On Liberty

by John Stuart Mill

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: May 01, 2024
On Liberty
On Liberty

Discover John Stuart Mill's influential ideas on liberty, individuality, and democracy in this comprehensive book summary. Explore key insights and practical questions to deepen your understanding.

What are the big ideas?

Unconventional Upbringing of J.S. Mill

John Stuart Mill was subjected to an intense and unusual educational regimen by his father, aimed at grooming him into a philosophical and economic scholar. This unique upbringing, devoid of usual childhood play, significantly shaped his intellectual contributions.

Intersection of Personal and Political Growth

Mill's early career at India House accompanied his prolific writings, demonstrating how professional environments and personal intellectual pursuits can intertwine, enriching both spheres.

Critical Role of Individuality

Mill argues fervently for the necessity of individuality for societal progress and well-being, suggesting that the suppression of individuality by majority opinion or societal norms leads to stagnation and conformity.

Dangers of Majority Tyranny

Even in democratic systems, the tyranny of the majority over the minority can distort liberty and truth, showing that democratic systems need mechanisms to protect individual rights against the majority's possible overreach.

Liberty as a Fundamental Principle

Mill establishes that the only valid reason for society or government to intervene in an individual's actions is to prevent harm to others, proposing a clear boundary between private liberty and societal control.

Importance of Diverse Opinions in Truth-Seeking

Mill emphasizes the value of free speech and debate, noting that even incorrect opposition helps in the pursuit of truth, and that unchallenged beliefs risk becoming dogmatic and can lose their vitality.

Want to read ebooks, websites, and other text 3X faster?

From a SwiftRead user:
Feels like I just discovered the equivalent of fire but for reading text. WOW, WOW, WOW. A must have for me, forever.

Unconventional Upbringing of J.S. Mill

John Stuart Mill's unconventional upbringing significantly shaped his intellectual contributions. His father designed an intense educational regimen to groom the young Mill into a philosophical and economic scholar. This regimen deprived Mill of a typical childhood, as he "never was a boy" and did not engage in activities like playing cricket. Instead, Mill's "exercise was taken in the form of walks with his father, during which the elder Mill lectured his son and examined him on his work." This unique upbringing, devoid of the usual childhood play and experiences, molded Mill into the renowned thinker he became.

Here are the key examples from the context that support the insight about John Stuart Mill's unconventional upbringing:

  • Mill "never was a boy, never played cricket" - His father designed an "extraordinary education" for him that did not allow for typical childhood activities.

  • As a child, Mill's "exercise was taken in the form of walks with his father, during which the elder Mill lectured his son and examined him on his work." - This intense educational regimen, focused on studying rather than play, was part of his father's plan to groom him.

  • Mill's "youth was sacrificed to an idea; he was designed by his father to carry on his work; the individuality of the boy was unimportant." - His father deliberately suppressed Mill's natural childhood development in order to mold him into a scholar.

  • At age 14, a "visit to the south of France" was "not without its influence" and provided "a glimpse of another atmosphere, though the studious habits of his home life were maintained." - Even Mill's rare breaks from his intense studies were still tightly controlled by his father.

The context highlights how Mill's singular, academic upbringing, directed by his father to shape him into an intellectual, significantly impacted his later life and contributions. This unconventional childhood, devoid of typical play and experiences, was a key factor in molding Mill into the renowned philosopher and economist he became.

Intersection of Personal and Political Growth

Mill's professional work at the India House and his prolific intellectual output were deeply intertwined. His day job provided the stability and resources to pursue his wide-ranging interests, from political economy to literary criticism. In turn, his diverse writings enriched his understanding of the world, informing his work in the civil service.

This intersection of personal and professional growth was a hallmark of Mill's life and career. He demonstrated how an individual can leverage their institutional roles to fuel their intellectual passions, and vice versa. By seamlessly blending his official duties with his private scholarly pursuits, Mill was able to maximize his impact and make lasting contributions across multiple domains.

This dynamic relationship between one's public and private spheres is a powerful model for personal and professional development. It shows how embracing diverse interests and activities can lead to greater fulfillment and achievement, as the different aspects of one's life complement and reinforce each other. Mill's example highlights the value of cultivating a multifaceted life, where work and intellectual curiosity coexist in a mutually beneficial way.

