Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 30
J S Mill - II: On Liberty, Representative Government
& Critical Assessment of his Thought
Hello and welcome everyone. This is a second and concluding lecture on John Stuart Mill. This
is also the last lecture in this course, ‘Introduction to Western Political Thought’. In today's
lecture, we will look at Mill's views on liberty and representative form of government before
looking at the critical aspects of his thought and philosophy. In the previous lecture on Mill, we
have discussed his views on utilitarianism and Subjection of Women. And also, the personal and
political life of John Stuart Mill and his major works.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:32)
Today, we will particularly focus on his views on liberty and the representative form of
government. Mill's text, On Liberty, is a classic defense of liberal individualism. One thing we
need to understand, although his defense of liberty is seen as the classic defense of liberal
individualism or the notion of freedom, Mill was a utilitarian philosopher. He argued in support
of liberty or extension of rights or equality and liberty to women or working class. He also
justified it in sense of how that help would lead to moral, material, and intellectual improvement
of individual and society as well. Mill was a utilitarian philosopher yet this text, On Liberty is seen as a classic defense of the
liberal notion of individualism. His defense of individual liberty and freedom is based on his
belief in human perfectibility. That is to see that human being has an immense capacity for selfimprovement. They can do only when they are provided with a condition of freedom to develop,
to grow, to improve themselves according to their own will and inner conscience.
So, he considered human beings as capable of self-improvement through the exercise of their
choice and reason without coercion from the external authority. Let us understand this point that
when a human being gets an opportunity to exercise his will or reason. In most of the societies,
individuals prefer to conform to the existing or prevailing ideas and norms. In following or
copying the prevailing notions of a good or moral, desirable action, an individual does not
exercise his, her rational faculty.
That is not the way for progress or self-improvement. Like other faculties such as physique or
body which requires constant practice or exercise to develop physical capacity, similarly, Mill's
argued that human being could improve themselves only when they exercise their will or choice
without interference or depending upon the external values or instructions from society or any
authority over himself other than his will or dictates of moral or intellectual thinking.
This is similar to say, the Kantian idea of coming out of the self-imposed immaturity condition in
the sense. That is, rationality or reason should be a guide of action. But one can learn and
develop it for himself and his society only when they develop the courage to act according to
their will and rationality. Somewhat similar to that in Mill's defense of individual liberty, that it
helps them to develop their rational or moral faculty when they exercise them on the matter of
choice or options that concern their life. Therefore, they should not be dependent on external
authority or society.
It is through the exercise of their moral and rational faculties that human beings, according to
Mill, develop their personality or individuality. So, how you differentiate a man from another
man is based on how that particular person has used his reason and rationality to develop his
personality and individuality. So, they could do in the condition of absolute freedom, and
therefore, freedom and liberty is necessary or a precondition for the individual to self-improve or bring about progress in society. And this should be in the absence of any kind of external control
Mill's arguments in favor of liberty were embedded in his utilitarian philosophy as well.
However, it goes beyond that and there is, in this text, and as we have seen while discussing his
views on utilitarianism, he considered utility or ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ as
the basis of measuring a value. However, he added the qualitative aspect of pleasure, that is, all
kinds of pleasure are not of the same and equal moral worth. So, reading a book is, according to
Mill's logic, a higher-order or superior source of pleasure like walking or having a cup of coffee
or watching a movie. Thus, all kinds of pleasure are not or equal, and the same moral worth. He
made a superior or inferior kind of pleasure in utilitarian philosophy.
Similarly, in his argument in liberty and later, we will discuss his views on representative
government. He continued to use the utility or ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ as
the basis for assessing or measuring the value of liberty or representative government.
Nonetheless, he also went beyond that. And his defense of liberty was in a sense, not confined to
the utilitarian philosophy or the logic of utilitarian philosophy as well. He like many other
enlightenment thinkers believed that human beings could improve themselves and society by
thinking for themselves, not relying on the existing prevailing norms in society and that is the
reason for stagnancy.
