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John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was a philosophical essay exploring the idea of civil liberty: ‘the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual’. In it, Mill applied the philosophy of utilitarianism (what is right being what produces the greatest good for the greatest number) to the relationship between the individual and the state. It was in On Liberty that Mill expressed a belief central to the humanist approach today, arguing that:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way… The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.

This, and other articulations of this principle in the book, are normally referred to as the ‘harm principle’. This is a belief shared by many humanists that individuals should be entitled to the maximum freedom to find happiness and fulfilment, and their freedom only limited in cases where their actions cause harm to others.

As well as an influential defence of personal freedom in speech and belief, On Liberty is a testament to the close partnership between John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill – both consummate freethinkers. Published the year after his wife and collaborator Harriet Taylor Mill’s death, Mill later wrote of On Liberty:

The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers… The “Liberty” is likely to survive longer than anything else that I have written… because the conjunction of her mind with mine has rendered it a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth.

Mill’s acknowledgement of the influence of others on his thought, and an openness to evolution in his thinking, also underpinned the writing of his autobiography. In this, he expressed his hope that there might be something of interest in ‘noting the successive phases of any mind which was always pressing forward, equally ready to learn and to unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others’. Here, he emphasised another belief held dear by humanists: that knowledge and wisdom are the product of ongoing conversation, and honest self-reflection.

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