Here are some examples from the context that support the key insight about the intersection of Mill's personal and political growth:

  • Mill was appointed as a junior clerk in the Examiners' Office at the India House in 1823, while also writing his first essays for the Traveller around the same time. This shows how his professional work at the India House went hand-in-hand with his growing literary output.

  • The context notes that Mill's "literary work was uninterrupted save by attacks of illness" from the time he started writing for the Traveller. This demonstrates how his intellectual pursuits were a constant part of his life, even as he rose through the ranks at the India Office.

  • Mill wrote his Essays on Unsettled Questions in Political Economy in 1831, though they were not published until 13 years later. This indicates how he was able to balance his professional duties with developing his major philosophical and economic works.

  • The passage states that Mill's articles and reviews, "though they involved a good deal of work...were recreation to the student." This suggests his intellectual work was not just a professional obligation, but an integral part of his personal growth and development.

  • After leaving the India Office in 1858, Mill continued his "disinterested labours" and produced important works like The Subjection of Women, showing how his personal interests and political views remained intertwined.

Critical Role of Individuality

Individuality Drives Progress and Fulfillment

Individuality is essential for societal progress and human well-being. When individuals are free to think and act independently, they can challenge the status quo, introduce new ideas, and drive innovation. However, the suppression of individuality by majority opinion or societal norms leads to stagnation and conformity, stifling the very creativity and originality that propels societies forward.

Conformity may provide a sense of security, but it comes at the cost of personal growth and fulfillment. Individuals must be empowered to pursue their own paths, even if they diverge from the mainstream. This "eccentricity" is not a weakness, but a strength - it is the wellspring of new perspectives and solutions that can benefit the whole of society.

Ultimately, the flourishing of individuality is not just about personal freedom, but about the collective progress and well-being of humanity. By encouraging and celebrating the unique contributions of individuals, we can foster a dynamic, vibrant society that is constantly evolving and improving. This is the true path to a better future.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight on the critical role of individuality:

  • Mill argues that "the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service" in an age where "the tyranny of opinion" suppresses eccentricity and individuality.

  • He states that "it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric" and that "in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself."

  • Mill criticizes the "vulgar" who "cannot even conceive that a person in a state of sanity can desire" the "freedom to act, in things indifferent, as seems good to his own judgment and inclinations." This shows how societal pressure suppresses individuality.

  • He contrasts this with the view of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who argued that "the end of man" is "the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole" and that "the object 'towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts' is the 'individuality of power and development.'"

  • Mill emphasizes that "nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience." However, he argues it is also crucial that individuals "use and interpret experience in his own way" rather than merely conform to "traditions and customs of other people."

Dangers of Majority Tyranny

The tyranny of the majority is a serious threat to individual liberty, even in democratic societies. When the majority wields its power to suppress minority views and enforce conformity, it robs society of the diversity of thought and expression that is essential for progress and truth.

This dynamic can occur when the "people" who hold power are not the same as those over whom it is exercised. The "self-government" of a democracy is not truly self-government, but rather the rule of each by all the rest. Safeguards are needed to prevent the majority from abusing its power and trampling on the rights of individuals and minority groups.

Protecting the liberty of thought and discussion is a critical bulwark against majority tyranny. Even if the majority holds what appears to be the correct opinion, silencing dissenting views robs society of the opportunity to challenge error and strengthen the truth. Diversity of opinion, no matter how unpopular, must be fiercely defended.

Ultimately, the rightful limits of societal authority over the individual must be carefully delineated and enforced. Unchecked majority rule poses a grave threat to the fundamental freedoms that underpin a healthy democracy. Vigilance is required to ensure that the power of the people is not twisted into the tyranny of the majority.

Key Insight: Dangers of Majority Tyranny

Even in democratic systems, the tyranny of the majority over the minority can distort liberty and truth, showing that democratic systems need mechanisms to protect individual rights against the majority's possible overreach.


  • The notion that "the people have no need to limit their power over themselves" is described as seeming "axiomatic" when popular government was just a dream, but becomes problematic when a "democratic republic came to occupy a large portion of the earth's surface." This shows how the reality of majority rule can lead to the tyranny of the majority.

