John Stuart Mill Quotes on Liberty, Utilitarianism, and More

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
– One of the better John Stuart Mill quotes

Even Amy Chua, the Yale professor who introduced “tiger mother” to the American vernacular, would consider John Stuart Mill’s upbringing unusually rigorous. Mill’s father, a Scottish philosopher and economist, wished to instill in Mill a genius so sharp that the future of utilitarianism would be all but guaranteed. Mill obliged. He began learning Greek at age three, Latin at eight, and had become an intellect worthy of tenure at any modern university by the age at which most American students are still struggling through the novel Holes.

Unfortunately Oxford and Cambridge were out of Mill’s reach. His refusal to adhere to the Church of England’s Thirty-nine Articles of Religion made him ineligible for enrollment, so he studied at University College in London instead. Mill spent most of his life working for the British East India Company, during which time he championed British imperialism, and became Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews in 1865. St. Anthony’s Fire took him shortly thereafter.

Classical liberalism’s foremost thinkers often include quotes by John Stuart Mill in their writing to this day. His concept of liberty as a justification for individual freedom in opposition to state or social control endures as an underpinning of modern libertarianism. His prodigious body of work advanced social and political theory, and true to his father’s intentions he advanced the principles of utilitarianism throughout his accomplished literary career.

In his essay On Liberty, Mill discussed the nature and limits of the influence society should hold over an individual. It was in this essay that Mill expounded on the harm principle, which holds that power is only rightly exercised when the authority’s goal “is to prevent harm to others.” Those “incapable of self-government” (including children and barbarous peoples) were excluded from the protections prescribed by this principle.

Mill argued that social liberty must exist to shield individuals from tyranny, and expanded the concept of tyranny to include sources other than political elites. Mill categorically rejected the will of the majority as sufficient justification for the negation of individual rights. In Mill’s worldview each and every individual is a sovereign, free to do as they please provided they not harm others in effect. Mill was also an absolutist on the subject of freedom of speech, contending that even the falsest opinions deserve to be broadcast in an open exchange of ideas. Where else could they be better disproven?

Although Mill’s views on colonialism would have gotten him tarred and feathered by modern academics, he drew considerable ire in his own time for advocating abolition and gender equality. As a member of parliament Mill even advocated amending the Reform Bill to replace the word “man” with “person.” 

A summary of Mill’s contributions to the philosophy of utilitarianism should take up a book, not this paragraph. In essence, John Stuart Mill quotes Jeremy Bentham’s Greatest Happiness Principle: “actions are right in the proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Provided that an act produces a justifiable outcome – i.e. achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people –  then the act, itself, is justified.

John Stuart Mill On Liberty Quotes 

“If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employés of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.”
– On Liberty pg. 101-102

John Stuart Mills Quotes - "We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable..."
“We have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavourable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours.”
– On Liberty pg. 70

“Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.”
– On Liberty pg. 59

“Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
– On Liberty pg. 9

“The great writers to whom the world owes what religious liberty it possesses, have mostly asserted freedom of conscience as an indefeasible right, and denied absolutely that a human being is accountable to others for his religious belief. Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realised, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale.”
On Liberty pg. 12

John Stuart Mill quotes - "The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively..."
“[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. 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.”
On Liberty pg. 13

“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
– On Liberty pg. 16

“No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.”
On Liberty pg. 62

John Stuart Mill quotes - "In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom..."
“In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. […] That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”
– On Liberty pg. 63

“It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself.”
On Liberty pg. 55

“A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”
On Liberty pg. 97

“The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill, or of that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.”
On Liberty pg. 105

John Stuart Mill Utilitarianism Quotes

“In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one would be done by, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.”
– Utilitarianism pg. 19

“Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs.”
– Utilitarianism pg. 12

John Stuart Mill quotes - "Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something..."
“Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof.”
Utilitarianism pg. 8

“Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.”
– Utilitarianism pg. 13

“Society should treat all equally well who have deserved equally well of it, that is, who have deserved equally well absolutely. This is the highest abstract standard of social and distributive justice; towards which all institutions, and the efforts of all virtuous citizens, should be made in the utmost degree to converge.”
– Utilitarianism pg. 59-60

John Stuart Mill Free Speech Quotes

“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.”
– On Liberty pg. 21

John Stuart Mill quotes - "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion..."
“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
– On Liberty pg. 19

“Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”
– On Liberty pg. 23

“But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever, it may be thrown back for centuries.”
– On Liberty pg. 28

“Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either. The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.”
– On Liberty pg. 29

“In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away.”
– On Liberty pg. 45

John Stuart Mill quotes - "There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing..."
“[T]here ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”
– On Liberty pg. 106

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
– On Liberty pg. 18

John Stuart Mill Quotes on Happiness

“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”
– Autobiography, pg. 119

“Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.”
– Utilitarianism pg. 11

“The only happy people (I thought) are those whose minds are fixed on some objective other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit followed not as a means but as itself an ideal goal. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way.”
– Autobiography, pg. 117

John Stuart Mill quotes - "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied than a fool satisfied"
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
– Utilitarianism pg. 13

John Stuart Mill Famous Quotes

“Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of.”
– On Liberty pg. 61

“All good things which exist are the fruits of originality”
– On Liberty pg. 61

John Stuart Mill quotes - "Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom"
“Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.”
On Liberty pg. 60

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
– On Liberty pg. 35

“Pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends”
– Utilitarianism pg. 10

“Every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit”
– On Liberty pg. 69

John Stuart Mill Hate Speech Quotes

“Penalties for opinion, or at least for its expression, still exist by law; and their enforcement is not, even in these times, so unexampled as to make it at all incredible that they may some day be revived in full force.”
– On Liberty pg. 38

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”
– On Liberty pg. 19

Final Thoughts

Do you disagree with any of the John Stuart Mill quotes included above? Then please go ahead and so – Mill would have wanted you to! John Stuart Mill would also approve of all the other great minds that we have immortalized on this very blog – minds such as Henry Hazlitt, Walter E. Williams, Hunter S. Thompson, and many more.