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On Liberty By John Stuart Mill - Summary

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On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
From http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/onliberty/index.html
Context
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher and economist. He wrote one of his
most famous essays, On Liberty, in 1859. Mill was raised by his father, James Mill, to be a strict
Utilitarian. Mill’s childhood was rigid, and he suffered a nervous breakdown at twenty-one
when he began to question some of his beliefs. Mill later struggled with his sense that
Utilitarianism was too unemotional and that it failed to capture or understand the “higher”
pleasures. On Liberty can be understood as an attempt to broaden the meaning of utility and
show that Utilitarianism can provide a strong protection of rights. The essay also reflects Mill’s
passionate belief that individuality is something that should be protected and nurtured. As
such, the essay illustrates his disgust at how he believed society squelches nonconformity. On
Liberty is just one example of the social and political writings of Mill. Other works of his include,
Considerations on Representative Government, On the Subjection of Women and The Principles
of Political Economy.
On Liberty should at least partly be understood as a product of and response to the Victorian
period of England during which it was written. This period was characterized by a particular set
of social values (often called Victorian values) that emphasized hard work, thrift and
“respectable” comportment and behavior. While there was some criticism of these values at
the time, they enjoyed wide-spread appeal. The Victorian period was also characterized by a
series of reform movements, such as the temperance movement. These movements often
reflected a desire to promote Victorian values throughout society. Mill found these social
institutions to be restrictive, however, and saw their all-consuming nature as a profound
problem for mankind.
Terms
1. Liberty – For Mill, liberty encompasses both civil and social liberty, which he defines as
“the nature and limits of the power of which can be legitimately exercised by society
over the individual.” Mill argues that society can only exert authority over behavior that
harms other people, anything else is an abrogation of individual freedom.
2. Tyranny of the majority – This is the concept that in a democratic state the majority of
people can impose its will on a minority. Mill believes this behavior is “tyrannical” when
it violates a claim that the minority has as a member of society.
3. Social Contract – This reflects the idea that society is something that people either
explicitly or implicitly agreed to be part of. Social contract theory was first formulated by
Rousseau in The Social Contract, and defines rights as those things that people would

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
From http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/onliberty/index.html
Context
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was an English philosopher and economist. He wrote one of his
most famous essays, On Liberty, in 1859. Mill was raised by his father, James Mill, to be a strict
Utilitarian. Mill’s childhood was rigid, and he suffered a nervous breakdown at twenty-one
when he began to question some of his beliefs. Mill later struggled with his sense that
Utilitarianism was too unemotional and that it failed to capture or understand the “higher”
pleasures. On Liberty can be understood as an attempt to broaden the meaning of utility and
show that Utilitarianism can provide a strong protection of rights. The essay also reflects Mill’s
passionate belief that individuality is something that should be protected and nurtured. As
such, the essay illustrates his disgust at how he believed society squelches nonconformity. On
Liberty is just one example of the social and political writings of Mill. Other works of his include,
Considerations on Representative Government, On the Subjection of Women and The Principles
of Political Economy.
On Liberty should at least partly be understood as a product of and response to the Victorian
period of England during which it was written. This period was characterized by a particular set
of social values (often called Victorian values) that emphasized hard work, thrift and
“respectable” comportment and behavior. While there was some criticism of these values at
the time, they enjoyed wide-spread appeal. The Victorian period was also characterized by a
series of reform movements, such as the temperance movement. These movements often
reflected a desire to promote Victorian values throughout society. Mill found these social
institutions to be restrictive, however, and saw their all-consuming nature as a profound
problem for mankind.
Terms
1. Liberty – For Mill, liberty encompasses both civil and social liberty, which he defines as
“the nature and limits of the power of which can be legitimately exercised by society
over the individual.” Mill argues that society can only exert authority over behavior that
harms other people, anything else is an abrogation of individual freedom.
2. Tyranny of the majority – This is the concept that in a democratic state the majority of
people can impose its will on a minority. Mill believes this behavior is “tyrannical” when
it violates a claim that the minority has as a member of society.
3. Social Contract – This reflects the idea that society is something that people either
explicitly or implicitly agreed to be part of. Social contract theory was first formulated by
Rousseau in The Social Contract, and defines rights as those things that people would

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On Liberty By John Stuart Mill - Summary

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