Ben Laurie blathering

On Liberty

In 1869, John Stuart Mill wrote “On Liberty”. My attention was drawn to it by a young adult of my acquaintance who had been set it for homework. Its a fairly long essay, but it can really be summarised by this paragraph

But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

In other words

  • Think what you want.
  • Write what you want.
  • Do what you want, so long as it does not harm others.
  • Be with who you want.

These seem self-evident to me. How have we managed to move so far from these basic principles?


  1. The way I remember it from my undergrad. days, the standard problem raised with Mill’s text is his failure to define harm; that leaves the door open for harm-by-proxy and the presumed shrinkage of the purely self-regarding sphere. So in we see this added to the Video Recordings Act, for example: ‘The designated authority shall, in making any determination as to the suitability of a video work, have special regard (among the other relevant factors) to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society…’

    Comment by Robert Seddon — 31 Oct 2007 @ 0:04

  2. A truly civilised man. But the great mass are not. I don’t think we are any further away, in bulk, than Mill’s contemporaries were.

    Comment by Peter Laurie — 31 Oct 2007 @ 8:17

  3. Conflict of desires result in some people deluding themselves and harming others for a start …

    Comment by robin — 31 Oct 2007 @ 9:45

  4. # Write what you want.

    What if what one writes is untrue and causes harm to others?

    # Do what you want, so long as it does not harm others.

    Fine, but what acts do and do not constitute “harm”?

    # Be with who you want.

    What if this causes harm to others?

    One cannot derive a useful law or ethics from a simple set of axioms. Rather, one can (as Mill and many others have) distill some short phrases, some very lossy compressions, from our long experience that has led to our highly evolved law and customs.

    Comment by nick — 8 Dec 2007 @ 0:48

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