University of Pittsburgh, Summer Term 1997
Philosophy 0330: Political Philosophy
Ben Eggleston, Instructor

Mill, On Liberty

I. Background Information

John Stuart Mill was born in England in 1806 and received an intense education from his father, James Mill. After a depression in his early twenties (which he says the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth helped him to escape), he embarked on a career that would include commercial success and also literary fame as one of the best essayists of the nineteenth century. He published On Liberty in 1859, and Utilitarianism in 1861. He was elected to Parliament in 1865, but his attempt in 1867 to give women the right to vote was defeated, and Mill lost his seat in 1868. He died in France in 1873.

On Liberty was written for popular consumption and is a model of literary style as well as of philosophical insight. One consequence of the appealing form in which Mill tried to present his views is that chapters are presented continuously, without formal subdivisions. To facilitate close study of Mill's text, passages will be referred to in class by paragraph number as well as by chapter number. Students may want to be prepared for this by numbering their paragraphs before class. In the recommended edition, there are 16, 44, 19, 21, and 23 paragraphs in chapters I-V, respectively.

for June 5:

II. Reading Assignment

III. Study Questions

  1. What does Mill say was the aim of patriots in the earliest periods of recorded history?
  2. According to Mill, what circumstance made people come to think that limiting their government’s power wasn’t as important as earlier people thought it was?
  3. According to Mill, what consequence of self-government makes it necessary to limit the government’s power?
  4. What does Mill identify as “the main thing” dictating which rules shall be enforced by law and custom?
  5. What is the main idea of the principle that Mill says he wants to assert in On Liberty?
  6. What are the three main parts of what Mill calls “the appropriate region of human liberty”?
  7. After spending chapter II setting out the grounds for liberty of thought and discussion, Mill turns to individuality. What does Mill seem to mean by this concept?
  8. What does Mill think a person gains by choosing his or her own plan of life?
  9. What two things does Mill say that persons who do not exercise the liberty of individuality stand to gain from those who do?
  10. What attitude towards individuality does Mill ascribe to his English contemporaries?

IV. Outline of Topics to be Covered in Class

  1. Who was Mill?
  2. chapter I: introduction
    1. tyranny of the majority
    2. need for a principle
    3. principle of liberty
  3. chapter III: individuality
    1. the meaning of individuality
    2. benefits to self
    3. benefits to others

V. Suggestions for Further Reading

  1. Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Editor’s Introduction,” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: Penguin Books, 1974), pp. 7-49.
  2. Elizabeth Rapaport, “Editor’s Introduction,” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978) (Hillman circulating JC585 M6 1978), pp. vii-xxi.
  3. Stephen Priest, The British Empiricists: Hobbes to Ayer (London: Penguin Books, 1990) (Hillman circulating B816 P7 1990), particularly “Mill: Politics,” pp. 194-99.
  4. John Gray, “Introduction,” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. vii-xxx.
  5. Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction,” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Utilitarianism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf (Everyman’s Library), 1992), pp. vii-xxxix.
  6. Anthony Kenny, Oxford History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) (Hillman reference B72 O8 1994b), pp. 344-46.

for June 10:

VI. Reading Assignment

VII. Study Questions

  1. As Mill begins his discussion of the limits of social authority, what general principle does Mill endorse?
  2. Does Mill endorse social-contract theory as a way of understanding social obligations?
  3. What are the two main kinds of conduct that Mill says is obligatory?
  4. What is the distinction that Mill has in mind when he distinguishes self-regarding conduct and other-regarding conduct?
  5. What does Mill mention as permissible means of causing other people to cultivate the self-regarding virtues?
  6. According to Mill, is it permissible to hold in lower esteem, and to avoid the company of, persons who are deficient in only self-regarding virtues, but not in other-regarding virtues?
  7. What is Mill’s reply to the objection that there’s really no difference between self-regarding conduct and other-regarding conduct?
  8. What is Mill’s reply to the objection that irresponsible self-regarding conduct should be prohibited because it sets a bad example for others?
  9. What does Mill identify as the strongest argument against public interference with self-regarding conduct?
  10. What are two of the then-current examples of public interference in private life that Mill discusses?
  11. What are the two maxims that Mill says “form the entire doctrine of this Essay”?
  12. According to Mill, does the principle of liberty provide grounds for free trade?
  13. What is one sphere in which Mill thinks the liberty granted by the state is too extensive?
  14. Why does Mill say that it’s permissible for the state to require that parents educate their children, but not permissible for the state to insist on a certain method of education?
  15. According to Mill, is it a violation of the principle of liberty for the state to prohibit marriage between persons who cannot afford to support a family?
  16. What two reasons does Mill give against the government’s taking responsibility for providing some public good even if it can provide it more effectively than individuals can?

VIII. Outline of Topics to be Covered in Class

  1. chapter IV: the limits of social (including political) authority
    1. social obligations
    2. disadvantage vs. punishment
    3. liberty even for other-regarding conduct
  2. chapter V: specific cases
    1. principle of liberty
    2. public goods

IX. Suggestions for Further Reading

See the suggestions for further reading for June 5, above.