John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill; drawing by David Levine

John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty has on the whole served conservatives better than liberals. From Fitzjames Stephen to Wilmore Kendall and Lord Devlin, critics of liberalism have been pleased to cite the essay as the most cogent philosophical defense of that theory, and then, by noticing the defects in its argument, argue that liberalism is flawed. Miss Himmelfarb uses the essay in the same way, but with this difference. She does not attack Mill’s arguments, but argues ad hominem against Mill himself. She says that he himself condemns, in his other writings, the philosophical premises upon which On Liberty is built. Friedrich Hayek made the same point years ago, and Miss Himmelfarb touched upon it in her 1962 edition of Mill’s essays. Now she documents her case in great detail.

If, as she believes, On Liberty runs against the grain of everything Mill wrote before or after it, then it is necessary to explain why he took such time and care, in that essay, to refute himself. She finds the answer in his long association with Harriet Taylor, who had become his wife when On Liberty was written, though she died before it was published. Mill dedicated On Liberty to her in extravagant terms; he said that her ideas inspired the essay, and that she was an active collaborator in the long process of revising and polishing it. Miss Himmelfarb argues that this was under-statement; that Miss Taylor was so much the dominant partner in the enterprise that she was able to drive him to unnatural intellectual positions. She also thinks that Miss Taylor’s outrage, which provoked the essay, was generated by the legal and social subjugation of women in Victorian England, a topic hardly mentioned in the essay, but of great concern to Miss Taylor.

But her only argument in favor of the hypothesis that Miss Taylor took over Mill’s mind is that no other explanation of the inconsistency in his thought can be found. There is no direct evidence, either internal or external to the essay. Miss Himmelfarb claims that the lack of internal evidence only shows how intimate the collaboration was, and explains the absence of external evidence by noticing that the Mills lived in isolation from all friends while the essay was being written. If there is in fact no genuine inconsistency between On Liberty and Mill’s other work, then no evidence remains for Miss Himmelfarb’s interesting speculation.

Her argument for the supposed inconsistency is this. Mill discusses liberty not only in the famous essay but in many books and papers, including his autobiography, his early essay “The Spirit of the Age,” his famous essay on Coleridge, and his major work on utilitarianism. In these other works, he argues in favor of both complexity and historicism in political theory. He condemns Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, for reducing social psychology and political theory to simple axioms. He deploys a pessimistic theory of human nature, emphasizes the value of cultural and historical constraints on egotism, and insists on the role of the state in educating its citizens away from individual appetite and toward social conscience.

But On Liberty, in Miss Himmelfarb’s view, contradicts each of these propositions. It begins by asserting:

one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control…. 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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

She condemns, first, the absolute character of this assertion: Mill is false to his own sophistication, she says, when he asserts that “one very simple principle” can “govern absolutely” the complex connections between society and individual. She then characterizes this simple principle as an “extreme” claim for liberty in defiance of Mill’s more characteristic claims for tradition and education. On Liberty, she says, encouraged individuals to “prize and cultivate their personal desires, impulses, inclinations, and wills, to see these as the source of all good, the force behind individual and social well-being”; it supported a philosophy “which recognized no higher, no more worthy subject than the individual, which made the individual the repository of wisdom and virtue, and which made the freedom of the individual the sole aim of social policy.” It did all this in the face of Mill’s own philosophy, developed in other essays, that individuals achieve virtue and excellence through concern for others rather than attention to themselves.

Miss Himmelfarb’s argument begins with a blunder from which it does not recover. It confuses the force of a principle with its range. Bentham’s theories of human nature and utility, which Mill thought too simple, were absolute in their range. Bentham thought that every human act and decision was motivated by some calculation of pleasures and pains, and thought that every political decision should be made on that same calculation, that is, to maximize the net product of simple pleasure over pain for the community as a whole.


But Mill’s principle is of very limited range. It speaks only to those relatively rare occasions when a government is asked to prohibit some act on the sole ground that the act is dangerous to the actor, like driving a motorcycle without a helmet. Or on the ground that it is offensive to community standards of morality, like practicing homosexuality or publishing or reading pornography. Such decisions form a very small part of the business of any responsible government. The principle says nothing about how the government shall distribute scarce resources like income or security or power, or even how it shall decide when to limit liberty for the sake of some other value. It does not counsel government, for example, to respect the liberty of conscience of draft resisters at the cost of military efficiency, or the liberty of protest at the cost of property damage, or the liberty of a land user at the cost of the nuisance he causes.

