Armytage Open Lecture


영미문학연구회 근대분과

2016 세미나: 19세기 영국사상가 읽기



John Stuart Mill, On Liberty


Chapter I. Introductory


1. Stages of Liberty


주제: “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual"(23)


1) A protection against the tyranny of the political rulers’ in the struggle between subjects and rulers.

2) A limitation of the popular self-rule by the people which is the nation itself

3) A popular self-rule within certain fundamental legal limits designed to secure minorities against injustice by the popular majority and its elected representatives(United States)

4) A protection from increasingly oppressive popular opinion (mainly commercial in spirit) that achieves its meddlesome aims without relying on legislation or other government commands at all(middle class)


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 means other 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. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism(26).


문제는 "how to make the fitting adjustment between individual independence and social control"(26)


2. The Purpose of this essay


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 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(30).



, 개인의 자유를 법적으로 보호하는 충분한 조건에 관한 원칙: 남에 해가 되지 않으면 개인의 자유는 절대적임.


사회발전의 정도가 미흡하거나(backward states of society)나 성인이 아닌 경우는 예외.


3. An Argument for Liberty based on a Utilitarian principle, not that of abstract right: General Utility


"but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being"(31)


1) 'private' or 'self-regarding' action


[T]here is a sphere of action . . . comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself may affect others through himself(32).


2) The Self-regarding region


It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived(33).


3) The Principle of Liberty as a Basic Maxim by Every Civil Society.


No society in which these liberties [in self-regarding matters] are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified(33).


Mill의 자유론은 the individual's right to have absolute control of what goes on within his self-regarding sphere.


Chapter II. Of The Liberty of Thought and Discussion


1. A Few Unique Aspects of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion


1) A grave danger to liberty of thought and discussion: Christian Morality


that ‘Christian morality . . . is the whole truth on that subject’ (65). Thus, he complains that the ‘narrow’ and ‘one-sided’ ‘theological morality’ which now passes for Christianity ‘is becoming a grave practical evil’(68). A ‘revival of religion [of the sort under way in both Europe and America as he wrote] is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry’ (49).


2) The absolute nature of the liberty of thought and expression


Thus, he insists that ‘there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered’ (36, note), except in the relatively few situations where such expression is ‘a positive instigation to some mischievous act’ that is seriously harmful to others.


3) A Denial of 'the right of the people' to exert any power of coercion against the expression of opinion


‘The power itself is illegitimate’. He ‘altogether condemn[s]’ even a reference to ‘the immorality and impiety of an opinion’ as such. In support of his contention that the individual ought to enjoy absolute freedom from coercion, he argues that ‘silencing the expression of an opinion is . . . a peculiar evil(37)’, namely, ‘robbing the human race’ of truth or, of ‘what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth’(37)). His argument provides, among much else, insights into the nature of his utilitarianism.


2. The Harm of Silencing an Opinion which may be true


1) The Assumption of Infallibility


[I]t is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side(43).


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(39).


The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded . . . This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this is the sole way of attaining it(41).


2) The Mischief illustrated and emphasized


Socrates, Christ, and Emperor Marcus Aurelius


‘ages are no more infallible than individuals’(38)


Refuting Samuel Johnson's words "truth always triumphs over persecution"(47)


Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either [at least for a time](48).


3) Lingering religious persecution


'It is the stigma which is really effective’(50). That stigma results in ‘a general atmosphere of mental slavery’, an oppressive state of intellectual peace in which ‘there is a tacit convention that [religious and moral] principles are not to be disputed’ (52). Many of even the best minds are too intimidated to engage in a ‘fair and thorough discussion of heretical opinions’(52), resulting in a false uniformity, an ill-considered conformity to conventional ideas.


3. The Harm of Silencing even a False Opinion


1) Dead dogma vs. Living Truth


‘however true [the received opinion] may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth’ (53). Unless he can hear and answer objections to it, a person does not have any knowledge of the grounds of the true belief. Authority, as opposed to evidence, determines his judgment. He accepts the true opinion blindly, ‘as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument’ (54). But ‘this is not the way in which truth ought to held by a rational being . . . Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth(54).’


So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up(55).


2) A Utilitarian Elite?


일반인이 굳이 사상적 토론에 참여할 필요가? Discussionmental exercise.



The words which convey it, cease to suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally employed to communicate. Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost(57).



3) Hierarchy and Dogma


Mill insists that the tendency of living beliefs to degenerate into dead dogma through absence of free discussion, is ‘illustrated in the experience of almost all ethical doctrines and religious creeds’ (57). They are ‘full of meaning and vitality’ to their originators and expounders who struggle to defend them against their critics, yet they lose their animating force as controversy dies, until, eventually, they take their place as dead dogma, ‘if not as a received opinion, as one of the admitted sects or divisions of opinion’ which excite little interest and are no longer really understood (57).


4) The Example of Christianity


Rather, most so-called Christians believe and act upon the rules of the true Christian doctrine just up to the point at which it is customary at the moment to do so. ‘They have an habitual respect for the sound’ of the words (59). But ‘whenever conduct is concerned, they look round for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ’ (59). In a predominantly commercial culture, he might have added, the conventional directions given and accepted by most will tend to be imbued with a commercial spirit, yielding a so-called ‘Christian’ dogma whose rules are bent to fit capitalistic expectations rather than anything Christ and his early followers had in mind


5) Unanimity vs. Truth?


But the objection is too quick, Mill replies. Even if unanimity were achieved, the essential process would remain necessary for fallible beings to retain the meaning of their warranted opinions. Complete liberty of thought and discussion can be carried on by a ‘contrivance’ such as ‘the Socratic dialectics’, in which skilled devil’s advocates take the place of committed critics




4. The Harm of Silencing an Opinion which may be only partly true


1) Popular opinion is generally biased


Even progress, which ought to superadd, for the most part only substitutes, one partial and incomplete truth for another; improvement consisting chiefly in this, that the new fragment of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time, than that which it displaces.



2) Complete Liberty of Discussion is Utilitarian


[I]t is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil . . . And since there are few mental attributes more rare than that judicial faculty which can sit in intelligent judgment between two sides of a question, of which only one is represented by an advocate before it, truth has no chance but in proportion as every side of it, every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advocated as to be listened to(69).


3) The Crucial Case of Christian Moral Beliefs


But someone may still object that some received beliefs, for example, Christian principles, are special in the sense that they comprise ‘the whole truth’ on the vital subject of morality. That objection returns Mill to what he considers the crucial test case for his principle of absolute liberty of thought and discussion: ‘As this is of all cases the most important in practice, none can be fitter to test the general maxim’ (65). His strategy is to show that Christian principles contain only a part of the truth about morality, so that a fully adequate morality (utilitarian or otherwise) requires them to be modified and supplemented by non-Christian elements.


If Christians would teach infidels to be just to Christianity, they should themselves be just to infidelity. It can do truth no service to blink the fact . . . that a large portion of the noblest and most valuable moral teaching has been the work, not only of men who did not know, but of men who knew and rejected, the Christian faith(68).




Gray, John and G.W. Smith. eds. J.S. Mill On Liberty in Focus. Routledge, 1991.

Riley, Jonathan. Routledge Philosophy Guide Book to Mill On Liberty, Routledge, 1998






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