In the beginning, the retention of liberty was necessary to protect against political tyranny of overzealous rulers. Citizens began to realize that in order to achieve their absolute liberty, government would have to begin working as an instrument, a delegate of the people's will. Whatever the majority opinion was would have to be the decision made by the government so the citizenry would never feel as though their best interests weren't being served. However, Mill cites this so-called victory of the people is nothing of the sort, it simply paved the way for a new type of tyranny: the tyranny of prevailing opinion. This tyranny is even more evil, according to Mill because it is pervasive, penetrating the intricacies of life and social interaction and silencing the minority's voice.
This mute portion of the community may have the wrong, right, or part of the truth in its opinion it doesn't matter according to Mill. No matter what they have to contribute, it is extremely helpful to the community. The majority opinion is often faulted because it is biased with self-interest and personal convictions. There is no way for the majority to know that they are right and they owe it to the whole of society to listen to all arguments because it is clear that human opinion is fallible. Because of this great possibility of errors in judgment and an individual's right to autonomy, Mill believes that society should not impose its values on anyone.
A person should have the right to act as they wish as long as the negative consequences of such actions are only felt by that person. However, if a person's act is not self-regarding and adversely affects others, a person should be held accountable for that act. Mill thinks that individual autonomy is opposite to the instincts of society, he asserts that society encourages and rewards conformity.
Mill thinks that society, highly liable to be influenced and wrong, should not serve as the impetus for the government's actions. Public opinion is a dangerous basis for the government to act upon because there are countless numbers of citizens who are not able to have their voices heard. The danger that lies in the government acting in response to the public opinion can be seen by looking at the past where actions that had the support of a consensus of the people are now deemed to be infringements upon human liberty. The truth, says Mill, does not always make itself apparent and we should not rely on an supposed eventual revelation of the truth to show us the best way to proceed.
Mill refutes the claim that religion should play a role in determining the weight of an individual's opinion, stating that the greatest moral leaders often did not believe in Christianity, but their work was just as valuable. Following a religious doctrine, according to Mill, does not make a person morally sound, as an individual must strike a balance between religion, faith and their own personal morality.
The very capricious nature of humanity seems to be something that Mill values highly. Mill believes that human desires are not to be suppressed and molded to fit a doctrine or societal ideal, but rather followed and explored. He decrees that anything that suppresses the ability of humans to be unique is tyrannical, whether it is a code of conduct or a religion. The original thought and spontaneity that people can have are immeasurably important for new discoveries and new truths. Geniuses are products of this spontaneous thought, they are not conformists, but those that have been allowed to wander with their ideas and explore the possibilities. Eccentricity, something that is often frowned upon by society, is the key to genius behavior. It is that departure from the normal that allows new perspectives to be seen and a happier society to exist.
Mill does not absolve individuals completely from obligations to society, however. He does acknowledge that in exchange for the protection that society offers, individuals show have a modicum of respect for their fellow members of society. However, if they don't choose to do this, they are eligible to be punished either in legal or social circles. For those who injure society in ways that cannot be punished in a court of law, Mill says that society is more than welcome to use its opinions and judgment as punishment. It is the duty of society to warn others about a person who is harmful to others; coercion is allowed when it is meant to assist others in the retention of their liberty.
If a member of society refuses to abide by self-regarding principles, then Mill asserts society cannot coerce that person to reform or coerce other society members to avoid that person. Society can hold individual negative opinions of a such a person and advise others of that person's faults. This is the only punishment inflicted on a person who does harmful things to themselves - the penalty of public opinion. Mill contends such a person is obviously already receiving punishment as a result of the action they have inflicted on themselves.
Society is not exempt from its duty to the individual, either. Mill contends that society has the responsibility to develop its children into rational and moral human beings. If a society finds itself with a preponderance of incompetent, immoral citizens, then it only has itself to blame. After a person's developmental adolescence phase, however, society's responsibility to influence the individual stops and society has no right to tell the individual what are the correct decisions.
Mill does some preemptive strikes on potential detractors from his work as well. To the assertion that noone's actions affect solely themselves, Mill agrees in part. However, he says that society only has the right to interfere when the effect of a person's actions brings a strong risk of or actual damage. If a person's actions have little significance to society, it is actually in society's best interest to preserve personal liberty rather than to obsess over an individual's action.
