Mill, John Stuart (1806–73)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

12. Liberty and democracy

The most celebrated part of Mill’s social philosophy, his essay On Liberty, must be read in terms of this conception of the right and the good. Mill is not a social contract or ‘natural rights’ liberal. He appeals instead to ‘utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being’ (1859: 224). He has in mind the higher human nature, capable of development by self-culture, which he believes to be present in every human being. Self-culture opens access to higher forms of human happiness, but it has to be self-culture, first because human potentialities are diverse and best known to each human being itself, and second because only when human beings work to their own plans of life do they develop moral freedom, itself indispensable to a higher human nature.

Given the importance free self-culture thus assumes in Mill’s idea of human good, and the account of rights which has just been considered, it will follow that individual liberty must be a politically fundamental right. For self-development is one of ‘the essentials of human well-being’. Thus Mill is led to the famous principle enunciated in On Liberty:

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized 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 opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

(1859: 223–4)

A society which respects this principle enables individuals to realize their potential in their own way. It liberates a mature diversity of interest and feeling, and it nurtures the moral freedom of reason and will. Throwing open the gates to talent, creativity and dynamism, it produces the social conditions of moral and intellectual progress. This Millian argument remains the strongest defence of any liberalism founded on teleological ethics. It is a resource upon which teleological liberals will always be able to draw, whether or not they accept Mill’s hedonistic conception of the human good or his aggregative conception of the good of all.

However, it is also connected with Mill’s ambivalence about democracy. Like many other nineteenth-century thinkers, liberal as well as conservative, Mill felt a deep strain of anxiety about democratic institutions and the democratic spirit (see Democracy §2). Certainly he applauded the end of the ancien régime and sympathized with the moral ends of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – but he learned from it, as had the continental liberals, to fear an enemy on the left, as well as an authoritarian enemy on the right. In its revolutionary form the enemy on the left threatened Jacobin terror, or the disasters which attend any attempt to achieve moral ideals by restarting history at year zero. Its settled form, on the other hand, could be observed in the ‘democratic republic’ of America: a continuous and unremitting pressure towards conforming mediocrity.

The Romantic-Hellenic ideal of human life both inspired Mill’s democratic ideals and fuelled his fears about realized democracy. It was an ideal he shared with left Hegelians like Marx, who experienced less difficulty in combining it with democratic egalitarianism. Mill too had a long-term vision in which the emancipation and education of the working class could bring free self-culture to all human beings. He was able to believe, on the basis of his associationist psychology, that all human beings have an equal potential to develop their higher faculties. This warded off the possibility that utilitarianism might recommend an extremely inegalitarian pursuit of higher forms of well-being as the equilibrium state of a fully-developed human society.

Thus Mill remained more of a democrat than other liberals of the nineteenth century, such as de Tocqueville or Burckhardt, but like them he saw how moral and cultural excellence and freedom of spirit could be endangered by mass democracy. Like them, his attitude to the immediate prospect of democratic politics was decidedly mixed. What he wanted was a democratic society of freely developed human beings; he did not think it a proximate or certain prospect, and he thought that bad forms of democracy could themselves pose a threat to it by drifting into ‘collective despotism’ – a danger to which America had already succumbed.

His advice for warding off this threat was not less democracy but more liberty:

If the American form of democracy overtakes us first, the majority will no more relax their despotism than a single despot would. But our only chance is to come forward as Liberals, carrying out the Democratic idea, not as Conservatives, resisting it.

(1972: 672)

This was the importance of the essay on Liberty, and particularly of the defence of liberty of thought and discussion contained therein. Nor were freedom of speech and liberty of the individual the only instruments by which Mill hoped to steer away from bad forms of democracy towards good. Some of his recommendations – plural voting, a public ballot, a franchise restricted by educational qualification – may now seem misguided or even quaint. Others, including proportional representation of minorities and, not least, his life-long advocacy of equal rights for women, make him seem ahead of his time. At any rate, in political philosophy from Plato’s Republic to the present day, Mill’s discussion of democracy has few rivals – for its open-mindedness, its historical and psychological awareness, and its underlying ethical power.

Citing this article:
Skorupski, John. Liberty and democracy. Mill, John Stuart (1806–73), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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