John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill is probably THE key thinker to get your head around when studying LIBERALISM.

He lived between 1806 and 1873 and is considered to be one of the GREATEST political thinkers England has ever produced.

Mill’s father was James Mill, a utilitarian philosopher who kept his son away from other children apart from John’s siblings.

As a child, Mill read very widely. By the age of 8, he was teaching his younger brothers and sisters.

Mill was an MP for the Liberal Party.

Mill also campaigned for the rights of women.

Mill contributed a number of key ideas to the study of liberalism during his lifetime. We can summarise his key thinking around a number of central beliefs and views all brought together in his key work from 1859 – ‘On Liberty’.

Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ (1859)

  • On Liberty (1859),  is one of the key texts in 19th century liberal thought.
  • Mill only intended it to be a short essay, it turned out to be his major work.
  • In On Liberty, Mill attempts to establish standards for the relationship between authority and liberty.
  • He also emphasises the importance of individuality.
  • Mill states that societies need a system of legal and political rights and constitutional checks and balances.
  • These checks and balances would  prevent the stronger, the ‘innumerable vultures’ and their allied ‘minor harpies’, from oppressing ordinary people in a perpetual struggle between ‘liberty and authority’.
  • For Mill, liberty was not just something we are naturally entitled to, it’s much more than that.
  • Liberty is what enables humanity to develop, what enables us to improve: we are always a work in progress, we’re never completely perfect.


  • Individualism is a core principle of liberalism. It means that politics, society and economics should prioritise the needs of the individual.
  • Mill took the principle of individualism to a higher level.
  • Mill was interested in the potential of individuals – what could we achieve? What could we become? How could we improve? Mill saw these as questions of individuality.
  • Mill believed that individuals should be free to develop their intellects and their creative and cultural interests.
  • Society as a whole would benefit from individuals developing their individualism.
  • To successfully develop the characteristics of their interests and personalities, individuals needed the freedom of individual liberty, of INDIVIDUALITY.


  • We are autonomous individuals.
  • As adults, we should be free to decide our own fates. We should be autonomous.
  • Religion? Career? Job? Where we live? Who we live with? – none of these should be subject to legal or social restraints.
    • We should be free to express ourselves.
    • We should be free to associate with who we choose.
    • We should be free to own property.
  • Mill believed that all these freedoms represented what he called ‘negative liberty’.
  • Negative liberty means we are free to act in any way we think fit as long as we do no harm to other people. Mill called this the ‘harm principle’.
  • The ‘harm principle’ means that the state is only justified in interfering with our individual freedoms if it thinks our actions may harm other members of society.


  • Tolerance – how far should society tolerate the actions of individuals?
  • Mill’s harm principle suggests that our individual actions should be tolerated by society unless it was agreed that others would be harmed by our actions.
  • Mill thought we acted (behaved) in two main ways.

Sometimes, our actions are self-regarding. Examples of this might be the way we express our views or the way we choose to follow a religious belief. This is OK, society should tolerate this.

Sometimes, our actions are other-regarding. Examples of this might be where we choose to express our views in violent protests or by taking part in riots. This isn’t OK. It harms the freedoms of others in society. It should not be tolerated.

  • Self-regarding actions are important. Society needs to be exposed to different views and opinions so that we can decide what value these new ideas might have for society.
  • Society should debate and consider these ideas peacefully and rationally and decide which to reject. It’s all part of how society improves and moves forward.

THINK – How might the concepts of self-regarding and other-regarding actions be applied to

  1. Following a religion that calls for the punishment of non-believers?
  2. Encouraging your followers on Twitter to send abusive emails to a politician you all disagree with?
  3. Protesting about debt in poor countries by smashing the windows of all local banks?
  4. Hiring a public hall to host a meeting that will call for the return of the death penalty?
  5. Following a religion that believes the earth is flat?
  6. Protesting at the meat counter of your local store about cruelty to animals?
  7. Deciding your child can decide what gender they are when they’re old enough to make the decision themselves?
  8. Taking part in a debate where you will oppose a motion to ban abortion?
  9. Following a religion that encourages you to speak out against homosexuality?
  10. Sunbathing naked in your local park?


  • Mill was developing the ideas of another key thinker linked to liberalismJOHN LOCKE (1632-1704).
  • Mill supported the idea of representative democracy based around limited government. 
  • Mill opposed the idea of popular democracy.
  • He worried that popular democracy would see the interests of the majority crushed by the interests of the minority. Liberals have referred to this possibility as the ‘tyranny of the majority‘, a concept that can be applied to democracy in general, not just the ‘popular’ variety.


  • Government was best when it interfered as little as possible with the workings of society. Government was therefore best when it was limited.
  • Government had to be by the consent of the governed.

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