Is Mill’s theory of liberty inconsistent with his utilitarian premisses?

Motivated by a brief paragraph posted by Colin McGinn, I offer the following thoughts. 

Mill’s Utilitarianism in Focus

(1) Utilitarianism contains two essential components: (a) an axiology, i.e. a theory of intrinsic value (a theory of what we’re to take as good in itself or good for its own sake, and (b) a consequentialist ethical theory. The two components link as follows. Actions are morally right according to their consequences for maximizing the occurrence of intrinsically valuable states of affairs.

The classic utilitarian formula tells us to promote “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. That is, happiness is the intrinsic value, and this is what we have to maximize. Bentham, one of the early utilitarians, thought of happiness in terms of pleasures. Mill did too, and his own utilitarian formula is that we should promote “the greatest amount of happiness altogether” (Utilitarianism, Chapter 2). There are obvious problems about the scope of the principle; it apparently should cover animal as well as human welfare, if happiness (= pleasure) is the sole intrinsic good. Animals can experience pleasure just as we can. There is also the point that Mill complicates his account of happiness by distinguishing between “higher” and “lower” pleasures. But happiness, analysed into experience of pleasure, remains the touchstone. These are issues in ethical theory which I cannot address here (see note 1).

The Liberty Principle

(2) Mill’s basic formula in On Liberty is “one very simple formula, as entitled to govern 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” (On Liberty, Introduction). This is “the liberty principle” as everyone calls it. There are problems in the interpretation of this principle. One difficulty is whether Mill is trying to draw a sharp line where none is sustainable, between actions that have consequences purely for oneself and actions that have consequences for others. Rees’ view is that Mill is not committed to this distinction but rather to the possibility of actions which do not affect (do not harm) the interests of others (see note 2).  Obviously this invites questions about the concept of interests; suffice to say that Mill’s principle cannot quite straightforwardly be dismissed as resting on an untenable idea of actions that simply have no consequences for other people. Such problematic actions are not likely, from the texts, to be what he’s really concerned with.

The Materials

(3) So Mill defends liberty in the sense of this principle; and he argues for non-interference (within the limits of his principle) in two main spheres – (1) thought and discussion, and (2) action. Mill says in the Introduction that he will argue as a utilitarian. The question is whether, in his defence of liberty, he violates his utilitarian starting-point. The key texts are On Liberty chapters 2, 3 and 5.

First Tension

(4) In On Liberty, chapter 2, Mill argues for freedom of thought and discussion: his main claim is that this freedom will have the best utilitarian consequences. What this means essentially is that freedom of thought and discussion will most likely bring truth to light and keep fresh our perception of truths already known. It’s true that this looks like a utilitarian defence: it makes such freedom instrumental to consequences for the discovery of truth. But – other points aside – it’s not obvious that this discovery will necessarily increase happiness.

Second Tension

(5) In On Liberty, chapter 3 Mill’s argument concerns freedom of action. Again the argument looks utilitarian and instrumental. Mill says that freedom is necessary to encourage “experiments of living”, which will bring new possibilities of experience, new roads to happiness, to light. Society needs a diverse field of ways of life; we have to continually experiment. In no other way can we serve “the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (Introduction).

The engine of these experiments in living is “individuality”, a certain structure of mind and character which we need if we are to withstand the pressure to social conformity. Again, Mill’s defence of individuality seems utilitarian; it makes individuality instrumental to certain results.

 But there are serious complications. Mill seems to regard individuality as having intrinsic and not merely instrumental value. The very title of  On Liberty, chapter 3 can be cited in this connection: “Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being”. Not – we carefully need to note – as instrumental to well-being or happiness but as itself a form of well-being, a mark of human flourishing. And this does not look utilitarian at all. Utilitarianism hold – at least in its 19th Century construction – that only happiness is of intrinsic value.

So is this an irreducible contradiction? There plainly is a kind of contradiction, but Mill is not necessarily parting company with utilitarianism as such. Let me explain.

Individuality is not itself happiness, whether or not it produces happiness. So if individuality is now making its appearance as an intrinsic value, Mill is not keeping to his utilitarian starting-point, which simply requires us to promote happiness as the sole intrinsic value.

But – and this is the other side of the picture – there is no reason why individuality cannot figure as an intrinsic utilitarian value. Utilitarianism must run on a theory of intrinsic value, on an account of what it is that we have to maximize. And there is no conceptual necessity for excluding individuality from being just such a value. Along this line Mill is quite able to take individuality as an intrinsic value without infringing utilitarianism as such.

There is still a problem, however. For Mill cannot have it both ways. He needs to keep to one formulation of utilitarianism or the other: he can’t consistently define utilitarianism in terms of maximizing happiness, and then attach intrinsic importance to something that (whether or not it serves happiness) is not identical with it – namely individuality.

Third Tension

(6) We have considered On Liberty,chapters 2 and 3. Mill also has a final chapter entitled “Applications” (chapter 5). Now there’s a problem here. Recall the example of the bridge: the bridge is unsafe, X knows this, and sees Y about to step onto it. Should X intervene for Y’s own good? Embarrassment for the liberty principle – “His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” for intervention. That’s what Mill had said – but surely intervention is right?

The immediate point is this. As the utilitarian criterion is set up (see the start of this article), it runs on uncriticized desires. I know that Mill has his distinction between higher and lower pleasures. But this is only to say that Mill would rather we desired higher than lower pleasures. Whatever desires we actually do have, still count. But now we seem to have a case where the desire to cross the bridge is not to count, presumably because if Y were sufficiently knowledgeable about his situation he would not have this desire. As I said, a problem for the liberty principle. But a problem for utilitarianism too. There’s actually nothing in Mill’s formulation of the utilitarian criterion which licences this particular restriction on what desires are to count (note 3).

If (somehow) intervention is justified in this case, consistently with the liberty principle, then here is a case of a view about freedom which parts company with Mill’s utilitarian starting-point.

A Shift of Perspective

The direction of comment so far has been: Mill defends freedom, but is there a contradiction between that defence and his utilitarianism? Another direction of comment is possible.

This would be that the only valid defence of freedom must be non-utilitarian. That is, the proper defence of freedom presupposes a non-utilitarian starting-point. Along these lines one might say, for instance, as Rousseau does, that “To renounce one’s freedom is to renounce one’s humanity, one’s rights as a man and equally one’s duties” (Social Contract, I.4, “Slavery”). Looked at from this vantage, freedom is an essentially desirable characteristic of human beings, one that’s intrinsic to their flourishing.

So, on this approach, the problem would not be (as on the first approach) that Mill starts from a utilitarian position but doesn’t stick to it. Rather the very adoption of a utilitarian position would be a mistake in the first place. I mention this alternative approach as an end-note – something to be taken up in a fuller discussion of Mill, utilitarianism and freedom.


 1. The thrust of this argument does not depend upon drawing a distinction between act and rule utilitarianism and I have therefore omitted discussion of it. John Mackie and Bernard Williams offer the most rigorous commentary on the subject.

2. I refer to J.C. Rees’ classic paper “A Re-reading of Mill on Liberty”. Political Studies, 8, 1960.

3. Samuel V. Laselva, “‘A Single Truth’: Mill on Harm, Paternalism and Good Samaritanism” in Political Studies, Vol XXXVI, 1988. Laselva offers a good discussion of this.


Richard B. Friedman, “A New Exploration of Mill’s Essay on Liberty” Political Studies Vol XIV, 1966.

D. A. Lloyd Thomas, “Rights, Consequences, and Mill on Liberty”, Philosophy, 1981.

Geoffrey Thomas, “John Stuart Mill and Socialism”, unpublished MS, 1993.