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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 2 February 2011
"On Liberty" is one of the most important books on political thought of the nineteenth century. Fortunately for the 21st century reader it is also one of the most accessible. Mill was a libertarian who chose not to base his defence of liberty on natural rights but on his own revised version of utilitarianism:
"I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions...grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."
This enables Mill to argue that freedom is needed if man is to be able to explore all the avenues of human development that allow the human race to progress. Total freedom is impossible so what determines the legitimate boundaries of freedom? Mill distinguishes between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. The former should never be interfered with and the latter subject to limitation only if they harm the legitimate rights of others.

For Mill free thought is a self-regarding action which should not be curtailed, and free thought is virtually useless without free speech. He was concerned not only about legal curtailment but also the pressure of social conformity, for he feared a "tyranny of the majority". Mill then proceeds to add a utilitarian argument in favour of free speech: if an opinion is silenced then mankind is necessarily the loser whether the opinion is true or false. He advances a number of arguments to support this, concluding with the claim that a climate of freedom is essential for "great thinkers" and "it is as much, and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature they are capable of." He has no truck with paternalists seeking to guide people's thoughts in the "right" direction. He was equally hostile to the idea that people had the right not to be offended; hence he opposed the blasphemy law. The single case Mill gives of an acceptable limitation of free speech is the case of corn-dealers and an excited mob. An opinion expressed in a newspaper that corn-dealers are "starvers of the poor" is legitimate, but the same view stated to an angry mob outside the corn-dealer's home may be limited if it "is a positive instigation to a mischievous act."

Mill concedes that actions cannot be as free as speech and seeks to establish the proper limits of freedom of action. Mill proposes that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted...in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection." Because he rejects paternalism he opposes all interference with self-regarding actions. Mill would not have prevented people from taking drugs and he would have led the opposition to seat belt legislation. Mill even rejects state interference with liberty for the sake of crime prevention, e.g. poisons can be used for criminal purposes. Mill was willing to accept a register of their sale but not the banning of them. Mill believes we must not interfere with the "rights"of others but these are narrowly circumscribed and Mill makes it clear that "rights" are not the same as "interests". Hence cut-throat laissez-faire is legitimate. As for moral decency arguments Mill does say that sexual intercourse in public is unacceptable, and though fornication and gambling are acceptable he is in two minds about whether pimps and casino-owners should be allowed to operate. Mill says it is a difficult case that is on the borderline, but adds that in general we must resist attempts to limit behaviour for "moral" reasons because any such action is likely to be the thin end of the wedge.

Though Mill is a very determined anti-paternalist he makes three exceptions: children, primitive societies and the disabled. Children must be guided until they reach maturity and they must be given compulsory education - something not given legislative force until 1871. As for primitive societies we must resist the notion that Mill was a typical Victorian believing in the "white man's burden" or inherent differences between races. He simply observed the reality of the world in the mid-nineteenth century but made it very clear any intervention in backward societies must be temporary with the aim to bring about self-government as soon as possible.

Hence Mill was a much more determined libertarian than most modern writers on the subject. There is just one example where, at first sight, Mill may seem reactionary to modern readers. He wished to restrict the right to have children to those who could prove that they could support them. However, those who today wish others to procreate without restriction do so on the grounds of human rights. Mill based his theories on utilitarianism, and not on rights. There was no welfare state when Mill wrote "On Liberty" and he was concerned with the well-being of children born to people without the means to support them.

In view of the growing restrictions on freedom in Britain this is a book well worth reading again. In particular I like Mill's argument that every restriction on freedom is the thin end of the wedge, providing a justification for further restrictions.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 August 2011
"On Liberty" is ideally suited to the Kindle format as it is quite short. The introduction gives some interesting backgound information rather than analysis or insight.