When an individual subject himself or herself to the prevailing norms and values, there would
not be the development of thought or innovation or new ideas. So, once human beings develop
this attitude of conformity to the existing norms, there would be no progress, no enlightenment,
no improvement in society or individuals. Like many other enlightenment thinkers, Mill believed
in this capacity of a human being to improve himself and the society that they can do when they
exercise their reason or rationality in the conditions of freedom without coercion or interference
from the external authority.
So, they can do so by exercising their rational choice, thus, he argued against the conformity
which stifles thought and imagination and if human beings are merely conforming to the
prevalent norms in the society, they will never develop the moral worth or character of their own.
One of the reasons Mill justified was that freedom would allow individuals to develop his or her personality. And that is of ultimate importance not just for the individual himself, but also, for
the society. Let it brings about new ideas, new imaginations, or innovations and prosperity. He
considered liberty as the peak condition for the intellectual and moral growth of individuals,
which in turn would lead to overall growth and prosperity in the society.
According to Mill, his justification for liberty or absolute liberty of individual was based on his
understanding of human nature, that is, human nature is not fixed, rigid or like a product, it
constantly improves itself. That it can do once it is provided with the condition of freedom or
liberty. For him, human nature was not a machine to be built after a model. So, there could not
be a fixed model built either by society or religious authority, or state. There could be a one size
fit model for all the individuals. Individuals develop their personality, and individuality,
according to their will and conscience.
He argued that human nature was not a machine to be built after a model and set to do exactly
the work prescribed for it. But it is like a tree which requires to grow and develop itself on all
sides according to the tendency of the inward forces that make it a living thing. So, this living
entity or living thing in human subjectivity should grow on all sides without imitating or
following the model prescribed by society or religious authority or by the state.
An individual can develop his or her individuality or personality once he or she is allowed to and
guided by his or her internal conscience, which is the driving force or living thing in the human
being. Therefore, liberty should be given and human character or individuality should not be
based on the model provided by society or religious authority or by the state. Therefore,
according to Mill, it is a crime to deprive the individuals of developing his or her character or
individuality and this is the classic statement in liberal philosophy.
It wants the individual to define himself as a self-defining autonomous subject, having the reason
or rationale capacity that takes decisions concerning his or her life. And on that basis, they also
justify the institution of the free market which determines the fair price, or worth of an individual
or real worth of an individual or product. Mill wanted such liberty to be extended to women and
the working-class that we have also discussed in the previous lecture.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:03)Mill discussed different facets of liberty. He talked about liberty of thought, speech, and
expression which also included publication, discussion, free debates, or free speech. And also,
liberty to make choices and act accordingly on the matters concerning one's life and liberty to
form associations. When Mill talked about liberty, he meant these three things. One is to give the
individual freedom to think, write, speak, discuss, and express, so freedom of thought, speech,
and expression include discussion, publication, free speech is one absolute freedom that he
The second aspect of freedom and liberty in Mill was that human beings also should be given the
liberty to act according to their moral, intellectual choice or options, and society should not
interfere. Only on the condition of harm principles, society can be justified to regulate or
interfere in the affairs of individuals against their will to prevent them to harm others. Otherwise,
individuals should be left free to take decisions or make choices about their own life. Society,
authority, or committee have no business in the interference on matters which concern his life.
And this aspect of liberty is that individuals should be free to form an association and then learn
the civic and political values, and how to behave responsibly in the representative government,
and how to hold the government accountable as a free, and equal citizen. He argued for absolute
freedom in matters of thought, speech, and expression. So, there should not be any regulation,
limit, or control on this aspect of liberty that is freedom of thought. One should be free to think
the way you want to think. State, society, community, religious authority should not tell you what you should think and what you should not think. And this thinking is the basis for all
progress when individuals use their capacity to reason or rationality, to arrive at certain
understanding and act accordingly.
Now, on the acting part, there could be some regulation which Mill talked about in his argument
of Harm's principle. But in terms of thinking and expressing the way you think, there should not
be any limit or control. It has to be absolute freedom of thought and expression. This could be
best understood from the assertion by Mill and this is the brilliant defense of individual liberty to
think and express freely. He argued that if all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only
one person was of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one
person, than he if he had the powder, would be justified in silencing mankind.
