John Stuart Mill on Liberty


I think we can gain a better understanding of the issue of mandates by looking at what English philosopher John Stuart Mill said in the 19th century. In my opinion he has helped to shed light on many important social issues by his careful analysis of liberty.

John Stuart Mill set out well the rationale for allowing individuals to be free (autonomous) to decide for themselves what medical treatments to take or not take.

He asked a preliminary question to set out the issue clearly.  He asked,

“What, then, is the rightful limit to the sovereignty of the individual over himself? Where does the authority of society begin?  How much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and now much to society?”


That is precisely the question raised by the mandate issue. Should the individual be allowed to decide for himself or herself whether or not to take the vaccines or can society legitimately make the decision instead? Note that unlike many modern people who deny that the state has the right to impose virtually any restrictions on them, let alone vaccines, Mill recognized that there were restrictions on freedom and he wanted to understand what those limits were.

Mill said, in trying to answer this question, the following:

“Each will receive its proper share, if each has that which more particularly concerns it. To individuality should belong that part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society.”


If society is of greater interest in the answer to the question then the individual, then it ought to be allowed to make the decision. If the individual is more interested in the question  then he or she should be permitted to decide.

Mill did not say society had no right to get involved in the personal affairs of individuals. For example, Mill said “Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.” As a pertinent example, in society there is no objection to trying to persuade individuals to take a vaccine if society has evidence that this course of action would be good for the individual and society. Society has the right to do that.  But does it have the right to go further and impose an obligation to take one of the vaccines?  According to Mill,

“But neither one person nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being; the interest which any other person, except cases of strong personal attachment , can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and all together indirect; while with respect to his own feelings and circumstances , the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. (emphasis added)”


Please note the vitally important qualification which I have highlighted.  Therefore, Mill concludes, with regard to what concerns only himself, society has no right to override the individual’s decisions. Mill said,

“in this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper  field of action…Considerations to aid his judgment, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, even obtruded on him, by others: but he himself is the final judge.  All errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning are outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.”


On this basis, individuals would be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to take a Covid-19 vaccine, provided his actions do not affect others.  That then becomes the central question: do they affect others and to what extent?

Back in 1859 when Mill wrote On Liberty, he realized that It would be “a vital question of the future,” what the nature and limits of the power  which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” On that point he was indubitably right as the current debate over the propriety of a vaccine mandate makes clear.



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