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An Evaluation of John Stuart Mill's Conception of Majority Tyranny

Adam B Sullivan Philosophy and the Just Society Hannibal Jackson

John Stuart Mill's hallmark work On Liberty addresses the powers society can legitimately

exercise over free individuals. In Mill's view, society has two means of exercising power of

the individual: through democratic governance and through societal disapproval. While Mill

makes a strong case for limited power of the state, the application of "majority tyranny" 1 to

the non-governmental actions of society -- rather than just to the government -- creates a

handful of logical and practical shortcomings. In my account, I will detail the ideas presented

in On Liberty, defending Mill's conception of a libertarian state while presenting objections to

his idea that society as a whole should not move to restrict individuals.

While democracy is generally regarded as a relatively "good" form of government, Mill is

right to point out one major flaw of the system: Democracy allows the many to impede the

liberties of the few. Democracy, Mill writes on page 3352, "is not the government of each by
himself, but of each by all the rest. [...] The people, consequently, may desire to oppress a

part of their number." It's entirely conceivable that 51 percent of the population could vote to

outlaw a certain action while 49 percent of the population could have a strong desire to

engage in the very same action. Additionally, there's no evidence that the 51 percent of

people who voted in support of the policy would have any legitimate reasoning for supporting

the policy. Therefor, the action which the policy in question outlaws does not necessarily

produce any intrinsic or observably instrumental badness.

Because democracy allows for majority tyranny (and most, if not all, other forms of

government allow for some other form of tyranny) Mill argues we need a principled guideline

for what powers governments can legitimately exercise over citizens, even when those

governments are democratically represented. Mill writes on page 338, "There is, in fact, no

recognized principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is

1. The term "tyranny of the majority" was likely first used in Alexis de Tocqueville's

Democracy in America. In addition to Mill's use in On Liberty, Alexander Hamilton and

James Madison used the term in the Federalist Papers.

2. Fumerton, Richard. Philosophy and the Just Society. Mason, Ohio: Cenaeg Learning,

An Evaluation of John Stuart Mill's Conception of Majority Tyranny

Adam B Sullivan Philosophy and the Just Society Hannibal Jackson

customarily tested [...] And it seems to me that in consequence of this absence of rule or

principle, one side is at present as often wrong as the other side." A social contract theorist

might present the "love it or leave it" argument: Citizens are permitted to opt out of obeying a

government's rule, so long as that citizen discontinues the consumption of any of the benefits

the country offers. In order to cease consuming the country's benefits, though, the person

would need to remove him or herself from the geographical area the country inhabits. I would

refute the social contract theorist's objection with the suggestion that the government does not

necessarily have a legitimate claim to the geographic area. While I don't have a definitive

argument to support that suggestion, I can't conceive of a good argument in support of the

idea that government's should have unfettered control over the geographical area the country

inhabits. Additionally, the person may not possess the means to leave the country due to
either a lack of resources or a lack of an alternative location in which to live.

Having established the necessity of a principled standard to determine when society can

and cannot interfere with the rights of individuals, Mill moves on to his attempt to establish

what that principled standard should be. Mill develops the harm principle. On page 339 we

get the best definition of the harm principle when Mill writes that "...the only purpose for

which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against

his will, is to prevent harm to others." In essence, the law is only justified in preventing

actions which negatively affect others. Conceding that the principle is broad, Mill proceeds to

offer more specific conditions for applying the harm principle: 1. The harm principle can be

applied to situations in which one's actions are likely to harm others; 2. The harm principle is

a necessary condition for the the state to impede the liberties of individuals, not a sufficient

condition for doing so; 3. The harm principle is not applicable to situations in which the

person being harmed is doing so at his or her own request; 4. The harm principle can be

applied to situations in which individuals fail to prevent harm to others;. These specifications

all lend themselves to common objections, each of which I will attempt to refute in defense of

Mill's harm principle:

An Evaluation of John Stuart Mill's Conception of Majority Tyranny

Adam B Sullivan Philosophy and the Just Society Hannibal Jackson

1. Many would argue this specification allows the harm principle to be applied

to nearly all situations. Actions which increase the likeliness of harm to others even

the slightest amount, it seems, could be legitimately restricted by the state,

according to Mill's principle. However, that the harm principle is a necessary, not

sufficient, condition for the impediment of liberties makes allowable minor

increases in the probability of harm.

2. A common rebuttal to this specification is that the harm principle becomes

almost useless if it does not give us a sufficient condition(s) by which we can

restrict behavior. However, I would argue that by making the harm principle a

necessary rather than sufficient condition, Mill acknowledges that many situations
require further interpretation than that which can be supplied by a broad principle.

3. Arguments against this specification revolve around whether or not people can

ever truly act with complete free will3. However, if we concede that the person to

whom harm is being caused is not acting with free will, we must also concede the

person causing the harm is just as likely not acting with free will and can therefor

not be held responsible for causing harm. Insofar as people can choose to harm

others, they can choose to let others cause them harm.

