Mill begins by explaining that his purpose in this essay is to discuss the maximum power that society can exercise over an individual and study the struggle between Liberty and Authority. In earlier times, liberty was utilized as protection against political tyranny because rulers were endowed with the power to both suppress the rights of would-be aggressors and their own citizenry. As time elapsed however, the citizens began to want an limit to be placed on the power of the government in order to achieve their liberty. This attempt to ensure liberty involved two steps: 1) obtaining political rights that were safe against all forms of tyranny and 2) implementing the safeguard of community consent in the form of a mandate or body that would guard against an abuse of power. The first step was easily obtained, but the second step was met with more opposition by governments. After a while, people began to see an importance in having their government act as their delegates, a democratic body who would make decisions according to what the people wanted. This development was seen as the end to tyranny by many how could people oppress themselves? "Self-government" and "the power of the people over themselves" were common ways to refer to the new, empowered system of government. Mill refuses these characterizations; rather he asserts that the people who have the power are not necessarily those that are affected by the power. He goes on to conclude that the will of the people is simply the will of the majority of the active governed people. Mill asserts that this type of tyranny, tyranny of the majority, is just as evil as any other form of political despotism. In fact, he believes that it is often much worse than other forms of despotism because it is more pervasive and able to infiltrate our lives and social interactions. Mill concludes that there needs to be protection against this tyranny of prevailing opinion.
Mill acknowledges that finding the correct limit on the majority's influence is a difficult task, especially since most people have different perceptions of the correct limit to be implemented. Each person, Mill claims, will think that their own opinion on a matter is right, but their reasoning is affected by their own self-interest and the external and internal pressures that they may or may not be aware of. As a result, several principles determine the standards of a country's people. First of all, the moral standards and self-perceptions of the higher class in a society will likely have the most influence on the morality of their country. Secondly, men are likely to follow the mandates of their religion and this adds to the rules of conduct for society. Finally, the basic interests of society influence moral sentiments as a whole Mill points out that it isn't the actual interests that influence, but rather the empathy and apathy that stem from these interests. From these principles, Mill states that it is society's likes and dislikes that create most of the rules for the citizenry. Oftentimes, the question of what society dislikes or likes wrongly supersedes the question of whether society should implement these preferences as laws. An exception to this is in regards to religion, where society was refused the right to uniformly implement its preferences due to the concept of liberty and freedom, along with the minority religious factions that left few majorities to enforce their will. However, Mill claims that there is really no complete religious freedom because although there is religious tolerance, there is still little accommodation for religious dissenters where the majority of a society has a strong religious preference.
Mill speaks about his native country, England, and how people resent the government telling its citizens what to do because the opinion exists that government's opinion is usually not the same as or in the best interest of the public. The English people didn't know what it was like to have their vote reflected in the country's decisions, but they did believe that government shouldn't exercise control in areas that they hadn't previously. They also had the tendency to decide the government's worth by its adherence to their own personal preferences, some wanted the government to do good things while rectifying bad things and some wanted the government to not interfere no matter the cost to society.
Mill believes that the extent to which society can impose its influence on an individual is to ensure the self-protection of others. If a person is places himself in a position that is dangerous solely to him, society has no right to interfere according to Mill. Just because society believes an action is good, it can not be imposed on its citizens, because each citizen is autonomous. Mill does not apply this independence to small children or those who cannot take care of themselves -Mill extends this to undeveloped races that need to be improved by society's rules- but once manhood or womanhood is reached, there is no reason for society to impose its values on an adult.
If a person inflicts harm on others, he is subject to legal prosecution, the consequences of his actions. Mill asserts that a person should be held accountable for both the direct harm to another person or inaction that results in harm being done to an individual. Mill believes human liberty should encompass 1) the inward domain of consciousness, 2) liberty of thought and feeling 3) liberty of expressing and publishing opinions, 4) liberty of tastes and pursuits, and 5) the liberty of individuals to join a collective group.
He believes that his expressed ideas form the opposite of what society's instincts dictate. Society is based largely on the art of conformity in opinion and action and Mill only sees the imposition of society on the individuals growing over time.
Analysis of Chapter 1
In perhaps his most passionate work, Englishman John Stuart Mill's writes about the rights of individuals to do what they wish with their own life as long as the ramifications from their actions don't harm other people. This type of advocacy for an autonomous life for all citizens is typical of Mill's Utilitarian beliefs. Utilitarianism supports each person having the ability to maximize their own utility (happiness) as long as they don't negatively affect others on their path to happiness. A paradoxical issue that often arises with Mill's On Liberty regards the concept of an absolute principle. Mill asserts that it is absolutely necessary that a society adopt an autonomic view in order for utility to be achieved, but this mandate goes against Mill's other assertion that coercion has no place in a free society.
Mill is definitely skeptical of the power of democracies to liberate; he takes the position that this so-called control of the people is more dangerous than a tyrannical government. Democracies, he contends, are more subtle in their influence but more complete in their infiltration into society. When it appears that the people are making their own rules, it is easier for citizens to follow along, subscribing to a false sense of empowerment. Mill contends that in truth, democracy is tyranny in numbers, where the active political members of a society can dictate what is best for all and the majority's decision is rendered as law.
Mill was a liberal thinker and his thoughts shocked a world where democratic governments were seen as the utmost in political freedom. It could be of important note that Mill himself, was a powerful member of the British government as the chief civil servant of the East India Company which controlled India, then a British colony. Truly, Mill was speaking from a position of authority while he was supporting a extremely laissez-faire government. In 1850's Britain, the time and place in which Mill composed On Liberty, the middle class had just received the right to vote twenty years earlier. The working class and women were still not allowed to have their votes count in their government. Mill was observing while his country's government evolved into a democratic structure and undoubtedly was using his observations as his stimulation for this work.
In this first chapter, one can see Mill's strong aversion to conformity, which will play an important role in this essay. He is particularly averse to the middle-class, which he views as the ultimate conformers. He believes that conformity is society's default, the easiest, and hence most popular action for citizens to take.