This essay is also one of the most important books on political thought of the nineteenth century. Fortunately for the 21st century reader it is also one of the most accessible. Mill was a libertarian who chose not to base his defence of liberty on natural rights but on his own revised version of utilitarianism:
"I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions...grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."
This enables Mill to argue that freedom is needed if man is to be able to explore all the avenues of human development that allow the human race to progress. Total freedom is impossible so what determines the legitimate boundaries of freedom? Mill distinguishes between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. The former should never be interfered with and the latter subject to limitation only if they harm the legitimate rights of others.

For Mill free thought is a self-regarding action which should not be curtailed, and free thought is virtually useless without free speech. He was opposed not only to legal curtailment but also to social conformity, for he feared a "tyanny of the majority". Mill then proceeds to add a utilitarian argument in favour of free speech: if an opinion is silenced then mankind is necessarily the loser whether the opinion is true or false. He advances a number of arguments to support this, concluding with the claim that a climate of freedom is essential for "great thinkers" and "it is as much, and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature they are capable of." He has no truck with paternalists seeking to guide people's thoughts in the "right" direction. He was equally hostile to the idea that people had the right not to be offended; hence he opposed the blasphemy law. The single case Mill gives of an acceptable limitation of free speech is the case of corn-dealers and an excited mob. An opinion expressed in a newspaper that corn-dealers are "starvers of the poor" is legitimate, but the same view stated to an angry mob outside the corn-dealer's home may be limited if it "is a positive instigation to a mischievous act."

Mill concedes that actions cannot be as free as speech and seeks to establish the proper limits of freedom of action. Mill proposes that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted...in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection." Because he rejects paternalism he opposes all interference with self-regarding actions. Mill would not have prevented people from taking drugs and he would have led the opposition to seat belt legislation. Mill even rejects state interference with liberty for the sake of crime prevention, e.g. poisons can be used for criminal purposes. Mill was willing to accept a register of their sale but not the banning of them. Mill believes we must not interfere with the "rights"of others but these are narrowly circumscribed and Mill makes it clear that "rights" are not the same as "interests". Hence cut-throat laissez-faire is legitimate. As for moral decency arguments Mill does say that sexual intercourse in public is unacceptable, and though fornication and gambling are acceptable he is in two minds about whether pimps and casino-owners should be allowed to operate. Mill says it is a difficult case that is on the borderline, but adds that in general we must resist attempts to limit behaviour for "moral" reasons because any such action is likely to be the thin end of the wedge.

Though Mill is a very determined anti-paternalist he makes three exceptions: children, primitive societies and the disabled. Children must be guided until they reach maturity and they must be given compulsory education - something not given legislative force until 1871. As for primitive societies we must resist the notion that Mill was a typical Victorian believing in the "white man's burden" or inherent differences between races. He simply observed the reality of the world in the mid-nineteenth century but made it very clear any intervention in backward societies must be temporary with the aim to bring about self-government as soon as possible.

Hence Mill was a much more determined libertarian than most modern writers on the subject. There is just one example where, at first sight, Mill may seem reactionary to modern readers. He wished to restrict the right to have children to those who could prove that they could support them. However, those who today wish others to be allowed to procreate at will do so on the grounds of human rights. Mill based his theories on utilitarianism, and not on rights. There was no welfare state when Mill wrote "On Liberty" and he was concerned with the well-being of children born to people without the means to support them.

