Philosophical Opposition of Liberty and Utility

By Raafay Syed

John Stuart Mill, one of the most prominent British philosophers of the 19th century, has had a tremendous influence on political philosophy, ethical theory, and much of the liberal thought which has dominated contemporary Western culture. His libertarian viewpoints are espoused in his essay On Liberty, which is an unwavering defense of individual liberty and freedom from limitations imposed by society. A few years later, Mill published his essay Utilitarianism, in which he argues that utility is the fundamental principle of morality. The principle of utility, or the greatest happiness principle, states that right actions are those which produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, and wrong actions are those that produce the greatest unhappiness. Mill’s advocacy of the concepts of happiness, freedom, and individual liberty, serves as the groundwork for his Utilitarian theory of ethics, and the two works Utilitarianism and On Liberty are perhaps the two most important essays which express his viewpoints.

However, when comparing the two texts, one cannot help noticing an inherent tension between them. Mill’s discourse in On Liberty, is supposed to be written in a Utilitarian spirit. Can Mill truly provide an adequate defense of the protection of individual liberty and freedom, while approaching the issue from a Utilitarian standpoint, which emphasizes the promotion of society’s utility at the cost of individual happiness? Mill’s fundamental principle of utility presupposes that happiness is the only thing to be valued as a goal, and for its own sake. In order to remain consistent with Utilitarianism, the notions of individual liberty and freedom can only be valued as vehicles toward that same goal. In other words, freedom can only be valued instrumentally, because it promotes happiness. It cannot be valued in and of itself as a natural right. This apparent tension between the two texts also manifests itself within On Liberty as Mill himself struggles with reconciling the two notions of freedom and utility. It will be necessary first to analyze the tension within On Liberty, before delving into the relation between Utilitarianism and On Liberty. In this paper, I will argue that Mill contradicts the principle of utility through his arguments for the protection of liberty, because he yields to the fact that liberty should be pursued for its own sake.

There are several examples within On Liberty, which portray the concept of liberty[1] as valuable only as a vehicle toward the end goal of promoting happiness. These examples prove Mill’s consistency with Utilitarianism, because only happiness is valued in and of itself. In the first example of the instrumental value of liberty, Mill says, “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is, therefore, capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fullness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them.”(On Liberty 60) In essence, this is an argument based on the principle of utility. According to the quote, individuality is valued because it promotes happiness for the individual, which, in turn, promotes happiness for society as a whole. Later in the text, Mill also points out that “originality is a valuable element in human affairs” and that “it is necessary further to show that these developed human beings[2] are of some use to the undeveloped.”(Ibid., 61) He also supports “mental freedom”(Ibid., 33) on the grounds that it allows for the development of an intellectually active society. These quotes serve to illustrate that part of Mill’s argument for the defense of liberty does seem to include extrinsic value, which is consistent with Utilitarianism. As long as liberty is valued as a means to the end of happiness, the principle of utility is not undermined.

On the other hand, there are also many instances where Mill appears to be accepting the inherent value of liberty as a goal in itself, rather than as a vehicle toward the end goal of happiness. In the first chapter of On Liberty, Mill begins by introducing “one very simple principle.”(Ibid., 9) This is very dangerous for Mill, because according to Utilitarianism, the sole fundamental principle for human beings is the principle of utility. Furthermore, he goes on to describe this principle and states 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.”6 This principle is regarded as the “harm principle” and serves as one of the major arguments within the text. An individual can act with absolute and complete liberty as long he or she does not cause harm to another. With this statement, Mill seems to be placing liberty in a protected position, regardless of whether the recognition of liberty would promote utility. There are several examples in which Mill seems to express liberty as being inherently valuable. For instance, chapter three begins with the title, “Of Individuality, As One of The Elements of Well-Being.”(Ibid., 53) This title is very important, because it does not define individuality as a means to well-being, or happiness, but as part of well-being. If the notion of individuality were included within the principle of utility by definition as part of happiness, then such a statement would not be contradictory. Since the principle of utility is defined as simply pleasure and absence of pain, there is no indication that individuality has any inherent good according to Utilitarianism.

At this point, it is noticeable that there is a clear internal contradiction within Mill’s argument in On Liberty. He seems to be insisting that his “harm principle”, is a protected principle distinct from utility, while at the same time insisting that liberty is only defended because of the principle of utility. The “harm principle” espoused in the text allows the individual to act with absolute freedom as long as no one else is affected by his actions. This seems to imply that the principle of utility has no jurisdiction within the personal sphere of the individual as long has the individual’s actions are “self-regarding.”(Ibid., 74) However, if the individual’s freedom was recognized only instrumentally, then even this personal “self-regarding” sphere could be interfered with in order to promote utility.

