John Stuart Mill [masked]), was not only an influential philosopher in the British empiricist tradition but also one of the great nineteenth century public intellectuals. He developed a philosophy which took an optimistic view of human potential, emphasising the importance of individual freedom. His work has a depth and groundedness which makes it engaging to read 130 years after his death.
On Liberty is probably the most widely read liberal theoretical text in the English-speaking world. Mill begins by delineating old and new threats to liberty. The old threat comes from societies with monarchs and aristocracies. Those in power in these traditional societies might claim to rule for everyone’s benefit but there is the recurrent danger and reality of their pursuing their own interests rather than those of the whole populace. Some might think that democracy would defeat this sort of threat. However Mill sees that democracies contain their own threats to liberty. Monarchies and their ilk risk the tyranny of the few; democracies risk the tyranny of the majority.
Mill sets out principles for the organisation of society in order to counter both old and new threats to liberty. His approach relies on applying utilitarian principles to the problem of the limits of authority - he sees the prevention of harm to others as the only justification for society's intervention in the affairs of an individual. He not only establishes this theoretically but also applies it practically.
Mill, JS, On Liberty
As ever, you're strongly encouraged to read the text in advance so that you can make a full contribution to the discussion.