In view of the growing restrictions on freedom in Britain this is a book well worth reading again. In particular I like Mill's argument that every restriction on freedom is the thin end of the wedge, providing a justification for further restrictions.
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on 1 April 2000
John Stuart Mill is the classic liberal thinker of the 19 Century. In 'On Liberty' he sets out an unparreleled vision of how individuals must be allowed to choose their own morality and a bitter attack on state-control and a conformist society. Mill's style is both intelligent and wise (which has made it one of the key political writings of all time) and appraoachable to the amateur. I would recommend it to anyone interested in or studying philosophy, sociology or politics, and to any intelligent thinking person in general.
This edition in hardback and beautifully bound and presented makes it all the better and something one may keep for reference forever - it is always a joy to have fine books.
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VINE VOICEon 11 November 2005
The terms 'liberal' and 'socialist' have undergone many changes in meaning over the past century and a half. By the definitions of his own day, Mill was certainly the former and arguably the latter. By today's definitions, he would be neither. For his time, he was a remarkably progressive, even radical, thinker. He was, for example, an ardent advocate of women's rights. On the other hand, his paternalistic attitude toward developing societies is typical of his age.
The basic principles of both liberty and ethics that Mill propounds have been much criticized. It is easy to list exceptions, provisos and limitations to them, but they relate to extremely complex and intractable problems, and with such issues it is necessary to start with greatly simplified models, on which you can build. As first approximations, Mill's principles are actually quite good. That they are not the last words on the subjects should not distress us. Nothing ever will be. Only bigots arrive at final, absolute answers.
Mill's writing style oscillates between great (sometimes sublime) eloquence, and long, tortuous meanderings. He is often reluctant to finish a sentence and mortally afraid of relinquishing a paragraph. Some parts have to be carefully reread to make sense of all the subordinate clauses. But when he is good, he is very good. The section on free speech is classic.
For a contrasting contemporary view of social justice, the Communist Manifesto is useful. Like these two essays, it is relatively short and readable.
In Utilitarianism, Mill is building on the work of Jeremy Bentham, who in turn was part of a tradition that can be traced back to ancient Greece and the philosopher Epicurus. So if you are looking to achieve a more complete picture, you may want to read a little about those two thinkers first.
The Bantam edition conveniently comprises Mill's two most famous works and is compact and cheap, but the introduction by Alan Dershowitz is appallingly bad. It in no way illuminates the text and serves only as a vehicle for Dershowitz's own prejudices. So if you just want to read the texts, get the Bantam edition, but if you would like useful editorial contributions, look elsewhere.
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on 18 May 2010
"No one can be a great thinker who does not ... follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead". Mill's forceful advocacy for freedom and liberty has two central themes: firstly that society has no commission from on high to intervene in any person's life except where society might be harmed. Exactly this last condition becomes a slippery ground for Mill when he later tries to clarify the line between one's own business and that of others. This is not an easy point and Mills does as well as one can expect. The second theme is that since no one possesses all truth (obviously except for religious frauds or totalitarian despots) all diversity of opinion and expression of living must be encouraged because that's how we shall uncover more truth and remain vital. Almost all of the book is a powerful polemic against the crushing of individuality and character in people who hold "unpopular opinion". As Mills goes on to say: "Who can compute how much the world loses in the multitude of intellects who dare not follow any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought." There is more reasoned intelligence and current debate in this book than in virtually any newspaper you care to read today. The arguments against bigots "who consider as an injury to themselves any conduct they have a distate for" is still right on the mark 150 years after being written down.

I think On Liberty may have done for me what I had sought in all those positive thinking books gathering dust on my shelves. OL is a fulsome, nay winsome, celebration of individuality and strength and the joy of being different and seeking happiness in one's own way and to one's own taste. I am not (nor is anyone else) a statistic estimator to be ground down to within zero variance of the mean.
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on 5 July 2013
How often in life dies one get the opportunity to take inboard a dose of wonderfully erudite information completely free? Well if one belongs to a good library and selects wisely, ALL the time, but with Kindle now many of the best known, and most thought-provoking, tomes can be delivered to you without even having to find the bus fare or the shoe leather required to hit the library trail.

I took this opportunity, having just vaguely heard io John Stuart Mills and, as a direct result, have had my mind opened and my my ideas shaken up sharply. I strongly recommend this publication to all those who feel jaded and worn out, it will amaze you if you open yourself up to the possibilities offered by it for self development and personal extension.
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on 30 May 2014
In sitting down to review this book, I must admit that I found myself in a little difficulty. The book is written as an argument for a particular point of view, though Mill takes a number of tangents which distract from the main thrust of the book. One could choose to enter into a full-blown study of all these tangents and how they branch off from and feed into the core of his point. But to do so would require a great number of essays and I am aiming for a review of reasonable length. So I shall try to stick to the point.