Mill's argued that if the whole mankind, except one, was of one opinion, let us take the example
a certain thing should be done and one person is of the contrary opinion, still, the mankind does
not have right or cannot be justified in silencing that one person, then if that person has the
capacity and make an argument to silence the whole mankind. If you think about a breakthrough
in science, technology, innovation is carried by one individual acting according to their rational
will and not conforming to the prevalent social understanding or social norms.
So, this is the brilliant defense of individual liberty that he gave the one-person justifiable right
to silence the whole mankind rather than the whole mankind silencing the one person and his
views. And there is the utilitarian argument for such justification as well. Mill's defense of
absolute freedom of thought, speech, and expression is based on his philosophy of the
multifaceted nature of the truth. So, truth is something that should guide our behavior, it should
also guide the behavior of the state and representative institution. But how do we come to know
about the truth?
Can one person, one community, one section of the society claim that their understanding or
opinion is based on the totality of the truth? And what is this totality of truth? Can it be captured
by the opinion of one person, one segment in the society? Or it is the totality of opinions? Or it
can be the opinion of one person as well, in the case of this argument, that one person, if he has
the courage can silence the whole mankind rather than that whole mankind silencing his opinion.Mill’s argument or defense for the absolute freedom of speech, expression, and thought is based
on this idea of the multifacetedness of the truth. So, all the opinion contained certain elements of
truth, but none of them, in isolation, contained the totality of the truth. Society, as a whole,
develop their correct understanding or improve that understanding, only when it allows all kinds
of opinions to be expressed freely. And that freedom of expression will allow the majority
opinion or the prevalent opinion in any given point in society to improve it further.
Or it considers something as truth to have more firm belief or trust in the prevalent norms, but if
the prevalent norms are wrong, society would have the opportunity to correct itself. And that is
possible when it allows absolute freedom of thought, speech, and expression. So, believing in the
fallible nature of human beings that individually or in groups, we may be wrong, our opinion
may have certain elements of truth, but it may not have the other elements of truth. Therefore, he
wanted all kinds of opinions to be expressed recognizing that they might have certain elements
of truth. But they could not claim truth in the totality constituted when all kinds of opinions are
expressed freely in society.
So, believing in this fallible nature of human beings and their capacity for self-improvement,
both these things are something, the basis for the justification of the absolute right of speech and
expression. Human beings are fallible, which means, they may make mistakes. But they can also
learn from their mistakes and improve themselves. That is possible when the ideas are freely
expressed and exchanged in society. Thus, individuals' moral and rational faculty will improve,
so will be the overall progress or improvement in society.
Mill argued that not one opinion could see the truth in totality. Therefore, society would benefit
if it allows all ideas and opinions to be freely expressed. Thus, what society holds as truth should
be subjected to scrutiny by those having a contrary opinion. So, even if some sacred or
sacrosanct beliefs and ideas, which majority in the society subscribe to, even those ideas should
be subjected to the opinions of the contrary thinkers or those who have contrary opinions. Only
when the opinions are freely exchanged or experimented with, then we know the worth of an
And if it satisfies the public scrutiny by those who are having a contrary opinion, then our belief,
and trust in that idea grow. We mold our character according to that. But if the prevalent norms and the opinion in society is wrong, we have the opportunity to improve from improving it
further by learning from the contrary opinion. He argued that if the opinion of the society was
true, then trust in society's opinion became more firm and it would become a living truth capable
of molding human character.
However, if such an opinion of society is wrong, then society would have an opportunity to
correct itself. Therefore, freedom of speech and expression should be absolute without any
regulation, limits, whatsoever, according to John Stuart Mill. Regarding freedom to choose or act
according to one's choice or option to make decisions about one's life, Mill argued that over
himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign. So, he did not accept any authority
on a person, body, or mind. In that sphere of life, he should be sovereign.
There should not be interference or control by the external authority. However, made a
distinction between the self-regarding action, when he talked about liberty of action. Individuals
are free to choose and opt for a particular course of action, freedom there lies in giving the
individual absolute freedom to make decisions on matters that concern his life. But on matters
that may influence, or that has an influence on other lives or it can harm the lives of others, then
the society and external authority can interfere or control or limit the behavior of individual or
action of the individual. He made a distinction between the self-regarding and other-regarding
function. (Refer Slide Time: 24:35)
Mill did not want society or any other collectivity to interfere with an individual self-regarding
function. On the matters that concern an individual's life, his moral, intellectual choices, there
should be absolutely no interference from the external authority. However, he argued that the
state or society or any external authority could regulate or limit the actions of an individual in a
minimal way, where individual actions could harm other individuals.
