Thoughts on Mill’s “On Liberty”

September 26, 2008

Quote: “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.”

In the above quote, Mill distills his general argument that utility – the “greatest happiness” principle –  and liberty are not mutually exclusive; rather, each relies on the other for its growth within the social and governing orders. The establishment of liberty elevates the interests of the individual over the society as a whole while simultaneously introducing the individual to the greater interests of the community. The interdependence of liberty and utility is the underpinning of man as progressive being. Where utility or liberty do not exist in concert or one without the other, then man regresses into a state of either selfishness or oppression or both.

The mutual dependence of these two propositions unfolds, for example, through the debate and exchange of individual opinions unencumbered by the imposition of individual or institutional dogma. Each opinion, regardless of its paucity of truth or absurdity, is open for expression. For Mill, the art of persuasion coupled with the agglomeration of individual opinions within social fora institutes an informal system of checks against fallacies of logic and falsehoods often injected into social and political discourse. Through this free exchange of dialogue, the individuals acquire a heightened understanding of what constitutes the welfare of the society as a whole.

On the other hand, both liberty and utility are perverted when society and the individual are so closely wed that each cannot be discerned, or social interests are subjectively defined by one group and imposed on another. The process of free public debate, though, ostensibly obviates this regression from the precepts of utility and liberty – endowing the individual with the ability to appropriately combine and divorce the boundaries of the individual and social spheres of interest. What affects the individual alone is not of interest to the community or governing institutions, but individual action that concerns the welfare of the greater society is subject to inspection by the group.

While I find On Liberty intricate and enlightening, I believe that Mill’s attempt to extricate the paradox of individual participation under a Utilitarian-liberal socio-political model (that of freely promoting and sustaining one’s independence while acknowledging and incorporating the interests of the whole) is, at its core, contradictory despite his attempts at particularity and, regarding his discussion on the liberty of the individual in relations to society, seemingly inapplicable due to the actual nature of communities and man. I find Mill’s tone regarding liberty and freedom of opinion espoused in On Liberty in stark contrast to a relatable issue in the later-published Considerations on Representative Government. In the latter text, he expresses doubt in the ability of the common man (or woman) to actively directly participate in producing the decisions of government despite his assertion in the former that free discussion of opinion could serve to educate individuals through the distilling of information on an issue to the truth. Does Mill mean to imply the existence of intellectual elitism and that only individuals of a heightened intellectual composition can participate and benefit from the free exchange of ideas? Is the common man restrained by his mental faculties from reconciling his interests as an individual with those of his community? Mill does not adequately address these questions central to his examination on the mutual influence of liberty and utility.


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