Freedom Is Independence from the Majority's Tyranny
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
John Stuart Mill, from On Liberty
Kem Stone - 20 March 2008
There are two ways in which philosophers discuss freedom.  The first is in the metaphysical sense of whether
human beings have free will or whether all of our actions are predetermined either by God or the laws of nature.  
The second is in the political sense, freedom here meaning the extent to which a man can pursue his own interests
without being hindered by authority.  It is this type of freedom that revolutionaries and patriots have fought and
died for throughout human history, and which continuously grows and diminishes across societies and time
periods.  Prior to the Enlightenment, very little thought was given to this kind of freedom, but following the
American Revolution the idea that men ought to live with as much political freedom as possible began to spread
across the world.  Yet even as the power of government shrank to accommodate the new demands for liberty
among the people, new forms of oppression began to appear, not of the people by the government but of the
people by the people.  John Stuart Mill discusses the phenomenon of “the tyranny of the majority” in his essay
On
Liberty
and proposes one very reasonable principle with which to judge whether a law enacted by a government,
whether monarchical or democratic, is justifiable under the principle of utility, which is his ethical basis.

Mill begins with a discussion of the historical progression of the struggle between Liberty and Authority.  For most
of human history, this was a contest between the subjects and their rulers, with the rulers conceived as one
governing caste in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they governed.  It was the goal of
patriots to set limits to the power of this governing class in two ways: first, to obtain a recognition of certain
immunities from forceful coercion on the part of the government called
rights, and second to establish a body of
representatives of the people—such as a parliament or congress—to check the power of the central government.  
This led to the next state of affairs, in which men began to conceive that their governors should not necessarily be
an independent power with interests opposed to those of the governed, but that they should all be answerable to
the people and revocable at their pleasure.  It was believed that the government should be identified with the
people and should share their interests.  If this was the case, the nation would not need protection from its own
will.

However, once this theory was put into practice, many flaws began to appear.  It soon became clear that the
suppression of liberty was present not only when the interests of the people were conflicted with the interests of
the ruling few, but when conflicting interests were present among the people themselves.  “The ‘people’ who
exercise the power, are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised, and the ‘self-
government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest.  The will of the
people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active
part of the people; the
majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently,
may
desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other
abuse of power” (426).  The rights of the people did not need to be protected only from their leaders, but from
the prevailing opinions of the society in which they lived.

This present state of affairs leaves us with a kind of “social tyranny” which Mill states is even more formidable than
many kids of political oppression, as while the penalties for violating the social standards might not be as extreme
as they are under a dictator, there are fewer means of escape.  Social tyranny penetrates even more deeply into
everyday life, into the soul itself.  “There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual
independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition
of human affairs, as protection against political despotism” (426).  Mill believes that democracy in itself is
insufficient to guarantee human liberty, but that freedom must be safeguarded against popular will just as much as it
is against the will of a despot.

Mill acknowledges that some rules are necessary, as the well-being of any society depends at least to some extent
on the enforcement of restraint upon the actions of some people who would threaten it.  However, aside from a
few very basic rules like those against theft or murder, there is no universal agreement on what they should be, nor
even what form they should take.  Moreover, the people do not question whether the laws of their society are
justified unless they are apt to break these rules themselves, and the influence of custom gives rise to the illusion
that all laws are self-evident and self-justifying.  A law against homosexuality, for instance, will seem perfectly
reasonable to anyone who does not engage in homosexual behaviour.  Most people will not try to discern the
logical reasoning behind such a law or determine whether its enforcement is justified, but will rely only on their
inner feeling that homosexuality is an abominable act and therefore should be outlawed.  “People are accustomed
to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their
feelings on subjects of this nature are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.  The practical principle
which guides them to their opinions of the regulation of human conduct is the feeling in each person’s mind that
everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathises would like them to act” (427).

