy, with respect to which Mill was a participant, and an invitation to tyranny. [7]

In setting out his premise, Mill specifically endorses the public application of the utility principle of Bentham to public life, so long as “utility” is given its largest possible sense grounded on the permanent interests of the human race as a progressive species. [8] Mill, it will be remembered, rejected a simplistic Utilitarianism and included all the finest potentials of which human capacity within his version of Utilitarianism. In my view, Christians can easily embrace some features of Mill’s Utilitarianism, for it opens the door to ultimate commitments and their importance for a full life and true happiness.

Scope of Freedom of Thought, Speech, and Action

There are three particular areas in which Mill defends the liberty of the individual within the parameters of the utility principle:

  1. Individual freedom of thought, opinion, and conscience on all matters.
  2. Individual absolute freedom to develop and pursue a person’s own plan of life, suffering whatever consequences they endure because of their choices.
  3. Social freedom giving groups the same rights given individuals so long as their collective actions do not harm others. [9]

Mill’s formula has been criticized from time to time as insufficiently setting out the parameters of the utility principle in securing human freedom, and from a communitarian point of view for underestimating or ignoring the importance of social factors and the practical inability to take any actions that do not have impacts on others, including family, friends, colleagues, fellow citizens and the like. However, it would be wrong not to note that Mill, like most modern thinkers, intends to protect the individual from any unnecessary control and to protect freedom of thought, speech, and action to the maximum degree possible. In Mill’s case he wants to protect individual and social groups from restraints because he thinks this is the key to a healthy society.

Why Freedom Is Necessary

In Mill’s analysis, he sets out three fundamental reasons why freedom of opinion, speech and action need to be protected:

  1. First, the opinion, however obnoxious, might be correct. Human beings by nature believe their own opinions to be correct and those opposed to their opinions to be wrong. This is as true in democracies as in autocracies.
  2. Second, even if an opinion is false, its expression can be beneficial, for it gives those who hold a truer opinion the opportunity to grow in an understanding of the truth, which is beneficial to society.
  3. Finally, most opinions are neither wholly true nor wholly false. In these cases full freedom of thought, speech, and action gives society the opportunity to discern the best truth or a better truth than any previous opinion. [10]

In developing his argument, Mill gives three important examples to illustrate the foolishness of suppressing unpopular opinions, Socrates, Christian faith, and Marcus Aurelius. The ancient Greeks put to death Socrates for the crime of undermining the character of the young, the ancient Jews and Rome put to death the Christ, and Aurelius persecuted the Christian movement. In each case, history has proven the persecutors wrong. [11]

If we take our current division in American politics to be a good example of the third group, we recognize that neither the left nor the right, neither free-market aficionado’s nor those who prefer socialism are probably completely correct, but the best and most wise policy is something different. Over the past thirty or so years, both major political parties have been in the majority more than once, but the problems of an increasing deficit, out of control medical care costs, and an increasing concentration of wealth continue. A wise person might ask if there is not some better way or a better policy approach in these areas than the ones we have been trying.


On Liberty is of such importance that I have determined to spend at least another week exploring its meaning and significance for this series of blogs. Today, the great threat to liberty is not Christian faith but a kind of radical secularism that is busy squashing any contrary views. On college campuses the views of Christians, political conservatives, and others are actively suppressed. Prominent leaders are denied the chance to speak to students.

Unfortunately, our government is not without complicity in attempts to squash free speech. However well intentioned, this problem has become abundantly apparent in the attempts to prevent any critique of the government’s response to Covid19 and the potential availability of alternative treatments. I think Mill’s position would be that, while government has the right to issue mandates, it does not have the right, nor should it, to prevent or artificially inhibit contrary views, for this would be to prevent the full defense of its own policies and/or the exposure of a mistaken policy, neither of which are in the public interest.

In one of Mill’s most poignant passages, he reminds his readers that it is a “pleaseant falsehood” [12]to believe that truth has some inherent power to prevail over falsehood, going on to say:

It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal of even of social penalties will generally succeed stopping the propagation of either. [13]

The long history of the human race contains abundant examples in religion, government, science and other areas where powerful political, economic, and social forces have suppressed ideas that were true or promoted ideas that were false to the ultimate injury of many people and a delay in progress. [14] As Mill points out, it is foolish to believe that, in our current state of society such a result is no longer possible, warning “Let us not flatter ourselves that we are yet free from the stain even of legal persecution.” [15] Wise words.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968).