  • The passage states that phrases like "self-government" and "the power of the people over themselves" do not accurately capture the true situation, where "the 'people' who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised" and "the 'self-government' spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest." This highlights how majority rule can lead to the oppression of minorities.

  • The passage warns that "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." This illustrates how the tyranny of the majority can manifest through social pressure and norms, not just through government action.

  • The passage argues that "protection 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." This emphasizes the need for safeguards against majority tyranny beyond just political institutions.

Liberty as a Fundamental Principle

The fundamental principle of liberty is that individuals should have absolute sovereignty over their own lives and actions, as long as they do not harm others. According to this principle, society or government can only justifiably intervene in an individual's conduct if it poses a risk of harm to someone else.

Any other rationale for restricting individual liberty, such as paternalistic concerns for the individual's own well-being, is invalid. People must be free to make their own choices, even if others believe those choices are unwise or immoral, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.

This principle establishes a clear boundary between the private sphere of individual liberty and the public sphere where societal control is warranted. It protects the fundamental human right of self-determination, while still allowing society to prevent actions that threaten the welfare of its members. This balance is essential for maximizing both individual freedom and the common good.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight that liberty is a fundamental principle, with the boundary being preventing harm to others:

  • The context states that there is a "strange respect of mankind for liberty" when it comes to individuals' actions that only affect themselves, yet a "strange want of respect for it" when it comes to actions that can harm others, such as having children in a state of deprivation. This highlights the importance of liberty as a fundamental principle.

  • The context discusses the "limits of government interference", noting that the only valid reason for government intervention is when an individual's actions are likely to "cause a life, or lives, of wretchedness and depravity to the offspring, with manifold evils to those sufficiently within reach to be in any way affected by their actions." This clearly establishes the boundary of liberty being limited only to prevent harm to others.

  • The context states that "a person should be free to do as he likes in his own concerns; but he ought not to be free to do as he likes in acting for another, under the pretext that the affairs of another are his own affairs." This reinforces the principle of liberty being limited to one's own affairs, not those that impact others.

  • The context argues against the "almost despotic power of husbands over wives", stating that "wives should have the same rights, and should receive the protection of law in the same manner, as all other persons." This example demonstrates how the principle of liberty must extend equally to all, without infringing on the liberty of others.

  • Regarding education of children, the context states that "the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent." This shows how the principle of liberty has limits when an individual's actions can harm others, in this case the child.

Importance of Diverse Opinions in Truth-Seeking

The pursuit of truth requires diverse perspectives and open debate. Even incorrect opinions can aid this process by challenging established beliefs and forcing us to re-examine our assumptions. When a belief goes unchallenged, it risks becoming a rigid dogma - a mere "formal profession" devoid of true understanding or conviction.

Silencing dissenting views is misguided, as we can never be certain that the opinion being suppressed is false. Suppressing an opinion, even if we believe it to be wrong, robs humanity of the opportunity to uncover partial truths within it. Vigorous debate allows the full breadth of truth to emerge, rather than a one-sided, potentially distorted perspective.

Furthermore, the very meaning of a widely accepted belief can become diluted and lose its power to shape character and conduct when it is not regularly tested against opposing views. Lively discussion keeps ideas vital and impactful. Diversity of opinion, not uniformity, is essential for the mental well-being and progress of society.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about the importance of diverse opinions in truth-seeking:

  • Mill argues that even if an opinion is true, silencing its opposition "is robbing the human race" of the opportunity to more deeply understand and appreciate the truth through engaging with opposing views. As he states, "if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth."

  • Mill uses the analogy of learning geometry, noting that simply memorizing theorems is not enough - one must also understand the underlying demonstrations and be able to defend the theorems against objections. Similarly, on subjects where there can be differing opinions, "the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons."

  • Mill emphasizes the importance of understanding the strongest arguments of the opposing view, not just hearing them presented in a refuted form. He states that one must be able to "hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them" in order to truly grapple with the full force of the opposing perspective.

