J.S. Mill, On Liberty

The tyranny of the majority is where the voice of the majority is prioritized over that of the minority. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill , in his book On Liberty, argues that the tyranny of the majority is where the majority place their interest first and above those of the minority hence oppression of the minority group is comparable to that of a tyrant or despot. Furthermore, he maintained that in a situation where there is the tyranny of the majority, the many individuals oppress the few who have the same rights as the majority. He believes that the tyranny of the majority is worse than the political one since it has no limitation to any governmental function. Hence, the opinion of the majority in the society is viewed as an epicenter for all the decisions. Thus, no rule can be formulated to defend against the views of the majority. However, the tyranny of the majority is regarded as a threat to politically democratic societies since the choice of the majority determines the ruler yet the rulers are more superior to the ruled.

Mill (1859) went ahead and outlined the appropriate regions of human liberty; Liberty of conscience, Liberty of taste and pursuit and freedom to unite. Liberty of conscience involves the free will of making on decisions and having an individual opinion on all subjects including but not limited to moral, scientific or theological stands. In liberty of taste and pursuit, an individual has the freedom to select his/her behavior to suit their character. Hence, the freedom to make decisions bearing its consequences in mind. The liberty of taste and pursuit enable the individual to make their life plans with no interference from other people’s opinion as long as his/her decisions don’t affect others negatively. The freedom to unite enables humans to interact freely as long as it doesn’t inflict harm to others. However, the specific liberties can be interpreted as negative liberties when it deprives others to express their views openly or if it blocks their efforts of obtaining those freedoms. Mills(1859) stated that “the principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” Therefore, the outline of the principled theory of individual liberty is to enable individuals to make their independent decisions, even when the society deems it morally or physically indecorous so long as it does not harm others. Mill argues that the society opinion of good and evil is not a sufficient warrant.

In 1859, Mills had already projected the effects of the tyranny of government on the liberty of freedom and thoughts. He expressed his distresses on the legislatures suppression of the freedom of  expression and discussion and noted  that “no argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear”. Mills argued that the opinion of the majority is not less toxic than the legislatures view. Additionally, individual judgment, even if no other individual holds the same idea, should be equally respected. He believes that divesting someone their freedom of expression denies the human race and the generation after the chance to prosper since when his/her opinion is right; the majority are deprived of the truth. Therefore, if an individual wants to exercise their rights to the fullest, they should feel free to express it and also subject him/herself to the opinion of others.

Mills has a stout belief on non-interference of the society with individual choices. However, he advocates that the freedom should be pursued when it doesn’t harm others. Mill believes that the community has control over the decisions when it affects them. Furthermore, he thinks that the youths are irrational when it comes to making crucial decisions hence should be subjected to societal rules. Moreover, he added that the society should punish the consequences of an unreasonable act but not the decision since the irrational choice is an individual matter. Mill further argues that it is not the responsibility of the society to ensure morality is upheld. Instead, it should focus on their duty of educating the generations to ensure morality is upheld.

Individual autonomy is the ability of a person to live life according to his/her principles without the interference of other people’s opinion. When an individual decides to drink alcohol because of the urge they are feeling, it is referred to as external autonomy. Although, the individual has chosen to drink it was influenced by their addiction to alcohol. Internal autonomy is where an individual decides what to do without the influence of an external factor. Individual autonomy can be limited by its inhibition of group’s liberty, or if they promote one’s selfish interest, this is known as paternalism. Mills explains weak and strong paternalism by giving an example of a foreigner who intends to cross a damaged bridge. In soft paternalism, it can be justified to force the individual into not crossing the bridge to inquire if he is doing it voluntarily to commit suicide or he lacks knowledge of the damage. If the foreigner wants to commit suicide, he must be allowed to proceed. However, in hard paternalism, the individual can be prevented from crossing the bridge even when the intentions of the foreigner is suicide since we have the obligation of avoiding death. In anti-paternalism, individual autonomy is practiced freely without caring if it bothers the society or not. For example, anti-paternalism allows someone to use meth without the interference of government anti-drug units because of the belief that one is entitled to their own decisions. Mills believes that if an individual acts knowingly, it is okay to let them proceed with their action. However, it is also important to warn them if they are not aware of the dangers. 

Mills refers to individualism as the achievement of human through the higher pleasures. He encourages individuality since it promotes diversity and creativity. Additionally, individualism makes a person contented with their existence. Mills argue that our uniqueness as individual human beings has enabled us to divide everyday tasks according to our abilities and passion. He noted that “human nature is not a machine to be built after a model and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing. “Therefore, individualism is essential in assuring peaceful and developmental coexistence in the society.  


Stuart Mill, J. (1859). On liberty. Collected works of John Stuart Mill, 259-340.

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