Although Utilitarianism and On Liberty are not directly related or in dialogue with each other, Mill’s ideas on “public utility” and “private utility” in his later work help explain the tension in his earlier work. Mill explains this distinction in Utilitarianism. He says private utility is “the interest or happiness of some few persons” (Utilitarianism 19) and public utility means to promote utility “on an extended scale.”9 When viewing On Liberty through the lens of private versus public utility, it becomes clear what Mill is actually saying. He is arguing for the protection of liberty, for its own sake, only at the level of private utility. In contrast, liberty is valued instrumentally, in terms of public utility. For instance, Mill says an action “which neither violates any specific duty to the public, nor occasions perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself, the inconvenience is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom.”(On Liberty 80) Mill is saying that in cases where freedom and utility conflict, freedom will be valued regardless of the private utility that would be promoted by stripping away that freedom. However, by valuing freedom for its own sake, regardless of its private utility, the greater public utility will be promoted. In essence, Mill seems to insist on the inherent value of freedom, but uses the promotion of public utility at a larger scale in order to cover this flaw and remain consistent with Utilitarianism. This viewpoint is also made clear at the very beginning of the essay when Mill explains his intentions for On Liberty. In the introduction, he says “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”(On Liberty 10) Mill must have anticipated the apparent tension that readers would recognize in his work, and with this statement explains that he will protect liberty at the private level, but will also remain faithful to Utilitarianism by valuing liberty as a means of promoting utility on a larger scale.

The reconciliation of the two notions of freedom and utility is so difficult, that Mill’s argument, an attempt to solve this tension, is bound to raise many questions. Is Mill entitled to make such a claim? Is it consistent to accept the principle of utility as fundamental at an extended scale, but place limits on it at the private level? Can liberty be valued intrinsically when viewed through one lens, but extrinsically in another?

The following quote from Mill’s response to an objection in Utilitarianism, may make the answer to this question clearer. The response is to the objection that Utilitarianism is too demanding by asking an individual to promote happiness for an entire society. He says “private utility, the interest or happiness of some few persons, is all he has to attend to.”(Utilitarianism 19) With this statement, Mill is making it clear that cases of public utility are only “exceptional”, and in general, individuals should only be considered with private utility. If each individual is only concerned with private utility, the level at which liberty is protected and valued for its own sake, then the realm of public utility or the “greater good” seems irrelevant at a subjective level. If an individual’s morality is defined strictly in terms of private utility, then it would make no difference whether liberty would be valued intrinsically or extrinsically at a larger scale, because the realm of public utility would not be a factor. In this sense, from the subjective standpoint of individuals, Mill accepts that liberty is inherently valuable, pursued for its own sake, and protected from the influence of utility. The instrumental value of liberty at the level of public utility cannot be argued for on Utilitarian grounds, because it has no practical significance for the individual in Utilitarianism.

In this sense, Mill ends up unintentionally yielding that liberty is inherently valuable in On Liberty. His argument for its value as a vehicle to promote happiness in terms of greater public utility, is inconsistent with Utilitarian principles and results in a principle of liberty that is protected and independent from the principle of utility. As a result, Mill cannot solve the apparent tension between On Liberty and Utilitarianism, because his defense of liberty leads to the undermining of the principle of utility. Furthermore, it would be necessarily impossible for him to reconcile both positions, because a true defense of liberty and freedom cannot rest on extrinsic value in the Utilitarian sense, but only on intrinsic value. If the notion of liberty is valued only as a means to an end, its very nature would be different depending on what the end may require. The very concept of liberty seems to escape this notion, and insists on being defended as a natural right to be recognized in and of itself. This is made evident through Mill’s failure in his argument. Ultimately, Mill is placed in a position where he can either defend liberty while renouncing the principle of utility, or he can maintain the principle of utility at the expense of a defense of true liberty.


[1] It is important to note that the term “liberty” is used by Mill as an umbrella term throughout the essay, and includes the concepts of freedom, individuality, and originality.

[2] The developed human beings Mill refers to are those people who have fully developed their faculties freely and openly through the exercise of their freedom of individuality and originality. These people are regarded as those who have attained a very high level of happiness because they have satisfied their utmost intellectual desires. Through this development, these human beings would be useful to society in countless ways by exercising their faculties for the benefit of society.

Works Cited

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001

Raafay Syed (’12) is a Philosophy and Public Health Studies major at The Johns Hopkins University.

Art courtesy of =drezdany.

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