  • Mill warns against the "despotism of custom" and the tendency for unchallenged beliefs to become dogmatic and lose their "living apprehension." He suggests the need for "contrivances" to recreate the dialectic process and keep even widely accepted truths vibrant.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "On Liberty" that resonated with readers.

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.

When an individual's actions or lack of action harm others, they are morally responsible for the resulting harm. This accountability extends not only to deliberate acts but also to instances of inaction, where one's failure to act contributes to harm. In both cases, the individual is answerable to those affected by their behavior.

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion... Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them...he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

To truly understand an issue, one must consider multiple perspectives and be aware of the strongest arguments on both sides. Simply knowing one's own viewpoint is insufficient, as it lacks a comprehensive understanding of the opposing stance. It's essential to engage with those who genuinely hold differing opinions, hearing their views in their most convincing and persuasive form, rather than just relying on second-hand information or refutations.

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

The majority's opinion, no matter how overwhelming, does not grant it the right to suppress a dissenting voice. In fact, that lone opposing view is just as entitled to be heard as the collective opinion of all others. Silencing this individual would be an unjustified act of oppression, equivalent to that person attempting to silence the entire majority if they had the power. This highlights the importance of protecting minority opinions and fostering open discussion.

Comprehension Questions

0 / 24

How well do you understand the key insights in "On Liberty"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. What effect does a highly structured and intense educational environment during childhood have on a person's intellectual development?
2. How can the exclusion of typical childhood activities like playing impact a person's upbringing?
3. What can the sacrifice of personal individuality during childhood for the sake of intellectual grooming result in for the individual's future?
4. How does the stability of an institutional job contribute to an individual's private scholarly pursuits?
5. What benefits emerge from blending professional duties with private intellectual activities?
6. Can pursuing diverse interests alongside professional obligations lead to personal growth? Explain.
7. Describe how a multifaceted life, combining work and personal intellectual activities, can benefit an individual.
8. How does fostering individuality contribute to societal progress?
9. What are the potential consequences of suppressing individuality in society?
10. Why is pursuing one's own path important for personal growth and fulfillment?
11. How does the celebration of individual contributions impact society?
12. What are the risks associated with majority rule in democratic societies?
13. Why is the protection of liberty of thought and discussion crucial in preventing the tyranny of the majority?
14. What does the term 'self-government' misrepresent in the context of majority rule?
15. How does unchecked majority rule threaten the fundamental freedoms in a democracy?
16. What is the essential condition under which society or government is justified in intervening in an individual's actions?
17. Why are paternalistic interventions by the government generally considered unjustifiable?
18. How does the principle of liberty draw a line between private and public actions?
19. What demonstrates the importance of individual liberty while highlighting the restrictions placed on actions that can harm others?
20. How is the principle of liberty applied uniformly across different societal groups, such as between husbands and wives?
21. Why is it important to allow diverse opinions in the quest for truth?
22. What are the potential consequences of suppressing an opinion believed to be incorrect?
23. How does open debate contribute to the vitality of widely accepted beliefs?
24. Why is understanding opposing views in their strongest form important for truth-seeking?

Action Questions

0 / 9

"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "On Liberty". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you design a learning environment for yourself or others that balances academic rigor with personal development?
2. How can you identify and pursue interests outside of your primary job that complement and enhance your professional skills?
3. What steps can you take to integrate your personal passions with your professional obligations to maximize your overall growth and satisfaction?
4. How can you challenge prevailing norms or practices in your community or workplace to foster innovation and creativity?
5. What measures can you implement in your community or organization to ensure that minority opinions are heard and considered in decision-making processes?
6. How can you personally contribute to fostering a culture that values and protects diverse opinions and thoughts?
7. How can you advocate for or against policies in your community that affect personal freedoms based on the principle of non-harm?
8. How might you adjust your personal or professional decisions to better respect the autonomy of others while preserving their safety?
9. How can you ensure a diversity of opinions is respected and encouraged in discussions, whether they occur in your personal life, workplace, or online?

Chapter Notes


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • John Stuart Mill's Upbringing: Mill had a very unusual upbringing, designed by his father to prepare him to carry on his father's work. He was not allowed to play as a child and instead spent his time studying and being examined by his father during walks. This sacrificed his individuality and physical development as a child.

