On Liberty and Utilitarianism

ISBN: 0553214144
ISBN 13: 9780553214147
By: John Stuart Mill Alan M. Dershowitz

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About this book

Together these two essays mark the philosophic cornerstone of democratic morality and represent a thought-provoking search for the true balance between the rights of the individual and the power of the state. Thoroughly schooled in the principles of the utilitarian movement founded by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill nevertheless brings his own unique intellectual energy to issues such as individual freedom, equality, authority, happiness, justice, and virtue.On Liberty is Mill’s famous examination of the nature of individuality and its crucial role in any social system that expects to remain creative and vital. Utilitarianism brilliantly expounds a pragmatic ethic based on one controversial proposition: actions are right only if they promote the common good and wrong if they do not. While much of Mill’s thinking was eventually adopted by socialists, it is in today’s democratic societies—with their troubling issues of crime, freedom of speech, and the boundaries of personal liberty—that his work resounds most powerfully.

Reader's Thoughts

Joshua Schenck

Again, not a beautiful book. We may want to give some attention to a book that can, even for a moment, make it plausibly correct for others to sacrifice you for not only their sole benefit but in the pursuit of happiness.


I am not a utilitarian, but Mill is clever, and beneath his boringboringboring wordy prose is a powerful argument. I hesitate to give this five stars since his replies, clever as they are, at times seem to ignore the objection rather than to actually engage with it (and most of the objections considered are a little silly). There are two problems with utilitarianism that occur to me at the moment (there are problem more): 1. The hierarchy of pleasure that Mill, unlike Bentham, accepts, does not seem to square with utilitarianism. If the pleasure of reading is really "of a higher quality" than the pleasure of indolence, this seems to imply that there is an actual hierarchy of goods. Or perhaps quality just means quantity -- e.g. there is a greater quantity of pleasure in reading than in twice the same period of indolence. Generally, Mill defends Epicurianism, which is, of all secular moralities, the most persuasive. The problem Epicurianism runs into is one which Mill addresses and ignores here:2. That utilitarianism/Epicurianism is a sort of social contract presupposing human nature to be better than it is. Free riders are a problem (though Mill sort of addresses this unintentionally in the final section on justice). It's the same problem all secular moralities run into: consciously man-made, so easily they become instruments of the powerful over the weak, since there is no higher law. Mill's defense against virtually every criticism, though clever, does little to actually defuse the problem -- well, he says, every system of morality has problems, and utilitarianism has the same problems that all moralities have. All right, Mill, but the problems are still there.The prose is terrible, and takes far too long to read.


On Liberty -- 5 stars; Utilitarianism -- 3 starsOn Liberty evinces the most lucid and sublime deployment of the English language I've ever read.You'll need a highlighter while you read these two treatises; the author packs in too many excellent ideas to remember all at once, and his ideas are not to be forgotten.

Bob Nichols

The title of Mill's essay, "On Liberty," promises more than it delivers. In his opening lines, Mill makes it clear that the essay will not engage "The Liberty of the Will" debate (free will, determinism, etc.). Rather, his focus is on a single, practical premise: The sole justification for the exercise of state power to limit the liberty of individuals is self-protection (i.e., prevent harm to others). Mill fills in the rest of this essay in Emerson-like tones. Left unsaid is why "liberty of the individual" is the pre-eminent value, particuarly given the strength of a social (tribal) nature to conform (willingly defer one's liberty) to the group. Implicit in Mill's liberty theme is that all interests and values have equal standing (should not be interfered with unless they harm others), yet this crucial point may be countered in his essay on Utilitarianism where he differentiates between quantitative (values and interests are equal) and qualitative (hierarchy of values, with animal passions and sensations lower than higher cultural and intellectual values). Mill is inclined to believe that humans are more focused on the latter than the former, which may be an optimistic assumption, and this differentiation of liberty's "objectives" triggers the thorny and perhaps fruitless debate about what specifically constitutes "harm" to others. The essay on Utilitarianism is more potent than "On Liberty." The essay on utility clearly articulates a factual basis for ethics. Generally we seek pleasure ("utility") and avoid pain. At the societal level, this translates into an ethic that says we ought to support social rules that promote and protect the happiness (attain pleasure, avoid pain) of all. As a general rule, this is good stuff, particularly when Mill argues that that education should integrally connect individual happiness with the happiness of the whole. Mill strays now and then when he suggests that we are more or less naturally inclined to social harmony and that civilization progresses more and more toward harmony. Generally, though, Mill is on the right track when he says that social pressures provide natural sanctions to keep individual liberty in check, and that the state's power does the same in the form of punishment. Mill's utilitarian philosophy defines Good in terms of individual happiness. While not the lofty definition seen in other philosophies, and perhaps disappointing to many as a result, the virtue of this definition is that it can be solidly grounded in our biology.


I loved the essay On Liberty. I've read it before, but this reading was much more meaningful, perhaps because about 10 years have elapsed and politics in this country have convinced me we need Mill's explanation of why we have the rights we do and their importance in our lives more than ever. It's amazing how much Mill's On Liberty has shaped how we perceive our rights and their importance in the 20th and 21st centuries. Must be read. The essay on Utilitarianism is the only weak element of this book. He argues that individual and group human happiness is the highest moral good. and that the pursuit of human happiness guides human behavior. I was just not convinced of the arguments of how to get people to shape our ethics for human happiness, especially at the group level.


This book is an excellent defense of the first amendment write to freedom of expression. It's also an excellent argument in favor of utilitarian morality. It's probably worth a read if your interested in these areas, but I felt the whole time that I was simply reading things I already believed and felt. If you're pro first amendment and in favor of being decent to your fellow humans, regardless of any differences you might have, this book won't shatter your world view. It does get interesting when Mill tries to draw the line between an individual's rights and the rights of a society. It's a pretty standard case of your rights ending when they infringe upon mine own. The idea was revolutionary for it's time, and still isn't wholly adopted by the world at large. It's interesting to see a clearly brilliant man fumble through the question of when it's okay for a government to take an action against it's citizenry. It seems to me that Mill wants there to be a clear cut and easy to follow formula, but these things by there nature require a great deal of gray area to work within.

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