4. Opponents of the harm principle might argue here that this specification makes

the harm principle almost impossible to apply because there are far too many cases

of people failing to prevent harm to others. If this specification were followed

exactly, everyone would have to spend all of their time preventing harm to others

until there was no longer any risk of anyone being harmed. Rather than refute that

objection, I will save further discussion of this specification for my argument

against Mill's application of majority tyranny to non-governmental actions of


3. This argument lacks depth as a function of the fact that free will cannot be appropriately

addressed given space constraints of this forum. For the purposes of this discussion, "free

will" will mean the ability to make decisions for one's self.
An Evaluation of John Stuart Mill's Conception of Majority Tyranny

Adam B Sullivan Philosophy and the Just Society Hannibal Jackson

At this point, Mill has effectively argued for a laissez faire4 state which leaves citizens

to act as they please so long as they don't disrupt the well-being of others. However, from

there, Mill argues that society as a whole should act in the same way, leaving citizens to act

as they please so long as they don't harm the well-being of others. On page 335, Mill writes

"Society can and does execute its own mandates; [...] it practices a social tyranny more

formidable than many kinds of political oppression. [...] There needs protection also against

the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by

other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who

dissent from them." This application allows several practical and logical objections.

My first objection regards the fourth harm principle specification outlined above. The state

has no practical means of preventing people from failing to prevent harm or of punishing
those who do. Imagine, for instance, that someone was drowning in a river and twenty

bystanders failed to do anything about it. The offense of having watched the person's death

without intervening isn't likely to be tried in any court. As another example, imagine that

within our country, thousands of people die of preventable causes like starvation or curable

disease. There are millions of people who posses the means of preventing those deaths, but

fail to do so. All those millions of people are in violation of Mill's harm principle, but the

government has no means of putting the crime to trial. If Mill's account of liberty allowed

society to think poorly of those who didn't do enough to prevent harm, though, it would likely

be the case that people would regulate themselves and be more likely to go out of their way to

prevent harm. For instance, if someone knew people would disassociate with them if they

didn't save someone from drowning, they would be more likely to jump in the river to save

the drowning person. Mill might argue that because the actions of the bystanders are not

protected by the harm principle, society would be free to make any judgements they see fit.

However, as the harm principle is a necessary and not sufficient condition, it isn't clear who

4. The French phrase "laissez faire" literally translates to "let do." The term is frequently

applied to loosely-regulated economic markets, but is used here to characterize a non-

restrictive government.
An Evaluation of John Stuart Mill's Conception of Majority Tyranny

Adam B Sullivan Philosophy and the Just Society Hannibal Jackson

would be fit to decide whether society should "execute its own mandates" upon the


As a second objection, Mill's idea that society should not impose its own rules of conduct

severely restricts individual freedom. For this to be the case, we must believe that choosing

not to associate with someone can act to dissuade them from acting as they would like. I think

that's a reasonable case to make because humans, by our very nature, seek out approval of

others and desire to be social. Being denied that approval or social opportunity can easily be

seen as a means of punishment, and therefor, a means of determent. Thus, according to Mill's

principle, citizens would not even be allowed to deny friendship to people whose actions they

disapprove of. For example, Person A engages in Action X, an action which does not harm

anyone. However, Social Group B simply disapproves of Action X and would prefer not to
be associated with the action or its participants. But if Social Group B chooses not to

associate with Person A, Social Group B would be punishing Person A by denying Person A

social vindication. That punishment could reasonably lead to Person A ceasing to engage in

action X, which is clearly an example of Social Group B imposing "rules of conduct" on

Person A. So, according to Mill, Social Group B would not be allowed to not associate with

Person A. Social Group B's freedom, therefor, is substantially crippled.

Finally, Mill's application of majority tyranny to society presents logical flaws among his

other claims. In fact, other claims in the book bring into question whether Mill even believed

his own argument against social mandates. Throughout On Liberty Mill stresses the

importance of free exchange of ideas. And that exchange of ideas can often be aimed at

persuading others. However, in attempting to persuade others, one intends to alter others'

attitudes. I contend that the free exchange of ideas will undoubtedly lead to "prevailing

opinion" swaying others, which Mill characterizes as "tyranny." Clearly, Mill's reasoning

contains an obvious contradiction.

On Liberty provides to us a detailed account of a libertarian society. In short, Mill's thesis

is that "In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.

Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign" (page 339). In

addition to that thesis, Mill offers us specifications and clarifications. By adding those details,
An Evaluation of John Stuart Mill's Conception of Majority Tyranny

Adam B Sullivan Philosophy and the Just Society Hannibal Jackson

Mill works towards establishing a practical principle by which we can address political and

social controversies. However, those details also build practical and logical flaws which

damage Mill's work as a whole.