The prevailing moral sentiments of a society depend on a number of things.  In cases where there is an ascendant
social class, the morality of the country usually emanates from the interests of the upper class and justifies their
sense of superiority.  In the other extreme, when a formerly ascendant class has lost its supremacy, the prevailing
moral sentiments tend to reflect a dislike of superiority.  But the most influential determiner or the rules of conduct
usually lies in the tendency of mankind towards servility of their temporal masters or their gods.  Laws that arise
from this last circumstance have led to some of the worst abuses of power, such as the burning of magicians and
heretics.  “Among so many baser influences, the general and obvious interests of society have of course had a
share, and a large one, in the direction of the moral sentiments: less, however, as a matter of reason, and on their
own account, than as a consequence of the sympathies and antipathies which grew out of them” (428).  Mill sees
personal preference, as opposed to reason, as the underlying force behind most of society’s laws.

Most people in positions of power or authority, according to Mill, have done nothing to alter this condition.  The
powerful do not question whether the likes or dislikes of a society should be law, but instead occupy themselves in
trying to influence what they believe the likes and dislikes of their society ought to be.  The only exception to this
rule that Mill sees is the freedom of religion, but this is a special case.  After the reformation, when the Catholic
Church was broken into so many numerous sects that none could hope to emerge as a clear victor, they had to
give up on trying to increase their influence and instead hold on to whatever influence they already had.  Because
no one sect was dominant, each was forced to accept their differences with one another, and instead of being
asked to enforce the predominant religion, the governing powers were instead asked to withhold the endorsement
of any, and to grant people the permission to practice the faith of their choice.  This compromise was only reached
with great reluctance, however, as intolerance is so natural to mankind, especially in the realm of religion, that
most people would have still preferred that their religion be sponsored by the government, and that the duty to
practice it be enforced by law.  But the important point is that the principle of religious freedom came out of
necessity, rather than any overriding public sentiment that people ought to be allowed to believe as they freely
chose to believe.

What we have, therefore, in a democratic government, is a system of laws founded on a morality based on the
emotional preferences of the public.  There is no recognised principle by which the propriety or impropriety of a
law that calls for government intervention can be tested.  Some feel that the government ought to intervene
whenever there is good to be done or evil to be prevented, while others would endure almost any amount of evil
rather than increase the authority of the government.  Mill believes that as a result, government intervention is just
as often improperly condemned as it is improperly invoked.  As a solution to this problem Mill proposes the
following principle: “that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering
with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.  That the only purpose for which power can be
rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others.  His
own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” (429).  Mill’s principle is very simple: any law that
limits an individual’s liberty for any cause other than the prevention of harm to others is unjustified.  A person can
be coerced, reasoned with, or entreated to behave a certain way, but never forced.  In personal decisions with
which others are not concerned, the individual is always sovereign.

Mill is a utilitarian, and thus he acknowledges that his principle is not based on ideas of abstract right and wrong,
but simply because it will ultimately increase happiness and decrease suffering.  While it may be objected that
preventing the government from making a law to prevent someone from harming himself—such as a law against
drug use—will prevent suffering and may therefore be justified under the principle of utility, Mill notes that his
principle is based on “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive
being” (430).  When considering the utility of his principle, it is clear that where others are concerned it is not
necessarily a matter of a man’s action doing harm, but also of a man’s lack of action to prevent harm.  Laws can,
therefore, be passed to punish a man for failing to prevent evil, though this must be done with much caution.  We
ought to hold a man responsible in such cases only if he is unlikely to act better when left to his own discretion, or
failing to exercise control over him would produce greater evils than those which it would prevent.  So if a person
witnesses a crime but does nothing to stop it, we would not be justified in punishing him if he already regrets it and
is unlikely to repeat his mistake.  Finally, Mill notes that in a case where others are affected but only with their
complete consent, the principle applies and the individual should not be punished.  A case in which a man does
not merely use drugs himself but shares them with others would therefore be one in which government intervention
would not be warranted, as long as all parties concerned are using the drugs voluntarily.

