Mill and Liberalism -"Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (John Stuart Mill).Explain and Discuss.

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Mill and Liberalism –

“Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (John Stuart Mill).

Explain and Discuss.

The above quote is an important one in reference to Mill’s theorising and, consequently, to liberal thought in general.  The sentiment therein is explored throughout what is perhaps Mill’s most famous essay ‘On Liberty’, in which Mill attempts to outline, as he himself puts it, "the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions." (‘Autobiography’, Ch.7).  

Here, we will examine what Mill meant when he said that “over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign” and what implications this held for the individual himself and for society in general.

The sentiment behind the given quote, and the crux of Mill’s argument throughout ‘On Liberty’, is his thought that the individual is, or at least should be, self-governing in a sense that they should be able to express their own opinions and act of their own free will without any coercive force being applied.  That a certain law or general public opinion may be seen to be a person’s own best interests, even though it is against their own will, was not justifiable for Mill – one may be entitled to challenge another about their opinions and actions if they think them misguided, but if such opinions and action do not cause harm to others they should not be compelled to act according to the will of another man, or even the will of society in general.  The individual is sovereign over himself and therefore only he has the right to decide on what actions or opinions held should best suit him.

Mill set himself apart from many of his predecessors by seemingly championing diversity in society in a way few others had dared to.  Mill differed greatly from political theorists like John Locke, who proposed that mans right to liberty was justified through the existence of a set of natural rights, or Thomas Hobbes’ more pessimistic view of man which suggesting severe limitations on liberty amongst men.  While both Hobbes and Locke necessitated the social contract, Mill’s view was essentially utilitarian, placing emphasis on the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.  For Mill though, the real difference came with his notion of ‘self sovereignty’.  The greatest happiness for society was not to be brought about through stifling individual opinion or choice – by strictly governing their actions and aiming to influence their opinions - rather, such individuality should be nurtured for it’s potentially valuable outcome.  

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Mill saw the state he lived in as edging towards that of an unfair balance, wherein society as an entity held too much power over the accepted thoughts and actions of the individual, identifiable as the ‘tyranny of the majority’, whereby not only political institutions hold tyranny over the public, but the force of the public itself, more specifically public opinion, becomes so stifling to the individual that they lose the ability to think for themselves, or at least feel the need to hide their views from others in they don’t fit in with the consensus of that society. ...

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