Week 7 Modern Liberal Thought by JS Mill Debate Paper

Modern Liberal Thought and Debate



This week we return to the English language, in more ways than one, as we begin to progress to modern liberal thought and debate in the writing of John Stuart Mill. I am sure you all have noticed how the evolution of the political thought has been up until now. Like anything we build upon original thoughts and expand to our own interpretations. Remember to always look at the time in which the philosopher lived, the environment, the culture. Was it a time of peace, war, or industrial revolution? All of these things affected them.

Lessons. Mill’s life is interesting if you want some background as well as some explainers for On Liberty and other writings.

Select a forum that interests you most for your initial post; then reply to two of your classmates in another forum thread than your initial post.

– please chose one of the 2 ( 380 Word Minimum) Max 500 words


Unlike some of the social contract theorists we have studied, J.S. Mill did not adhere to any notion of “natural law” (neither did Rousseau, for that matter), and he did not see liberty/freedom as a “natural right” — a right, but not one based on some kind of natural individuality or law. Also, while Hobbes and Locke, for example, assumed the individual becomes before society, Mill did not make this assumption. In fact, he describes history as a history of authorities or states albeit in tension with individuals and communities. For these reasons and others, Mill also did not subscribe to social contract theory.

The following passage from an Introduction to On Liberty by W.L. Courtney, L.L.D. conveys much of this:

In the tract on Liberty, Mill is advocating the rights of the individual as against Society at the very opening of an era that was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the individual had no absolute rights against Society. The eighteenth century view is that individuals existed first, each with their own special claims and responsibilities; that they deliberately formed a Social State, either by a contract or otherwise; and that then finally they limited their own action out of regard for the interests of the social organism thus arbitrarily produced. This is hardly the view of the nineteenth century. It is possible that logically the individual is prior to the State; historically and in the order of Nature, the State is prior to the individual. In other words, such rights as every single personality possesses in a modern world do not belong to him by an original ordinance of Nature, but are slowly acquired in the growth and development of the social state. It is not the truth that individual liberties were forfeited by some deliberate act when men made themselves into a Commonwealth.


It is more true to say, as Aristotle said long ago, that man is naturally a political animal, that he lived under strict social laws as a mere item, almost a nonentity, as compared with the Order, Society, or Community to which he belonged, and that such privileges as he subsequently acquired have been obtained in virtue of his growing importance as a member of a growing organisation. But if this is even approximately true, it seriously restricts that liberty of the individual for which Mill pleads. The individual has no chance, because he has no rights, against the social organism. Society can punish him for acts or even opinions which are anti-social in character. His virtue lies in recognising the intimate communion with his fellows. His sphere of activity is bounded by the common interest. Just as it is an absurd and exploded theory that all men are originally equal, so it is an ancient and false doctrine to protest that a man has an individual liberty to live and think as he chooses in any spirit of antagonism to that larger body of which he forms an insignificant part (Courtney 2011, xxiii, xxiv).

Please respond to the forum questions with some of this in mind about Mill. I will also be providing further excerpts in the forum. For the full text to this passage and On Liberty, got the Gutenberg Project. This link is also provided in Lessons: Reading and Resources. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm#Page_1

1. J.S. Mill’s Social and Civil Liberty

In the very first paragraph of On Liberty (Chapter 1), Mill states:

The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. A question seldom stated, and hardly ever discussed, in general terms, but which profoundly influences the practical controversies of the age by its latent presence, and is likely soon to make itself recognised as the vital question of the future. (OL, Chpt. 1, p. 2)

Further down, Mill also states:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. . . . The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. (OL, Chpt. 1, pg. 18).

Given this passage (see full passage in reading) and others, as well as the class readings, what is the essay On Liberty about? What does Mill mean by “civil” and “social” liberty, and what are some of the issues that make these meanings of liberty important? Also, what is Mill trying to convey when he borrows from De Tocqueville referring to “tyranny of the majority” (Chapt. 1, pg. 7)? Does any of this resonate in our society today?

2. J.S. Mill. Obligation and Government

In Chapter IV “OF THE LIMITS TO THE AUTHORITY OF SOCIETY OVER THE INDIVIDUAL” in On Liberty, Mill rejects social contract ideas (the ones we have studied). He say:

Though society is not founded on a contract, and though no good purpose is answered by inventing a contract in order to deduce social obligations from it, every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to[Pg 141] observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. (OL Chpt 4., pg 142)

What do you see as the core of his rejection of social contract proposals?

At the same time, Mill does make a case for individual obligation to society, posing these questions at the outset of Chapter IV:

What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin? How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society? (OL Chpt 4., pg 141)

According to the Lesson’s selected sections of Chapters IV and V, as well as other class readings, what is Mill’s response to these questions? Do the boundaries between individual obligation, sovereignty, and government bases for intervention resonate with your views?

Web reading:

1. J.S. Mill, SEP: Sections 1 (Life), 4 (Mill’s Empiricism), 12 (Utilitarianism), 13 (Social and Political Philosophy – On Liberty), and 14(Status of Women)


2. J.S. Mill, IEP: Sections d. (Utilitarianism), e. (On Liberty), and f. (The Subjection of Women and Other Social and Political Writings)


3. J.S. Mill’s On Liberty: Selected sections in link below: Chapt. I pgs. 2, 7, 8, 18; Chapt. IV pgs. 141-144; Chpt. V. 194-202, 208-213.


1. Nineteenth Century Utilitarians, The Online Library of Liberty


Timeline: The Life of J.S. Mill (1806-1873). For those interested in the details of Mill’s work.


2. J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism, Chapter 2. “What Utilitarianism Is” (First few pages contain “pig satisfied” passage). Choose your preferred downloads (html, Adobe, Kindle etc.)


3. J.S. Mill’s Considerations of Representative Government, Chapter 3, “That the Ideally Best Form of Government Is Representative Government”: Scroll down to Chapter 3. Other chapters encouraged but optional.


4. Harriet Taylor Mill, SEP: Harriet Taylor was an intellectual in her own right and very influential on Mill’s thinking. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/harriet-mill/

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