Monday’s Mtg: What Is Liberty? John Stuart Mill’s Philosophy

John Stuart Mill is one of the most influential moral and social philosophers who ever lived. A towering intellect, his treatises include On Liberty, which dealt with the proper power and limit of the state over the individual, and The Subjugation of Women, which defended equality long before it was fashionable.  Mill’s was a liberal, in the old-fashioned sense of a philosopher defending individual liberty and autonomy against the paternalistic, overweening state that had been the norm up to that point.

Bruce is familiar with Mill’s work (although not with his complicated writings on logic and epistemology, he tells me).  So, Bruce will lead us Monday.  He has been rereading On Liberty and will take us through Mill’s method and conclusions.

Today’s conservatives (at least the well-read ones) frequently cite Mill’s philosophy as one of the founding fathers of their belief system, along with Hayek, Von Mises, et. al.   So, I think we need to understand Mill and even – gasp! – appreciate him, as well as just be able to rebut any of his thoughts that we feel are no longer relevant.



  1. Who was John Stuart Mill?  In what social and political contexts did he live and work?  How do they matter for our interpretation of him today?
  2. What did Mill have to say in On Liberty?  How relevant is it today?
  3. What do we think of Mill’s most famous principles: The “harm principle?” and his version of utilitarianism?  How should they be interpreted for the modern world?



Philosophy rules, if you can understand a word they are saying.


One response

  1. Philosophy only rules because you can pick one that feels good to you and then justify it by adding rationalizing arguments in your favor. If you really wanted to get something close to a workable solution, you would take each idea and treat it as a scientific hypothesis and (honestly) check if it gave the claimed benefits or not.

    Take, for example the ever-popular (among the ruling elite) “tyranny of the majority”. Mill’s claim is that it is harder to protect against “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling” than against a tyrant. Does history support such a claim? Not from what I have seen. There have been innumerable instances of an aggressive individual or group taking action against a despised outside group, but I cannot find a situation where the majority actually rose up to do so. What always seems to happen is that a small group takes action and the majority do nothing and hope for the best. It looks to me that if a system was in place that required the majority to agree to any proposed action before it could take place, the vast majority of the worlds pogroms and harassment would never have taken place.

    Unfortunately, it takes a lot more work, not to mention honesty and self-control, to do a scientific check of one’s ideas than to simply think up arguments in its favor, so I guess that philosophy will continue to rule for the foreseeable future in establishing public policy. But it shouldn’t.

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