[2] Id, at 6.

[3] Id, at 7.

[4] Id, at 13.

[5] Id.

[6] Id, at 14.

[7] Id. I do not have space to quote and discuss this exemption, but Mill’s wording would permit despotic behavior any time an elite feels that the majority or a substantial minority of citizens are “unenlightened” about any matter that has the slightest reference to free self-determination.

[8] Id.

[9] Id, at 16.

[10] This is a summary of the argument Mill makes in Chapter 2 of On Liberty, entitled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.” Id, at 19-67. See also, David Shultz “On Liberty” in the First Amendment Encyclopedia (downloaded January 5, 2022).

[11] Id, at 29-33. It is beyond the scope of these blogs, but this particular section is filled with wisdom and illustrates the complex views of Mill related to Christ and the Christian faith. Although he is critical of the persecution of heretics by Christians, he is also aware of the great contributions of Christian faith to Western history and the development of modern civilization.

[12] Id, at 34.

[13] Id, at 34-35.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

Epiphany Letter: J.S. Mill on the Character of the Wise Person

For years, it was my habit to begin the Christmas sermon series on the first Sunday of Advent and end it on the Sunday the congregation celebrated Epiphany, which is traditionally the end of the Christmas Season. Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Wise Men to see Jesus, the last of the Christmas stories recorded in the Bible. This blog has to do with wisdom for living, and so Epiphany is among my favorite days of the Christian year. Therefore, this week, we are pondering the Wise Men who followed a star to find the Baby Jesus and how it might apply to political decision-making.

The Wise Men and Celestial Wisdom

Thursday January 6 is Epiphany, the day we will celebrate story of the Wise Men who came from the east to worship the Baby Jesus. The word “Epiphany” means a “revealing”. In this case, the Wise Men were the first Gentiles, that is non-Jews, to whom the Messiah was revealed. In the coming of the Wise Men, God revealed the importance of Christ not just to the Jewish nation, but to all the nations of the world.

The story goes something like this: After Jesus was born, hundreds of miles to the east, perhaps near Babylon, there were “Magi,” star-gazers, astrologists or astronomers, as we might call them, who studied the heavens believing that the future and the meaning of events could be understood through studying the stars. [1] They were among the forerunners of modern science of astronomy. Because of their great learning, these Magi were influential, sometimes advising Medean and Persian kings. About the time Jesus was born some of these Magi saw a star in the West where the Jewish people were located and deduced that it was an omen that a king had been born in the land of the Jews.[2]

After confirming their calculations, they decided to go and pay homage to this new-born King of the Jews. They set off on a journey that would have taken them across the Fertile Crescent, and then through Palestine, down the east side of the Mediterranean Sea until they came to Jerusalem then ruled by King Herod, who it turned out had not had an heir. After consulting with the religious leaders who advised Herod, they learned that the Jews believed their Messiah, an anointed king and deliverer, was to be born in Bethlehem in Judea, and so they went along their way until they found the child and worshiped him, gave him gifs of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew2:1-12).

The wise men must have been open to spiritual realities, for as they were contemplating their return to the East, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who wished to kill the child to secure his rule (v. 12). Being forewarned, they returned by another way. [3] All their years of learning and study, all the sleepless nights gazing at the stars, all their right and wrong conclusions as to the meaning of celestial events, came to a conclusion when they came and worshiped a child whose coming had been foretold in the stars they so diligently studied.

John Stuart Mill and Political Wisdom

Every academic adventure has some unexpected lesson. This past year in thinking about wisdom and politics, nothing has surprised me more than renewed respect for John Stuart Mill as a person and philosopher.  During his lifetime, Mill was known for his fair-mindedness and openness. His critics often suggested that he was too easily influenced by the opinions of others. Although he deeply respected his father, James Mill, and his great mentor, Jeremey Bentham, he came to understand the limitations of their views and the importance of the emotional side of life. His version of utilitarianism is different (and more human) than that of his father or mentor, Jeremy Bentham. His attitude towards religion was also different. He was more open, more accepting, and more influenced by friends who were believers than was possible for the elder Mill or Bentham.  If philosophy is a love of wisdom, then Mill represents a figure who loved the search for wisdom.