The more limited the range of a principle, the more plausibly it may be said to be absolute. Even the most sophisticated philosophers might believe, for example, that it is always wrong for the government gratuitously to insult one class of its citizens. Mill thought his principle was also sufficiently limited to be absolute, and though he may have been wrong in this he can hardly be said to be simple-minded or fanatical because he thought so.

Miss Himmelfarb’s confusion between the range and force of Mill’s principle is responsible for the curious argument of the last part of her book. In recent years, she says, liberals have carried that principle to its logical extreme, with results that show that they have not yet learned that “absolute liberty may corrupt absolutely” and that “A populace that cannot respect principles of prudence and moderation is bound to behave so imprudently and immoderately as to violate every other principle, including the principle of liberty.” But her own account hardly suggests any connection between Mill and any social disorder. She says, for example, that the radical “counterculture” celebrates spontaneity, and she therefore claims it as Mill’s creature. But she concedes that the language of this “counterculture” emphasizes community more than individuality. She might have added that its proponents have held liberalism in general, and Mill in particular, in special contempt, and have much preferred such writers as Marcuse, whose hostility to On Liberty they find congenial.

Her other evidence of social corruption is limited to familiar examples of sexual explicitness. It is true that laws punishing homosexuals have been relaxed, that Deep Throat may still be seen uncut in some cities, and that there are more naked bathers on the beach than there used to be. But these are not threats to any principle of justice. The genuine damage we have suffered to liberty, like Harvard’s recent refusal and Yale’s inability to allow Professor Shockley to speak, suggest not too much attention to Mill but too little.

Miss Himmelfarb believes that these changes in sexual mores are previews or symptoms of a more general social anarchy and lawlessness. She thinks that Mill introduced a new and consuming idea of liberty; that his own distinction, between decisions affecting oneself and decisions affecting others, was simply an arbitrary and illogical line he drew to contain this corrosive idea; that since this line cannot hold, the idea must soon expand into violence and anarchy, into the absolute corruption that absolute liberty guarantees. Only her sense that Mill’s principle has this inner logic and inevitable consequence, that its inherent range as well as its force must be absolute, can explain the rhetoric of the last third of her book.

But her argument, whatever its other defects, betrays a huge misunderstanding of On Liberty; it confuses two concepts of liberty and assigns the wrong one to Mill’s essay. It does not distinguish between the idea of liberty as license, that is, the degree to which a person is free from social or legal constraint to do what he might wish to do, and liberty as dignity, that is, the status of a person as independent and equal rather than subservient. These two ideas are of course closely related. If a person is much cramped by legal and social constraints, then that is strong evidence, at least, that he is in a politically inferior position to some group that uses its power over him to impose those constraints. But the two ideas are nevertheless different in very important ways.


Liberty as license is an indiscriminate concept because it does not distinguish among forms of behavior. Every prescriptive law diminishes a citizen’s liberty as license: good laws, like laws prohibiting murder, diminish this liberty in the same way, and possibly to a greater degree, as bad laws, like laws prohibiting political speech. The question raised by any such law is not whether it attacks liberty, which it does, but whether the attack is justified by some competing value, like equality or safety or public amenity. If a social philosopher places a very high value on liberty as license, he may be understood as arguing for a lower relative value for these competing values. If he defends freedom of speech, for example, by some general argument in favor of license, then his argument also supports, at least pro tanto, freedom to form monopolies or smash storefront windows.

But liberty as dignity is not an indiscriminate concept in that way. It may well be, for example, that laws against murder or monopoly do not threaten, but are necessary to protect, the political independence of citizens generally. If a social philosopher places a high value on liberty as dignity he is not necessarily denigrating values like safety or amenity, even in a relative way. If he argues for freedom of speech, for example, on some general argument in favor of independence and equality, he does not automatically argue in favor of greater license when these other values are not at stake.