The final case to which Mill applies his principle is the liberty of thought or opinion on all subjects, such as
morality, science, and theology.  “The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a
different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but,
being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons is
practically inseparable from them” (431).  Thus Mill calls for complete and unrestricted freedom of speech in all
cases.  Any society, he claims, in which the right to express dissenting opinions is not upheld, is not a free society.  
But he acknowledges that due to the tendency of governments, whether democratic or despotic, to impose their
opinions and inclinations on others, the freedom of speech is likely to be under constant assault and will diminish
wherever it is not continuously fought for.

Aside from protecting the most important liberty of all—that of the contents of one’s consciousness—there are
four other practical reasons that Mill gives for protecting freedom of speech.  First, if an opinion is suppressed and
it turns out to be true, we have denied ourselves true knowledge and this is clearly not desirable.  Second, even if
a suppressed opinion is false, it usually contains a portion of truth and we lose that by ignoring it.  Third, even if
our opinion is the whole truth, without being contested it risks becoming a prejudice, rather than an opinion
founded on rational grounds.  “And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger
of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct” (432).  Essentially, if we
suppress a true opinion we lose the truth, and if we suppress a false opinion we lose the opportunity of seeing the
truth clearer and we risk losing our understanding of the meaning of our true opinion.

I completely agree with all of Mill’s claims in this argument.  Personal liberty is under just as much threat in a
democratic society as it is in a dictatorship.  We see examples of this all throughout the contemporary United
States, as the opinion of the majority is often the only basis for laws which infringe on people’s freedom even
where they do no harm to others.  Laws against drug use are the most obvious example, as drugs only harm those
who use them, and are illegal mostly because the overwhelming majority sees drug use as immoral.  Though the
tide seems to be turning with regard to sexual freedom, laws against sodomy and other perceived sins were very
common not too long ago and in some areas are even still enforced.  Even the most mundane examples, such as
laws requiring the use of seat-belts, violate Mill’s principle, as these laws prevent the individual only from harming
himself, which I agree he ought to be free to do if he so chooses.  Whether or not I take drugs, engage in devious
sexual behaviour, or wear a seat-belt are matters of personal responsibility.  The government has no duty, nor
does it have a warrant, to force me to do anything if it is solely for my own benefit.  If we allow the government to
pass laws for our own good, the question of where to draw the line must be raised.  Should we pass laws
requiring people to eat healthy, exercise regularly, and read for a certain amount of time every week?  Rather than
debate endlessly over how far we should allow the government to go in interfering with our lives, it would be in
our best interests to adopt Mill’s principle and draw the line at anything that affects only ourselves and does no
harm to others.  If a law does not prevent harm to others, it should not be a law.

I also agree that the freedom of speech should be absolute.  The most common objection to this is that we should
not protect someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded theatre because this could cause panic and harm others.  I
would agree with this objection, but insist that such a case does not really constitute “speech” as we understand
the term in the context of the phrase “freedom of speech.”  Obviously, what we mean is the expressing of an
opinion, and simply shouting the word “fire” does
not contain any proposition other than, “there is a fire in this
theatre” which a person ought not be free to say if it is not true.  To shout “fire”
should be a crime, even
according to Mill’s principle, because to do so could cause harm to others.

But the issue becomes more difficult when we consider the hateful rhetoric of white supremacists or other groups
that advocate violence.  Here we combine the expression of an opinion with an incitement to harm others.  I
would say that so long as the people who hold such rallies do not specifically tell their audiences to hurt others,
their hateful ideologies must be tolerated.  To hear a racist proclaim that black men are naturally inferior will
almost never sway anyone’s opinion anyway.  Most people would not listen to such a person unless they already
felt the same way.  The danger comes only when people take these ideas to the next step and decide that they
have a duty to rid the world of the inferior race, and once they begin acting on these beliefs the government is
completely justified in stopping them and punishing them.  The hateful ideology, however, must be permitted.  To
remedy this problem I would adopt a solution of counter-argument, perhaps holding a rally to respond to the
hateful speaker with the opposing opinion that all races have equal value and to harm another for their ethnicity is
wrong.  In any case, the proper solution is to attack the false opinion rather than to censor it.  When it comes to
laws and censorship, our society would be much more free and democratic if we adhered to Mill’s principles.