  • Mill's Early Life and Career: Mill began writing essays at a young age, around a year before starting work at the India House in 1823. From that point on, his literary output was prolific, covering a wide range of subjects. He rose through the ranks at the India House while also working on his major published works like the System of Logic and Principles of Political Economy.

  • Mill's Friendships and Influences: Mill had a close friendship and correspondence with Auguste Comte, which influenced his thinking. He also discovered and promoted the works of Tennyson, and influenced Carlyle's writing of The French Revolution.

  • Mill's Political Career: Mill was elected to the House of Commons in 1865 but was not a conventional success as a speaker. However, his influence was widely felt, with Gladstone saying he "did us all good". After only 3 years, he was defeated in the next election and retired to Avignon.

  • Mill's Later Life and Works: In his later years, Mill completed the publication of his father's Analysis of the Mind and wrote The Subjection of Women, with the help of his stepdaughter. He had plans for a work on Socialism but never completed it before his death in 1873.


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Distinction between Liberty of the Will and Civil/Social Liberty: The essay is not about the philosophical debate over free will, but rather about the nature and limits of the power that society can legitimately exercise over the individual.

  • The Historical Struggle between Liberty and Authority: This struggle has been a prominent feature of history, particularly in ancient Greece, Rome, and England, where the focus was on protecting subjects from the tyranny of political rulers.

  • The Shift towards Popular Government: Over time, the focus shifted towards making the ruling power emanate from the periodic choice of the ruled, with the idea that the rulers should be identified with the people and their interests.

  • The Tyranny of the Majority: Even in a democratic system, there is a risk of the majority tyrannizing over the minority, which requires protection against the "tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling."

  • The Difficulty of Determining the Proper Limits of Social Control: There is no universally agreed-upon principle for determining when government interference is appropriate, leading to inconsistent and often misplaced applications of social control.

  • The Principle of Liberty: The author proposes that the only legitimate reason for society to interfere with an individual's liberty is to prevent harm to others. Individuals should have absolute sovereignty over their own minds and bodies, as long as their actions do not harm others.

  • The Encroachment of Social Control: There is an increasing tendency for society to expand its powers over the individual, which the author sees as a growing threat to individual liberty that requires a strong moral conviction to counteract.

  • The Importance of Liberty of Thought and Expression: The author considers liberty of thought, speech, and publication to be of paramount importance and the best starting point for understanding the broader principle of individual liberty.


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Fallibility of Opinions: The author argues that no one, including governments, can claim infallibility in their opinions. Even the most widely held beliefs may be false, and suppressing dissenting views is an assumption of infallibility.

  • Value of Opposing Views: Opposing views, even if incorrect, are valuable because they allow for the collision of ideas, which can lead to a clearer understanding of the truth. Suppressing opposing views robs humanity of the opportunity to exchange error for truth.

  • Danger of Unchallenged Beliefs: When beliefs are not actively challenged, they can become mere dogmas, held without true understanding or conviction. The meaning and vitality of beliefs can be lost when they are not regularly tested against opposing arguments.

  • Partial Truths in Opposing Views: Often, opposing views each contain a partial truth, and the full truth emerges from the synthesis of these different perspectives. Suppressing minority views means losing access to these important fragments of truth.

  • Importance of Debate and Discussion: The author argues that the absence of active debate and discussion, where people are forced to confront opposing views, leads to a decline in intellectual vitality and moral courage. Systematic training in critical thinking and debate is essential for the advancement of knowledge and understanding.

  • Limitations of Received Wisdom: Even widely accepted moral and religious doctrines, such as Christian ethics, are often incomplete or one-sided. A diversity of moral and philosophical perspectives is necessary to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of ethics and the human condition.


Here are the key takeaways from the Chapter:

  • Individuality and Freedom of Opinion: The free expression of all opinions should be permitted, even if the manner is not temperate, as long as it does not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Attempts to restrain the use of invective, sarcasm, and personality in public discourse are often one-sided, seeking to suppress only the unpopular opinion.

  • Importance of Individuality: Individuality is essential for human development and well-being. It allows for the cultivation of diverse talents, the discovery of new truths, and the introduction of improved practices. Conformity to custom and tradition, while providing a sense of security, can lead to intellectual and moral stagnation.