In On Liberty, Mill sets out his views on freedom of thought, which is a primary interest motivating the blogs these past two years. Near the beginning of On Liberty, Mill defends the importance of allowing people to express unpopular views. He describes the way in which wisdom is gained. Wisdom of any kind, including practical wisdom in public affairs, is gained in a long process of study, of listening to opposing views, of weighing facts, and of comparing opinions where there are contrary views.

Mill describes the process this way:

In the case of any person whose judgement is really deserving of confidence, how is become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinion and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by it as much as was just, and to expound to himself, and upon occasion to others the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. [4]

Hope for a New Kind of Political Culture

Wisdom, Mill believed, can only be gained by paying careful attention both to views with which we agree and those with which we disagree. Becoming wise requires we learn to carefully examine all possible views and responses to a problem regardless of the source. [5]  This means understanding the arguments proponents give for their opinions, and the results observed when views are put into practice. To be wise, we must develop the ability to carefully examine all the options before making a choice—and be willing to occasionally make an unpopular choice.

Amidst the “winner-take-all” character of our national politics, amid the constant barrage of prejudice right and left on social media, amid all the inflammatory speech that characterizes our public debate (and political fundraising), amid all the foolish posturing of our politicians, amidst the attempts to thwart unpopular views in the media and on college campuses, the art of listening and learning from everyone, including those with which we disagree has been lost. The result has been foolish policy making by experts, foolish decision making by our elected representatives, and foolish voting by the electorate.

Our politics has become shallow, prejudiced, and narrow. This critique applies to both major political parties and much of the commentary in the media and even in academic settings. “Proving my side is right” has become a substitute for thinking through options and the potential for wise compromise. Shrill intellectual bullying has become a substitute for thoughtful engagement. Constant appeals to prejudice on a few “hot button issues” has become a substitute for attacking the most difficult and pressing problems. The art of dialogue has been lost. The result has been social decay.I took an entire week on this one quote from Mill because it seems to me that the lesion to be learned from his quote is important.

These blogs are dedicated to the view that there are solutions to difficult problems, but finding them takes wisdom, diligence, hard work, a willingness to listen, dialogue, and a mind attuned to the search for hidden truth and realities that are often not easy to discern. My hope and prayer as we begin 2022 is that by the end, this particular series of blogs will be complete, and the author and his readers will have learned something wise and useful for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world.

The wise men were not Jews, nor to our knowledge were they devout. They were, however, spiritual. They lived at a time before modern science drove a wedge between scientific knowledge and religious faith. Their study of the stars was not just a search for regularities and anomalies, but for the meaning of celestial events. Science has taught us to be cautious about attributing meaning to events, but events do still have meaning, and wise people still seek that meaning, not just of big events, like an unusual star, but the meaning of everyday events of human life, like the beginning of 2022.

Happy New Year!!!

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Magi may have been wise men of Median origin who were often found in positions of honor in Babylonian and Persian royal courts. They are often either astrologers, magicians or interpreters of dreams. These wise men seem to have been interpreters of the stars, or what we would call astrologers. See, P.A. Michlem, “The Gospel According to Matthew” in Westminster Commentaries (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1917): 9.

[2] It is impossible to identify this “Star” precisely. Halley’s Comet is reported to have appeared around the year 11- 12 B.C. There are those who think that it was a supernova, another comet besides Halley’s, or perhaps most interestingly a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth. See, Ulrich Luz, “Matthew 1-7” in Hermenia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress press, 2007): 105 and Douglas R. A. Hare, “Matthew” in Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993): 14. Hare wisely tells us that this star is a spiritual revelation not necessarily a natural phenomenon. The Wise Men, for whatever reason, saw this phenomenon and came to worship the child.

[3] Herod had good reason to be concerned. He was not a Jew, but an Idumean king, who owed his position to his friendship with Caesar Augustus. He was viewed by religious Jews as an illegitimate collaborator with Rome.

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty edited by Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis Indiana: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1968), 25.

[5] This is not a blog on business leadership, but one of the leadership priinciples that I sometimes quote to those I am helping is this: “A good leader remembers that, on any given day, the dumbest person in the room might just be right.” I have a very funny story from my own past that illustrates the truth and importance of this principle.