IT is commonly believed that Mill unequivocally favored individual liberty. In On Liberty he eloquently proclaimed the value of complete liberty of speech and, with few limitations, conduct; and with passion and sensitivity he upheld individuality as an ideal character. All this is commonplace, and it would seem to be absurd to challenge it. Yet it is my purpose to do just that. While Mill did value liberty and individuality, there is evidence—a great deal of it, I believe—that he also advocated placing quite a few limitations on liberty and many encroachments on individuality. It will be shown that, far from being libertarian and permissive, Mill advocated the introduction of inhibitions, moral restraints, and social pressures. He therefore can be seen as having argued for a combination of liberty and control. In providing for both, he was not self-contradictory. On the contrary, it will be shown that the coexistence of liberty and control reflected a coherent strategy for moral reform that occupied him when On Liberty was written and during the last decades of his life.
To suggest that Mill advocated both liberty and control is to go against the current of opinion that dominates Mill scholarship. There is a tradition of interpretation—what Mill would have called “received opinion”—that emphasizes Mill's unequivocal advocacy of liberty and his wish to expand it almost without limit. The title of his book encourages this view, and even more, his fine rhetoric and passionate conviction silence questions that might arise from examination of all the arguments he actually puts forward. The consensus about Mill's advocacy of liberty is not confined to the scholarly literature, for his views have become part of our intellectual culture, and as such they are regarded as particularly significant for being linked to the defense of such core values in the modern ethos as liberty, privacy, and individuality. In support of these values Mill is cited as an authority by editorial writers, publicists, and even judges.
In the interpretation offered here it is assumed that On Liberty should be read in light of Mill's overarching purpose of bringing about moral reform, or, as he called it, moral regeneration. It will be shown that all the arguments in On Liberty, including those that appear to contradict one another, are part of a coherent perspective that reflects his strategy for reaching this goal. To establish the connections between On Liberty and Mill's broader strategy, it will be necessary to consider, along with the text of On Liberty, Mill's intentions in writing the essay, insofar as he revealed them; his other, mainly contemporary, writings, in which he addressed issues that also arise in the essay; and the intellectual and