To round off my read-along of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, I will reflect here upon the five key things I have taken away from this book in this reading. I won’t go over every point that I have raised during the read-along: if you want my thoughts in more detail, please revisit parts one through five relating to this book.
I have also compiled my summaries into one, which you can find here. Without further ado, here are my five key take-aways from On Liberty.
1. When we’re working with a theory that places harm at the centre, we need to know what harm means
One of the most engaging concepts of Mill’s work, and one of its biggest disappointments, is the ‘harm principle’: the idea that a practice should only be regulated, controlled, or prevented if it causes harm to others. It is elegant in its simplicity, but lacks a concrete definition. Just what is ‘harm’? Defining this word properly would go a long way towards solidifying the theory – there is some indication of what this might mean in the last chapter, but more needs to be done to make this practicable. The emphasis on harm does make On Liberty as much a work of moral and ethical philosophy, as much as it is a work of social or political philosophy. This is reinforced by the emphasis on ‘well-being’ (another woolly concept) as a key reason why individuality should be protected. It also means that On Liberty must almost certainly be read alongside Utilitarianism – another of Mill’s works that I no doubt will do a deep dive into soon.
2. We can’t assume that facts are always correct, and we can’t assume that people will behave honestly
Throughout, Mill has a very clean definition of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ that neatly separate them from ‘opinion’. None of these words are adequately defined, however. That notwithstanding, at several points there is the implication that facts can be commonly understood or accepted. This is a very rosy view, and contrasts significantly with attitudes today, where, between postmodern critiques of ‘truth’ as a concept and the prevalence of ‘fake news’, facts are far from universally accepted. Even within the sphere of healthy critique, facts are only taken as such until disproved. Mill’s insistence, therefore, that facts can be relied upon – indeed, that the government can say which facts are established truth when examining children – is more problematic for our present understanding. Further to this, Mill offers several suggestions that depend upon people behaving honestly, from the assumption that people will enter into discussions in good faith, to the building of information networks that feed local government policies that depend on honest reporting. In doing so, he fails to account for the need to restrain the worst elements of human behaviour. What if people lie?
3. Mill is more illiberal that I would have expected
Mill is one of the founding fathers of modern Liberalism, and his work ranks among the most influential in the western liberal canon. This is why I was surprised at several of his suggestions, which are strikingly illiberal. In chapter two, for example, he advocates for the restriction, if not of thought and discussion, but of particular modes of expression where words could lead to violence, even if the speakers themselves do not advocate for violence. This is especially targeted at public rallies or demonstrations, leaving written work and publications as the main avenue through which public debate could be held. This view legitimises de-platforming in a way that many free speech advocates today would abhor. As another example, in the last chapter, Mill argues that, in some circumstances, the state should be allowed to prevent some people from having children, either because the state does not deem them qualified, or because increasing the population would lead to a strain on resources. While the intention here is benevolent, the outcome is decidedly authoritarian. Who would have thought that an influential liberal thinker like Mill would promote such a view?
4. In many ways, Mill is still undoubtedly liberal
There are numerous passages and examples he uses that place him firmly within the liberal tradition, however. Mill is a strong advocate for religious toleration, which is unsurprising given the Protestant vs Catholic disputes that had defined British and European politics for centuries. He is outspoken in his defence of atheism, or, at least, the right for people to be atheists. This is significant given that his criticisms of religion have been adopted by atheists since. Another strong liberal tradition is the emphasis he places on progress, both at a societal and individual level. Experimentation in ways of living will lead to the betterment of individuals, while a small state and limited bureaucracy will prevent societies from stagnating. Finally, the whole theory is based on permissiveness and tolerance: allowing people to do whatever they want as long as they don’t harm others. What could be more liberal than that?
5. We still have a lot to learn from this book
There is a reason this text is so key, and why I felt the need to pick it up again. I have benefited immensely from rereading it. The importance of ‘experiments of living’ stayed with me from the first time round, as did the arguments in favour of restructuring government to emphasise local needs and community participation. Many of the arguments and principles can be fleshed out and restructured to be applied to other issues that affect us today, too. The argument in favour of free discussion is especially valuable to us given the changes to our means of political engagement that have been driven by big tech and social media. Sympathetically and earnestly engaging with those you disagree with is as important today as it was when this was written. Listening to your opponent, looking for the truth in what they have to say, and knowing their arguments better than you know your own, are essential for productive discourse. Mill also has something to offer on other debates that are still prevalent, especially regarding drug laws (and not criminalising behaviour that harms only the individual) and gun laws (for which, though he does not engage with the topic, he offers a number of solutions within this set of principles). On Liberty is a text which has aged very well; its relevance to our contemporary moment should not be forgotten.