Library Header Image
LSE Theses Online London School of Economics web site

Mill's 'very simple principle': Liberty, utilitarianism and socialism.

Grenfell, Michael (1991) Mill's 'very simple principle': Liberty, utilitarianism and socialism. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Download (9MB) | Preview


The thesis aims to examine the political consequences of applying J.S. Mill's "very simple principle" of liberty in practice: whether the result would be free-market liberalism or socialism, and to what extent a society governed in accordance with the principle would be free. 2 Contrary to Mill's claims for the principle, it fails to provide a clear or coherent answer to this "practical question". This is largely because of three essential ambiguities in Mill's formulation of the principle, examined in turn in the three chapters of the thesis. 3 First, Mill is ambivalent about whether liberty is to be promoted for its intrinsic value, or because it is instrumental to the achievement of other objectives, principally the utilitarian objective of "general welfare". The possibility that he might mean the latter implies that, because liberty and utilitarian objectives are at least potentially incompatible, application of the principle does not preclude the sacrifice of individual liberty in the pursuit of general welfare, and therefore does not preclude paternalistic (and illiberal) state socialism. 4 Arguments advanced by commentators, notably Gray, to suggest that there is no inconsistency between the liberal and utilitarian objectives in Mill's writing, are not sustainable. 5 Secondly, the principle's criterion for sanctioning interference in liberty - the prevention of "harm to others" - is so vague and elastic as to be compatible with almost any degree of interventionism and indeed totalitarianism. Because of the interdependence of men in society, there is virtually no limit to the classes of activity which can be said to cause harm to others, and hence no limits to the interference sanctioned by Mill's principle. Thus the principle does not preclude the suppression of legitimate economic activity by a socialist state committed to preventing economic "harm". 6 Attempts by commentators such as Rees and Ten to show that Mill's use of "harm" is narrower and more specific, are not supported by either textual or logical analysis. 7 Thirdly, Mill's principle fails to make clear whether "liberty" should be understood to mean classical ("negative") liberty or some form of "positive liberty" such as ability/power. It therefore does not preclude the adoption of socialist measures to promote "ability". On examination, "ability" can be seen to be an entirely different phenomenon from liberty. The promotion of "ability" (attainable through central allocation of material resources) can only be undertaken at the expense of liberty, particularly economic liberty. The justification for safeguarding economic liberty lies in respect for private property rights, the absence of which entails enslavement and inhumanity. 8 If a principle were to be framed avoiding these three ambiguities, it could serve as a firmer foundation for the protection and promotion of liberty.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Political Science, General
Sets: Collections > ProQuest Etheses

Actions (login required)

Record administration - authorised staff only Record administration - authorised staff only


Downloads per month over past year

View more statistics