On Liberty

Book notes for "On Liberty", by John Stuart Mill


Last annotated on February 12, 2017

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is
still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of
the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when
society is itself the tyrant-society collectively, over the separate
individuals who compose it-its means of tyrannising are not restricted
to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong
mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which
it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable
than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually
upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape,
penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the
soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the
magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the
tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of
society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas
and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to
fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any
individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to
fashion themselves upon the model of its own. location 254

the practical question, where to place the limit - how to make the
fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control -
is a subject on which nearly everything remains to be done. location 266

No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and
the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another. Yet the
people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in
it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed.
location 270

Some, whenever they see any good to be done, or evil to be remedied,
would willingly instigate the government to undertake the business;
while others prefer to bear almost any amount of social evil, rather
than add one to the departments of human interests amenable to
governmental control. And men range themselves on one or the other side
in any particular case, according to this general direction of their
sentiments; or according to the degree of interest which they feel in
the particular thing which it is proposed that the government should do,
or according to the belief they entertain that the government would, or
would not, do it in the manner they prefer; but very rarely on account
of any opinion to which they consistently adhere, as to what things are
fit to be done by a government. location 331

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. His own good, either physical or
moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to
do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it
will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so
would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating
with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him,
but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do
otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to
deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. location

It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived
to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent
of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical
questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the
permanent interests of man as a progressive being. location 361

A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his
inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the
injury. location 370

Though the law of England, on the subject of the press, is as servile to
this day as it was in the time of the Tudors, there is little danger of
its being actually put in force against political discussion, except
during some temporary panic, when fear of insurrection drives ministers
and judges from their propriety; location 434

Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner;
if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury,
it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a
few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the
expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race;
posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the
opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right,
they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if
wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer
perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision
with error. location 445

He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right
against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles
him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the
object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a
Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in
Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make
it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having
held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but
absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be
rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected
by the present. location 467

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be
true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been
refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its
refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our
opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth
for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human
faculties have any rational assurance of being right. location 487

If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned,
mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now
do. location 516

This refusal of redress took place in virtue of the legal doctrine, that
no person can be allowed to give evidence in a court of justice, who
does not profess belief in a God (any god is sufficient) and in a future
state; location 658

Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising
intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any
bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them
in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or
immoral? location 714

All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and
those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to
pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the
kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that
they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbour as
themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their
coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they
would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the
poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these
things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always
heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief
which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the
point to which it is usual to act upon them. location 846

All languages and literatures are full of general observations on life,
both as to what it is, and how to conduct oneself in it; observations
which everybody knows, which everybody repeats, or hears with
acquiescence, which are received as truisms, yet of which most people
first truly learn the meaning, when experience, generally of a painful
kind, has made it a reality to them. location 871

The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when
it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors. location

No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the
contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in
which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a
positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that
corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is
robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the
press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an
excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed
about among the same mob in the form of a placard. location 1115

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make
himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting
others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own
inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same
reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he
should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into
practice at his own cost. location 1121

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be
different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments
of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character,
short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life
should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is
desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern
others, individuality should assert itself. location 1127

He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains
no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental
and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used.
The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely
because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because
others believe it. location 1162

the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves-what do I prefer?
or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow
the best and highest in me to have fair-play, and enable it to grow and
thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is
usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or
(worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and
circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is
customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does
not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary.
Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for
pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; location 1208

> reminded of the description of roles/true responsability in HPMOR

Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of
genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people-less
capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful
compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society
provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own
character. location 1272

All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are
far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what
they deem his good. location 1483

But I cannot consent to argue the point as if society had no means of
bringing its weaker members up to its ordinary standard of rational
conduct, except waiting till they do something irrational, and then
punishing them, legally or morally, for it. Society has had absolute
power over them during all the early portion of their existence: it has
had the whole period of childhood and nonage in which to try whether it
could make them capable of rational conduct in life. location 1579

But there is no parity between the feeling of a person for his own
opinion, and the feeling of another who is offended at his holding it;
no more than between the desire of a thief to take a purse, and the
desire of the right owner to keep it. And a person's taste is as much
his own peculiar concern as his opinion or his purse. location 1611

case of the Bombay Parsees is a curious instance in point. When this
industrious and enterprising tribe, the descendants of the Persian
fire-worshippers, flying from their native country before the Caliphs,
arrived in Western India, they were admitted to toleration by the Hindoo
sovereigns, on condition of not eating beef. When those regions
afterwards fell under the dominion of Mahomedan conquerors, the Parsees
obtained from them a continuance of indulgence, on condition of
refraining from pork. What was at first obedience to authority became a
second nature, and the Parsees to this day abstain both from beef and
pork. Though not required by their religion, the double abstinence has
had time to grow into a custom of their tribe; and custom, in the East,
is a religion. location 1769

One of these examples, that of the sale of poisons, opens a new
question; the proper limits of what may be called the functions of
police; how far liberty may legitimately be invaded for the prevention
of crime, or of accident. It is one of the undisputed functions of
government to take precautions against crime before it has been
committed, as well as to detect and punish it afterwards. The preventive
function of government, however, is far more liable to be abused, to the
prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function; for there is hardly
any part of the legitimate freedom of action of a human being which
would not admit of being represented, and fairly too, as increasing the
facilities for some form or other of delinquency. location 1812

Precautions of a similar nature might be enforced in the sale of
articles adapted to be instruments of crime. The seller, for example,
might be required to enter into a register the exact time of the
transaction, the name and address of the buyer, the precise quality and
quantity sold; to ask the purpose for which it was wanted, and record
the answer he received. When there was no medical prescription, the
presence of some third person might be required, to bring home the fact
to the purchaser, in case there should afterwards be reason to believe
that the article had been applied to criminal purposes. Such regulations
would in general be no material impediment to obtaining the article, but
a very considerable one to making an improper use of it without
detection. location 1838

To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to
be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire
prohibition; and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable.
location 1898

But it must be remembered that taxation for fiscal purposes is
absolutely inevitable; that in most countries it is necessary that a
considerable part of that taxation should be indirect; that the State,
therefore, cannot help imposing penalties, which to some persons may be
prohibitory, on the use of some articles of consumption. It is hence the
duty of the State to consider, in the imposition of taxes, what
commodities the consumers can best spare; and 脿 fortiori, to select in
preference those of which it deems the use, beyond a very moderate
quantity, to be positively injurious. Taxation, therefore, of
stimulants, up to the point which produces the largest amount of revenue
(supposing that the State needs all the revenue which it yields) is not
only admissible, but to be approved of. location 1903

It still remains unrecognised, that to bring a child into existence
without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its
body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both
against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the
parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it
fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent. location

If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a
good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It
might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they
pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the
poorer class of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of
those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are
urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the
enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon
itself to direct that education; which is a totally different thing.
location 1991

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to
be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is
that which pleases the predominant power in the government, location