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One of the fundamental concerns of social and political philosophy has been the topic of what levels of restrictions if any, should be placed on the liberty of a nation’s inhabitants. Unless one does not value the importance of liberty, we must accept that there is some level of freedom that the state must accord to its citizens. One of the roles of political philosophy is to come up with an extensive theory to determine the limits of these actions. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill rejects any efforts to restrict people’s opinions and conduct through either legal force or social pressure (Mill, 1859, chapt. 1).
Mill illustrates the importance of liberty from a utilitarian perspective. The essay attempts to demonstrate the benefits of liberty on individuals and society as a whole and precisely connects liberty to the ability to move forward, hence keeping away from social stagnation. Liberty of opinion is important for two reasons: the less popular opinion may be right and if this opinion is not right, rejecting it will give chance for people to comprehend their own opinions. Liberty of action is important for similar reasons. The nonconformist may be right, or he may have a mode of life that goes well with him, if not everybody. Furthermore, the nonconformist challenges social norms thereby bringing progress to the society.
Mill makes his points through five chapters. Chapter 1 provides a concise outlook on the meaning of liberty. He also introduces the essential argument in advocating for liberty as long as it does not harm others. Chapters 2 and 3 illustrate the importance of liberty and other people’s views while the fourth chapter discusses the acceptable level of authority that should be placed over a person. The final chapter looks at specific examples and applications of his earlier arguments (Mill, 1859, chapt. 5).
In his defense of liberty, Mill asserts that the only grounds under which coercion can be used is when one exposes some risk to those around him. However, such an action might be vain- the coercion might be in vain, or too costly, or infringe on an individual’s privacy- and this brings it into scrutiny within the span of legitimate state power. There is no other reason than to justify coercion. A person’s actions cannot be restrained because they are wrong or unethical, as long as he does not harm others. In a similar argument, a person’s liberty cannot be denied just because his actions are injurious to him; paternalism is not justifiable. He writes ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant (Mill, 1859, chapt. 1).
Despite Mill’s attempts at presenting the importance of liberty to his readers, he fails to give the precise limits of liberty that should be accorded to a citizen. Besides, he focuses too much on the individual and does not give a useful difference between the actions that are injurious to oneself and those that can bring injury to others. However, the essay does give strong support for nonconformists as beneficial to society, and a similar reminder that no one can be totally sure that his or her way of life is ideal or is the only way.
Mill, J. S. On Liberty. (1859). London: John W. Parker and Son.