So the soul end, he writes, for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in
interfering with the liberty of action of any of their member, is the self-protection. 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. And this is also known as the harm principle in
Mill's defense of liberty. His good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
Mill argued, for instance, the society or any collective group could not impose their ideas of
good, morality, or wise course of action on the individual against his or her will. At most, they
can persuade or convince them. But they must not impose their idea of good, moral action or
wise action on the individuals against their will. They can do so to prevent the individual from
Otherwise, individuals should be left free in a civilized society, where the organization of that
society is based on the rational principle and belief in the individual rationality or individual
capacity to self-improvement. They can do so when they are allowed to exercise their rationality and not guided by the morality and norms in society. If they do, then there is no progress,
improvement, and no development in the rational or intellectual faculties of individuals or
So, for the overall benefit of society, individuals should be left free to make decisions that
govern their life. But only on those actions which can harm others, society, and state can
interfere, but that is minimal. The only ground of interference in individual action is known as
the harm principle in Mill's theory on liberty. If any individual's action results in harmful impacts
on others, then society or authority has the right to interfere and regulate such behaviors.
However, they could not do so because they think or perceive certain actions of an individual as
a threat to others.
When there is real danger or harm to others, only then society and any external authority can
interfere in the actions of the individual. They cannot do so because they think or perceive, so it
is like an absolute defense of negative liberty. That means the area of life which concerns
individual on a person or self-regarding actions, he should be left free even to make decisions
about the well-being of his life or thinking the way he or she likes or choosing to do certain
actions according to their concerns.
Society or state has no business to interfere in those affairs. They can interfere only on the
condition when the actions of an individual can harm others. They cannot do it because they
think or perceive certain thoughts, ideas, and actions have the potential to harm others. Only
when there is a real or imminent threat, only then they can interfere, not based on their thinking
or perception about individual actions or thoughts.
So, there is a kind of harm principle that gives the society and state a very minimal authority or
warrant to interfere in the individual's liberty to act according to their will or rational decision.
However, for many critics or scholars, this distinction between self-regarding and otherregarding function is problematic and not as clear as Mill's like it to be. Suppose, going by Mill's
argument, the individual is free to listen to music. Now, individual lives in society, and listening
to music may hamper the other individual's choice or decision to study in silence. Now, how you
can differentiate the self-regarding functions of an individual not having an influence on others
in society?Similarly, you can take the example of a property. The individual in the free society is free to use
his or her property in any manner he or she likes. Suppose, if that use of the property has a
negative influence on others in the society, where one can draw the line between self-regarding
and other-regarding functions. So in the real, living historical experiences of the individual, it is
very hard to differentiate between these self-regarding functions of the individual and others
Let us take the example of abuse, whether it is drug abuse or another kind of perverted behavior,
that may be limited to the individual. But it has the potential to harm the society and social fabric
of morality. So, how you are going to differentiate between the self-regarding and otherregarding functions is not very clear and that led many scholars to criticize Mill's theory of selfregarding and other-regarding functions. Mill's defense of liberty also included the freedom to
form associations and that is where individuals learned to participate in the affairs of the
community or managing the common affairs of the whole society.
When they are allowed to form association freely, without control or regulation from the
government. Mill did not want the government to perform all the public utility functions and this
we will discuss when we discuss his views on representative government as well. He wanted
local authority or decentralization of power to be done in such a manner that individuals learn to
manage their affairs. That is the kind of learning or educative experience for the citizens in
representative government as well.
