John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Chapter 1: Introductory
1. What is the subject of Mill's text? Note the distinction he makes between freedom of
the will and "civil" or "social" liberty.
2. The entire text aims at an answer to the question raised on the first page: What is the
nature and limits of the power which can legitimately be exercised by society
over the individual? How does Mill answer this question in the course of this text?
Note how his answer is gradually modified in response to possible objections.
3. How does Mill describe the problem of the "tyranny of the majority" (p. 4) that
emerges in democratic societies?
4. There are two ways in which the "tyranny of the majority" may coerce a given
minority in a society: a) through laws and civil authorities, and b) through the
collective opinion of society. Explain.
5. Why is the pressure of public opinion so insidious, according to Mill?
6. Mill gives his first formulation of his famous "No Harm to Others Principle" on p. 9
as follows: "…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."
Explain. Why is harm to self not included here? Are there exceptions?
7. Note: The "region of human liberty" according to Mill comprises
a) liberty of thought/ discussion
b) freedom of actions/lifestyle
c) freedom of assembly
The first is the main topic of Chapter II, and the other two are discussed in Chapter III
1. Mill writes that, "The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our
own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs or
impede their efforts to attain it." (p. 12) Do you agree? Compare and contrast with
Augustine's conception of true freedom (libertas).
Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion
1. Mill writes: "But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is
robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation-- those who
dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right,
they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose,
what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of
truth produced by its collision with error." (p. 16) Explain.
2. How does Mill argue for his claim that "we can never be sure that the opinion we are
endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion"? (pp. 16-33. See also p. 50)
3. Mill asserts that, "Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the
very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on
no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being
right." (p. 18) Compare with Socrates' practice of philosophy as a way of life.
4. Why doesn't Mill think that discussion and experience are both necessary for
correcting our erroneous beliefs? Why isn't experience alone sufficient? (p. 19)
Again, compare with Socrates.
5. Mill writes: "The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest
on but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded." (p. 20)
Again compare with Socrates. What does he have to say about human wisdom and
our capacity to "approach to truth"? (Notice the context in which Mill refers
explicitly to Socrates on p. 23)
6. Mill writes that, "The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an
opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course
of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its
reappearances falls on a time when from favorable circumstances it escapes
persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to
suppress it." (p. 28) What does this passage imply about Mill's conception of the
universality of truth? Compare with Augustine's position that there are universal
truths, which can be common or "public" objects of reason, i.e. potentially available,
or discoverable, by any rational mind.
7. How does Mill argue that even if we could be sure that a given opinion is false, we
would still be wrong to stifle it? (pp. 33-43) How does he distinguish between a
"dead dogma" and a "living truth"? What is wrong with holding a true opinion as a
prejudice? Why does he think the meaning of the opinion will be lost or weakened?
8. Explain Mill's reference to the "Socratic dialectics" (p. 42)
9. Mill holds that most opinions are neither wholly true nor wholly false, but contain
partial truths. Explain what he has in mind and the reasons why this is another reason
why we should allow freedom of opinion. (See pp. 44 ff)
10. What are the four reasons Mill gives for "the necessity to the mental well-being of
mankind (on which all other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom
of the expression of opinion"? (p. 50)
Chapter III: Of Individuality as One of the Elements of Well-Being
1. Note the title of this chapter. Mill is concerned primarily with actions that are not in
conformity with what everyone around you is doing, but are original, innovative,
idiosyncratic, and deviant.
2. Note that Mill ties freedom of action to freedom of opinion. Individuals, he argues,
"should be free to act upon their opinions-- to carry these out in their lives without
hindrance… so long as it is at their own risk and peril." (p. 53) Why does he hold
that the same arguments apply for freedom of action as for freedom of opinion?
Review these arguments. (pp. 53-54)
3. Why does Mill hold that, "The free development of individuality is one of the leading
essentials of well-being"? (p. 54)
4. Why does he hold that, "Where not the person's own character but the traditions or
customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal
ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and
social progress"? (p. 54)
5. Why does Mill think that modern society is particularly plagued by the problem of
conformism and mediocrity?
6. What are the benefits to individuals that come from allowing freedom of action,
according to Mill? (pp. 55-61)
7. Why is it desirable to have a unique, and robust character as an individual? What
does he mean by "character"?
8. Why does Mill hold that the person who simply follows customs, simply follows the
status quo, fails to exercise distinctive human capacities? Which one's does he have
in mind? Why are these so important? (See p. 56)
9. Explain his use of the contrast between the machine and the tree. (pp. 56-57)
10. What are the benefits to society that come from allowing freedom of action,
according to Mill? (61-71)
11. Consider Mill's discussion of the dangers of increasing mediocrity in the society of
his time (p. 63 ff.) Is his discussion pertinent to our society today?
12. Consider also his description of the stultifying "sameness" that is everywhere
increasing in society: "Comparatively speaking, they [citizens] now read the same
things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their
hopes and fears directed to the same objects," etc. (pp. 70-71) Why does he think it is
so important to counteract this tendency to reduce life to "one uniform type"?
Chapter IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society Over the Individual
1. In this chapter Mill refines his "No Harm to Others Principle". He frames his
discussion by stating the two chief obligations individuals owe to society. What are
they? (p. 73)
2. When, according to Mill, should society punish individuals who fail to meet these
a) by law, and
b) by opinion?
1. Mill restates his No Harm to Others Principle on p. 76 (2nd paragraph). What are the
two major objections he raises to this principle? (p. 78)
2. How does he reply to the first objection that harm to oneself will inevitably harm
others, if not directly then indirectly? What then counts as "harm to others"?
3. Mill goes on to define harm to others as the violation of "a distinct and assignable
obligation" to someone else. (p. 79) He speaks of specific rights, claims or
expectations of others that we are bound to honor or fulfull. Explain what he means.
4. How does Mill restate the No Harm to Others Principle in light of the first objection
at the top of p. 80? Does his revised No Harm to Others Principle adequately meet
the first objection?
5. How does Mill reply to the second objection that society is obligated to stop people
from hurting themselves, at least in cases of serious harm?
6. How does Mill distinguish between questions of "social morality" and" duty to
others" on the one hand, and questions of "self-regarding conduct" on the other? (p.