  • Tyranny of the Majority: In modern society, the opinions and preferences of the masses, or "the tyranny of the majority," have become the dominant force, often suppressing individuality and eccentricity. This trend is exacerbated by the increasing homogenization of experiences and the diminishing influence of traditional sources of authority.

  • Diversity and Progress: Diversity of character, opinion, and modes of living is necessary for societal progress. The initiation of wise and noble things often comes from exceptional individuals, and their examples can inspire and guide the rest of society. Attempts to enforce uniformity, whether by law or public opinion, hinder this process of improvement.

  • Dangers of Conformity: The despotism of custom, or the unquestioning adherence to established norms, is the primary obstacle to human advancement. When individuality is suppressed, people become incapable of independent thought and action, leading to intellectual and moral stagnation, as exemplified by the decline of once-great civilizations like China.

  • Importance of Preserving Individuality: In the face of increasing social and cultural homogenization, it is crucial to preserve the freedom and diversity of individual expression. This is necessary not only for the sake of exceptional individuals but also for the overall progress and vitality of society.


  • Individuality and Self-Regarding Conduct: The chapter argues that individuals should have the freedom to engage in self-regarding conduct, i.e., conduct that only affects themselves and not others. This includes the freedom to make decisions about one's own life, even if those decisions are considered unwise or imprudent by others.

  • Limits of Social Authority: The chapter contends that society's authority over the individual should be limited to preventing harm to others, and that society should not interfere with an individual's personal choices that do not directly affect others.

  • Moral Reprobation vs. Legal Punishment: The chapter distinguishes between moral disapproval of an individual's self-regarding conduct and the justification for legal punishment. It argues that while society may express moral disapproval, it should not use legal means to punish individuals for actions that only affect themselves.

  • Dangers of Majority Opinion: The chapter warns against the dangers of majority opinion being used to impose its preferences on individuals, even in matters that do not concern the public. It argues that majority opinion is often wrong when it comes to self-regarding conduct.

  • Examples of Unwarranted Interference: The chapter provides several examples of unwarranted interference by the public or the government in individuals' personal choices, such as restrictions on religious practices, amusements, and consumption of alcohol.

  • Mormonism and Polygamy: The chapter discusses the case of Mormonism and its practice of polygamy, arguing that while the practice may be considered morally objectionable, individuals should be free to engage in it as long as they do not harm others.

  • Importance of Liberty: The chapter emphasizes the fundamental importance of individual liberty and the need to protect it from the encroachment of majority opinion or government power, even in cases where the majority may consider an individual's choices to be unwise or immoral.


  • The principle of individual liberty states that the individual is not accountable to society for their actions that only concern their own interests, and society can only express its disapproval through advice, instruction, persuasion, or avoidance.

  • The principle of social accountability states that for actions that are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual can be subjected to social or legal punishments if society deems it necessary for its protection.

  • Damage or probability of damage to others' interests can justify society's interference, but not all such interference is justified, as individuals may legitimately cause pain or loss to others in pursuing their own legitimate objectives.

  • The doctrine of free trade, which rests on grounds different from the principle of individual liberty, recognizes that the cheapness and quality of commodities are best provided for by leaving producers and sellers free, under the check of equal freedom for buyers.

  • The preventive function of government in restricting liberty is more liable to abuse than the punitory function, and any such restrictions must be carefully considered to balance the need for prevention with the preservation of individual liberty.

  • The right of society to ward off crimes against itself by antecedent precautions suggests limitations to the principle of non-interference in purely self-regarding misconduct, such as in the case of a person previously convicted of violence while drunk.

  • While society cannot prevent or punish personal conduct that only harms the agent, the question arises whether others should be free to counsel or instigate such conduct, which is a social act and may therefore be subject to social control.

  • The absorption of the country's principal ability into the governing bureaucracy is fatal to the mental activity and progressiveness of the bureaucracy itself, as it removes the check of equal ability outside the body.

  • The ideal balance is the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency, combined with the greatest possible centralization and diffusion of information from the center, to harness the benefits of centralized power and intelligence without stifling individual activity and development.


What do you think of "On Liberty"? Share your thoughts with the community below.