Few texts have sustained such extensive reference and quotation in Anglo-American politics as JS Mill’s classic.
Mill’s famous ‘Harm Principle’ – that government power may only be justifiably used to prevent harm to others, not to improve one’s own good – still provides the ground on which numerous debates around civil liberties, lifestyle choices, and more recently ‘nudge theory’ are fought. Moreover, Mill’s rousing defence of the liberty of the press never ceases to be relevant. Yet it is imperative to understand the aims and context of On Liberty if Mill’s arguments around press liberty and the Harm Principle are to be properly understood – as the endless argumentation about what ‘harm’ means shows.
Attending to the whole of On Liberty, in the spirit of pursuing knowledge for its own sake, shows these familiar ideas in a new light. By tackling this canonical work as a whole we gain valuable insights into Mill’s inspiring defence of personal autonomy, and see quite how at odds Mill would have been with contemporary political rhetoric – just as he was in his own time.
professor of the history of political thought, Queen Mary University of London; author, Mill on Nationality