Miss Himmelfarb’s argument, that the inner logic of Mill’s principle threatens anarchy, assumes that the principle promotes liberty as license. In fact it promotes the more complex idea of liberty as dignity. Bentham and Mill’s father, John Mill, thought that political independence would be sufficiently secured by wide distribution of the right to vote and other political liberties: that is, by democracy. Mill saw dignity as a further dimension of equality; he argued that an individual’s independence is threatened, not simply by a political process that denies him equal voice, but by political decisions that deny him equal respect. Laws that recognize and protect common interests, like laws against violence and monopoly, offer no insult to any class or individual; but laws that constrain one man, on the sole ground that he is incompetent to decide what is right for himself, are profoundly insulting to him. They make him intellectually and morally subservient to the conformists who form the majority, and deny him the independence to which he is entitled. Mill insisted on the political importance of these moral concepts of dignity, personality, and insult. It was these complex ideas, not the simpler idea of license, that he tried to make available for political theory, and to use as the basic vocabulary of liberalism.

This distinction between acts that are self-regarding and those that are other-regarding was not an arbitrary compromise between the claims of license and other values. It was intended to define political independence, because it marked the line between regulation that connoted equal respect and regulation that denied it. That explains why he had such difficulty making the distinction, and why he drew it in different ways on different occasions. He conceded what his critics have always labored: that any act, no matter how personal, may have important effects on others. He acknowledged, for example, that if a man drinks himself sick, this act will cause pain to well-meaning men and women who will grieve at the waste of human life. The decision to drink is nevertheless self-regarding, not because these consequences are not real or socially important, but because they work, as Mill says, through the personality of the actor. We could not suppose that society has a right to be free from sympathy or regret without supposing that it has a right to decide what sort of personality its members shall have, and it is this right that Mill thought incompatible with freedom.

Once these two concepts of liberty are distinguished then Miss Himmelfarb’s argument, that Mill contradicts On Liberty in other essays, collapses. She quotes, for example, this passage from one of his early papers:

Liberty in its original sense, means freedom from restraint. In this sense, every law, and every rule of morals, is contrary to liberty. A despot, who is entirely emancipated from both, is the only person whose freedom of action is complete. A measure of government, therefore, is not necessarily bad, because it is contrary to liberty; and to blame it for that reason leads to confusion of ideas.

The “original” sense of liberty the youthful Mill had in mind was, of course, liberty as license, and nothing here contradicts On Liberty, either in letter or in spirit. She also cites passages from the essay on Coleridge in which Mill includes, as among the functions of education in a good society, “To train the human being in the habit, and thence the power, of subordinating his personal impulses and aims, to what were considered the ends of society….” But educating men to accept the aims of society is educating them to accept constraints on license in order to respect the interests of others, not to subordinate their own personality when these interests are not in play.

She cites Mill’s approval, in the same essay, of the feeling of nationality, that is, of a common public philosophy, and she suggests that that sort of nationality is opposed to the individuality of On Liberty. But she fails to mention Mill’s immediate proviso that “the only shape in which [that] feeling is likely to exist hereafter” is as a common respect for “principles of individual freedom and social equality, as realized in institutions which as yet exist nowhere, or exist only in a rudimentary state.” Nor does she mention that in the Coleridge essay he described education and nationality not as compromises with the philosophe’s goals of liberty but as conditions under which that goal might be achieved, as conditions necessary, that is, for “vigor and manliness of character” to be preserved. Each essay Miss Himmelfarb mentions confirms, rather than contradicts, the point of On Liberty, that independence of personality must be distinguished from license and anarchy, and established as a special and distinct condition of a just society.

If she had understood this she would not have repeated the silly proposition that true liberals must respect economic as well as intellectual liberty, nor would she have taxed Mill, who was a socialist, with inconsistency in that respect as well. Economic license and intellectual liberty must stand on the same footing only if liberty means license; they are plainly distinguishable, and at some point inconsistent, if liberty means dignity.

The Supreme Court confused these two ideas, decades ago when it decided, temporarily, that if the Constitution protects liberty at all it must protect the liberty of an employer to hire workers on such terms as he wishes. Conservatives confuse these ideas when they use “permissiveness” to describe both sexual independence and political violence and to suggest that these differ only in degree. Radicals confuse these ideas when they identify liberalism with capitalism, and therefore suppose that individual rights are responsible for social injustice. Mill’s collected works are not the source of that sort of confusion, but its antidote.

This Issue

October 31, 1974