Mill applies his principles to real life situations as well. He states that trading is a public act while consuming is not; therefore selling of certain products can be regulated more than the actual use of them. In competitive situations, Mill states that the harm principle should not be enforced at all times because when there is a winner, there will inevitably be a loser who is harmed. However, the winner should not be punished for winning and harming the losing party if all measures taken to win were indeed moral. As far as the practice of taxing goods that are harmful, Mill concedes that this is okay because it is better to tax nonessential goods than essential ones. Mill does not ascribe to the principle of complete self-ownership as some may suspect he would his idea of the importance of liberty supersedes individual rights in the case of a person who would want to sell himself into slavery. On the subject of education, Mill believes in universal education standards for all children and a parent's inherent duty to ensure that their child receives an excellent education.
The basic underlying theme in Mill's work is the lack of trust that can be placed in the government. He cannot condone any measures that would give the government the power of prevention or undue influence over individual lives. He believes that adding any power to the structure of the government is a dangerous act and most of his ideas can be seen as extensions of his desire to make the government more of an advisory and organizational body. For Mill, the ideal government would be a central body that while respected, simply gives strong advisories to local officials who are committed to upholding the interests of their constituency and hearing all opinions expressed. Mill firmly believes that the strength and capability of a citizenry is linked to the success of a state and instead of exterminating the desires and abilities of its citizens, the government should not be afraid to cultivate a strong state with intelligent individuals who can make their own decisions.
Having already examined whether people should be allowed to hold and express unpopular beliefs, Mill looks at the question of whether people should be allowed to act on their opinions without facing legal punishment or social stigma. Mill observes that actions should not be as free as opinions, and reasserts that both must be limited when they would cause harm to others and be "a nuisance to other people." However, many of the reasons for respecting different opinions also apply to respecting actions. Since humans are fallible, different "experiments of living" are valuable. The expression of individuality is essential for individual and social progress.
Individuality is essential to the cultivation of the self. A basic problem that Mill sees with society is that individual spontaneity is not respected as having any good in itself, and is not seen as essential to well-being. Rather, the majority thinks that its ways should be good enough for everybody. Mill argues that while people should be trained as children in the accumulated knowledge of human experience, they should also have the freedom as adults to interpret that experience as they see fit. He places great moral emphasis on the process of making choices, and not simply accepting customs without questions: only people who make choices are using all of their human faculties. Mill then links the desires and impulses reflected in individuality with the development of character: "One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam engine has character."
Mill writes that in early stages of society, it is possible that there could be too much individuality. However, the danger now is rather the stifling of desires and impulses. He says that people become more valuable to themselves and also more able to be valuable to others when they develop their individuality. Mill then turns to the second part of his discussion, the ways in which people who exercise their liberty as individuals are valuable to others.
Individuality is valuable because people might learn something from the nonconformists. Dissenters may discover new goods, and keep alive existing goods. While genius is rare, it is also true that "Genius can only breathe free in an atmosphere of freedom." Unoriginal people tend to not see the value of originality, and tend to shun genius for mediocrity. Mill argues against this tendency, saying that all people should value what originality brings to the world. Furthermore, Mill argues that the modern age (the 19th century), in contrast to the Middle Ages, tends to diminish the individual and encourage mediocrity, linking this tendency with the democratization of culture and government. A conscious effort needs to be made to counteract this trend.
There is no one pattern for how to best live life. If a person is sufficiently developed, then his choices for how to live life are best precisely because they are his own. People require different atmospheres in order to develop and reach their potentials, and a healthy society must make it possible for people to follow more than one pattern.
Liberty and individuality are essential to individual and social progress. Seeing people's dissimilarities is key in learning about one's own weaknesses. Diversity also lets us see the potential of combining the positive traits of different people. Forced conformity, in contrast, keeps people from learning from each other. Mill writes that it is "despotism of custom" that prevents the improvement of England, and that it is Europe's relative diversity of lifestyles and paths that makes it more progressive than conformist China. However, Mill worries that Europe is progressing towards the Chinese ideal of "making all people alike," and will thus face stagnation.