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On Liberty Summary – John Stuart Mill

5 min read ⌚ 

On Liberty PDFThe iconic political text on how to balance authority, society, and individuality

Do you consider yourself free?

Think twice before you answer.

Personal freedom is not the same as democracy, but although societies need to strive for bigger personal freedom, it should not be without limits.

Find out the details below.

Who Should Read “On Liberty” and Why?

“On Liberty” is an iconic political text by one of the most influential liberal political theorists of the West, that discusses the need for balance between society, authority and individuality, and how it can be achieved.

The book is rich with both examples, as well as abstract philosophical reasoning.

People interested in philosophy and politics, and especially those interested in liberalism and its foundations will find that this book is exactly their cup of tea.

About John Stuart Mill

John Stuart MillJohn Stuart Mill is an essayist, an economist, a philosopher and one of the most influential liberal political theorists in the history of the Western world.

“On Liberty PDF Summary”

Before there was a democracy, there was the tyrannical rule.

Almost all of the ancient societies struggled with tyranny – you already know this fact.

In the more distant past, tyrannical leaders were not only frequent but were thought to be the only way to achieve law, order, and security in the society.

However, as time passed, people realized that these leaders did not act in their interests. Limitless power is never a good thing, and people started wanting to tame the political power and authority of their leaders.

That is when the roots of democracy emerged.

The point of the democratic system is to limit the power of officials, by letting the people elect who they believe would be the best leader.

However, if we said that democracy is flawless, we would be lying.

Even the officials who are democratically selected can threaten the personal liberty of individuals.

In fact, when people elect leaders, it is not the individual’s voice that is heard, but the voice of the majority. This means that the minority almost always has to live with choices they did not make – and follow the lead of the opposing side.

The problem is that many times, the majority can be tyrannical and impose certain views and beliefs on the minority by what is known as social tyranny.

So, if democracy does not quite cut it, what can we do to avoid tyranny?

Well, first of all, the topic of personal liberty should be approached rationally.

The public opinion and all the rules of society are far from rational – they are led by the habits, likes, and dislikes of a particular society.

Living in a particular society, those that belong to it automatically assume and never question the righteousness of their customs.

You surely have met people like that – those that follow some beliefs or religion, without exactly knowing the reason why and what makes their belief superior.

The problem is that the topic of personal liberty has never been addressed rationally, so it persists even in modern societies, in which we have the illusion of limitless freedom.

The only exception is the increasing religious tolerance that modern societies practice. However, even this behavior was not born out of rational thought, but out of necessity.

Now, let’s explain what a rational principle should look like.

In order to be able to judge and evaluate rationally, we need to perceive the ideal society is having in mind the concept of utility.

The concept of utility questions how beneficial a law or a rule is for the overall well-being of humankind.

We are in need of developing personal freedom since that is the only way that individuals can trigger the development of mental capabilities for critical reasoning and thinking, and therefore shape their characters.

But personal freedom is also essential for society as a whole.

Just imagine how much the diversity of individuality can push the society to develop, since many people with many different strengths will be able to collaborate, learn and combine their talents, opinions and positive aspects, ultimately creating a much stronger society.

Even historical cases show that societies that are open to diversity have a much higher chance to flourish.

However, we are not saying that our personal freedom should be limitless. Of course, we would not like to be able to do just whatever we want.

But these limits to personal freedom should be only put when the society wants to protect us from harm.

Key Lessons from “On Liberty”

1.      Democracy is Not the Same as Personal Freedom
2.      People’s Freedom Should Not Be Limitless in Cases of Protection
3.      Allow False Opinions

Democracy is Not the Same as Personal Freedom

Today many people believe that democracy paves the path to personal freedom.

However, what democracy does is allow citizens to choose the leaders, which is not enough for freedom, since in the end the majority makes the decision, and overrules the individual.

Many times, the majority imposes their beliefs on the minority that does not agree with their views and therefore threaten personal freedom even in democratic countries using something called social tyranny.

People’s Freedom Should Not Be Limitless in Cases of Protection

People’s freedom should only be limited when it is for their own good – when you are trying to protect them in some way.

Limiting personal freedom can prevent three types of harm:

  • Harm by default
  • Harm by omission
  • Harm by accident

Allow False Opinions

False opinions are not bad – in fact limiting and prohibiting them only does harm to the society. Having opposing and controversial opinions is healthy since society will constantly question the adopted notions and continually prove why those notions are correct.

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“On Liberty Quotes”

A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case, he is justly accountable to them for the injury. Click To Tweet In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Click To Tweet That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time. Click To Tweet If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Click To Tweet The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

“On Liberty” is far from an easy read, but if you want to learn something interesting, and listen to some out-of-the-box opinions, then you will immensely enjoy reading it.

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