Book Review on John Stuart Mill: On Liberty and Moral Deliberation

Liberty and Moral Deliberation

Mill’s theory of the relationship between the majority of society and the individual versus Locke’s contentions on the relation between the king and his subjects

The relation between the king and his subjects according to Locke follows the understanding that people are, at times the true repository of sovereignty. This means that even though people may have a final consent to lock the government in a court of law, just like the king and his subjects, the decision to give such powers to the government may prove optimal and beneficial to every individual. The above argument remains conditional in the sense that the powers of the king were limited to his subjects who in their state of nature were considered sufficiently rational to limited rights of king. However, even though the subjects had the power to limit the roles and actions of the king, they still allowed the king to transfer only limited rights to the sovereign majority. In return, the king’s existence was made conditional and played the role of protecting the rights of its subjects to life and liberty. There was a mutual relationship in this case where the subjects had to allow the king to operate in within his jurisdictions and in return remain true to protecting the rights of the subjects.

Following the above discussions, it is clear that the arguments raised by Locke on the relation between the king and his subjects differ significantly from Mill’s argument on the relationship between the majority of a society and an individual. While Locke identifies a functional relationship between the king and his subjects, Mill views the society and an individual (government) as a means through which a rational society can realize its private purpose. Mill identifies the society and government as something resulting from an association, hence the needs to keep public affairs separate from individual affairs.  Contrary to the relationships identified by Locke between the king and his subjects, Mill attaches higher significance on the societal ability to replace governments or legislature with private bureaucracies as long as the principles applied under bureaucracies maximize utility. Similarly, Mill in his writings about human freedom emphasizes on the protection of fundamental civil liberties, which he sees as the most important process towards making the decision, especially where the government imposes certain limitations on the actions of people. With a discussion encrypted in social liberty and free actions of individuals, Mill seems to forget the fact that liberalism advocates for formal equality before the law while denying the same people elected through a democratic process the rights to exercise control and ensure power distribution. In general, while Locke is capable of realizing the important roles of a physical authority in fulfilling social desires for right protection, principle of maximum liberty, which might infringe the freedom of others forms the foundation of social benefits according to Mill.

In general, the discussions by Mill on liberty is grounded in two important assumptions, which pose varying challenges when it comes to implementation. The first assumption is that whatever is good for a society offers the greatest happiness the majority of a society. According, this means that the aggregate social happiness can still be achieved at the expense on few unhappy individuals. This argument stands no grounds in the sense that no individual’s happiness can be subordinated to another person’s happiness, and as a result the argument that certain classes were meant to rule over others does not hold. The second assumption is that individual’s happiness can be quantified and varies depending to those excess quantities of pleasure of pain. Individual’s happiness increases with his ability to act according to his or her wishes. When a person is at liberty to act, there is a spontaneous increase in happiness even if such actions affect other people negatively. Mill therefore believes in a system of governance that plays absolute roles of protecting the rights of its citizen and at the same time enhancing social growth by allowing maximum liberty.

Mill’s argument of Liberty and the understanding of moral liberty

While John Mill pose strong arguments in support of liberty rule, he forgets the kind of relationship that exist between liberty and deliberation. According to Mill, a physical authority should allow an inherent right to all men irrespective of their moral values and social contributions since every action has a course. This means that peoples’ actions have nothing to do with moral deliberation, but is a knowledge vested on justifiable moral codes of an individual or a society. Therefore, Mill believes that the role of moral philosophy is to bring code to a society in accordance with the principles of utility and not moral deliberation, and because moral deliberation puts certain restrictions on people, it only determines those actions people have reasons to perform. On this perspectives, Mill remains rooted to his initial argument and does not undermine his own argument in favour of deliberation or any other theory.

Based on the understanding of human nature and their desires to operate in a free environment, it is imperative to believe that people only act to promote their interests, which at times promote social injustices. Seemingly, people will act the way they pleases because they have the right to do so, and this may contravene the moral principles of utilitarianism. In other words, the only benefit a person gets from his or her free environment is happiness, self-invested motivation and promotion of a democratic government, but only if there is a proper choice of action, which according to Mill does not apply. In pursuance to peoples’ actions, the object of a liberal government is to fulfil the social and political needs of the governed by pursuing proper goals, especially if the interests of the government coincides with the interests of the governed. On the issue of liberty, a ruler can only be democratically accountable if he or she respects both the social and political decisions of the governed, which must be rightly selected. This brings us to the understanding of the Mill’s argument of liberty and social benefits as a contradiction to moral deliberation, which is a fundamental factor in the life a rational being.


Mill’s argument on liberty welfare maximizing action of a democratic government is relevant since it allows individuals to have a position or a voice in the functioning of the government. It is true to this end that people are genuine in their actions, and their decision to overthrow a government may only reflect the desires to disengage from an oppressive rule. The government must at all level ensure the people have the freedom to express their views or even criticize its functions.   However, right to liberty should not be used to oppress other people and diminish the roles of governing body since every individual has similar rights.

Work cited

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Writings. Edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.