As I began to read I found myself thinking "I agree, I agree, I agree." The opening argument over a person's right to liberty provided that it does not infringe on another's was an argument I have heard before, often from others citing Mill. The further I read and the more I thought about it, though, the more I doubted the soundness of the argument. Just to pick a few points, Mill slightly paraphrases the old adage "no man is an island" but doesn't really follow through with this. After all, if it is right to state that the no person should be hindered from any thought or action that doesn't affect anyone else, does such a situation exist in real life? While at first glance something I think in the privacy of my own home may seem as isolated as one can get, can one really think that it is isolated from every subsequent thought, and hence action, that I undertake? If any of those thoughts and actions affect another, can one really say that were devoid of influence from earlier thoughts and actions? I would post not, though it is another matter to question whether or not any influence on another is a form of impingement on their liberty; a question that Mill does not seem to properly address.

After his initial discussion on liberty, he turns his attention to religion. His portrait of what religion is, in particular christianity, seem to be particular to his experience and from this experience he extrapolates to take his negative views to apply more widely than can reasonably be justified. It is rather unfortunate that his rather skewed views on this topic have perpetuated.

From here, he moves on to his view on individualism as the paramount virtue which much must be protected. Though he doesn't use the word, this is a founding exhortation of libertarianism. In some places, he makes a very good case, particularly with relation to not inhibiting genius. In terms of the argument that is there, one could find it very convincing, as indeed many who call themselves neoliberals do. That is, until you think about it. What he does is to try to play a false dichotomy between liberalism and authoritarianism, without considering alternatives or properly following through the consequences of individualism.

What makes it doubly bizarre is that he appeals to Bentham on a couple of occasions, and others comment that this liberalism is grounded in utilitarianism. Yet the conclusion that Mill draws is that the needs of the individual are paramount. In other words (to twist the familiar summary of utilitarianism which may be found in a popular film), the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. I would disagree with Mill on this. favouring a more "communitarian" approach whereby, whilst preserving our individual freedoms as much as possible, the needs of others must be put ahead of our own.

Whether you agree with me or with the view of Mill that I have portrayed here, I would encourage you to read it. Even though I would not wholly endorse his view, there is a great deal that is merit worthy contained within this small volume. Given its influence on modern thinking, it also serves as a useful education in the roots of how many neoliberals think.
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on 8 September 2015
Mill does tend to adopt a fairly waffling prose, however if you want the basics of what it means to have individual liberty and in what ways that can be associated and lived in within a democracy than this is your book.

The chapters are laid out well but themes and thoughts are often repeated throughout, so have patience to find things that are new. In fact to get a broad overview of a chapter you can do this by reading the first and last paragraphs. This will miss several examples and illustrations in which he cements these ideas within history and in a way that may be useful to understand.

Having said this this is a pretty easy book to read, so if you are a beginner in philosophy or the subject of liberty and utilitarianism then this is perfect. What is especially good is the last chapter (5) which is just of applications which uses his theories and thoughts and applies them to practical instances. This is useful to get to grips the theory, and if you study philosophy a perfect thing to draw on when trying to explain and discuss Mill.
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on 9 May 2013
This is the ultimate work on Liberty and Freedom by one of the ultimate free and critical thinkers.
It should be required reading in every secondary school and university.
It shows why people should be free to choose their own way, with as little outside interference as possible.
It is very readable and understandable.
Recommended+++
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on 13 April 2014
Justifications of persons' liberty and boundaries of that liberty in both of narrow personal and broad state perspectives.
It is strongly recommended for every lawyer or a any other social active person.
The problem of the book I found is the complexity of the language. One may easily get lost among parts of a single sentence.
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