So, the free associations of individuals bring fresh and innovative experiences. And a plurality of
approaches benefits society and helps its members to improve morally, materially, and mentally
through participation in free associations. These are some of the views of Mill on liberty. Now, I
will move on to his views on representative government.(Refer Slide Time: 32:57)
So, in this discussion on representative government or democratic rule, that is necessary to make
this clear that Mill was talking about a representative government or democratic rule deliberately
avoiding the use of democracy. Because there was a possibility or danger in democracy, that is,
in the name of self-government or interest of the community, the liberty of individuals could be
jeopardized or it might have led to unworthy representatives. He was very cautious about using
the term representative government and not democracy when he discussed the state and political
His discussion on the representative government or democratic rule or how governance should
be based on participation and he was in support of the extension of the right to vote or inclusion
of new members in the participation or choosing the representatives in the democratic state. He
combined both participation with competence and he discussed in the consideration of
representative government published in 1861.
According to him, the representative form of government was the best model of government for
people who are educated enough to take responsibility for their affairs. These are the basic points
on which he denied the representative government in non-European societies. That is, something
fundamentally problematic in Mill's defense of the representative government. His idea was that governance is a serious business. It requires the citizen to be responsible
enough to take ownership of their action. So, the right to choose one’s representative and the
whole representatives were accountable to act according to the laws, constitution, and should not
use the power arbitrarily and it would need the enlightened or active citizens.
Therefore, he argued that a representative form of government was the best suitable or best form
of government only for those educated people rational enough to take responsibility for their
affairs. When they learned the capacity to manage their collective affair, only for them this form
of government was suitable and not for non-European societies whom he thought were not
educated or rational enough to manage their affairs and that is similar to the prevalent imperialist
view on civilization mission or white man’s burden to civilize the whole humanity.
So, one also needs to make this clear that he was also not in favor of direct democracy, which
means, people themselves governing. Because representative government combines participation
with competence, that means those who are skilled or responsible in the business of governance
are given the duty of executive or implementation of policies. And representative according to
Mill, like Edmund Burke and many other conservatives, knows what is best for the people.
The participation of the people in the business of governance should be limited to elect a worthy
representative. And that should be based on popular participation. But the business of
governance should be carried on by those who are competent enough to serve the interest of the
community or protect the interest of the community. He thought that the executive should be
chosen and accountable to the representative assembly who are in turn chosen and answerable to
the people themselves. So, there is a kind of election by the people of their representatives, and
representatives, in turn, elect the executive body.
Thus, it ensures in a limited sense, the sovereignty of the people. People remain the ultimate
sovereign and according to Mill, the basic function of the government is to ensure that existing
skills and intelligence of the people is utilized for furthering the common interest of the whole
population or community. Second, the process of governance is used in such a manner that it
enhances the participation of people and thereby, improving their moral and intellectual faculties.
So, the governance or process of governance for Mill was not just about the exercise of power, although, in the exercise of power he wanted the best in any societies to be called for in the
business of governance.
However, the whole process of governance should be done in such a manner that the citizen, at
last, learns how to manage their common or collective affairs. And in that sense, it is a kind of
public education for the citizens. Here, the objective of the government or the best government is
decided based on whether it uses the best existing skills or intellect for the governance and
whether it enhances the overall moral and intellectual faculties of the citizens or not.
So, that should be the two basic criteria for deciding the nature of a government. In modern
times, he considered a representative form of government that is most suitable for that and not a
despotic or authoritarian form of government. A representative form of government, according to
Mill, was a model for educating citizens in managing the common affairs of the community.
However, Mill was very apprehensive of democratic and representative government.
Although like Tocqueville who wrote, Democracy in America, in two volumes, this is the classic
work on the functioning of modern democracy and the danger of democracy. So, there is so
much focus on equality, according to Tocqueville, when he studied democracy and its
functioning in America, that it might jeopardize individual liberty. Similarly, Mill also
recognized the danger or threat to individual liberty inherent in democracy.
So, like Tocqueville, Mill also considered democracy indispensable. However, he thought it
could jeopardize the liberty or freedom of the individuals. Mill argued that in comparison to
despotism, there was a greater threat to an individual's liberty in a democracy. That might appear
paradoxical to us in contemporary times, that how could threat to individual liberty be more in a
democracy than despotism. Mill argued that in despotism, the government was based on the
contradiction of interest between subjects and ruler, and subjects are ever vigilant about the
encroachment of liberty by the rulers and despotism.
Whereas, in democracy, there is a kind of laxity and realization that democracy is the selfgovernment, governed by their self-representative. And there is no vigilance abo
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