6 min read

On liberty’s limits: why Mill was wrong about freedom

This month, it’s 150 years since philosopher JS Mill died. His definition of freedom remains hugely influential. But is it still the right one for healthy relationships and contentment amid the isolation of modern life?

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A copy of the Statue of Liberty, holding a stick of bread, stands outside a shop window displaying an 'Open 24 Hours' signs.
Photo by KC Welch on Unsplash.

You can tell what a society values by what it goes to war over. In the 17th century we fought our wars over religion. In the 19th it was empire. In the 20th and 21st, we fought our wars over freedom, either defending our own or trying to export our version of it to other parts of the world. We tend, of course, to assume we know what freedom is: the liberty to do what we like, as long as don’t harm other people. But we rarely know how time-conditioned and recent such a view of freedom is.  

John Stuart Mill, child prodigy, colonial administrator, Member of Parliament and philosopher, who died 150 years ago this year, is one of the primary architects of our contemporary ideas of freedom. In his own words, his book On Liberty, published in 1859, was an exploration of the ‘nature and limits of the power that can legitimately be exercised by society over the individual’. Mill famously argues that the only valid reason for interfering with another person’s liberty of action is to protect them from physical harm. It is never justifiable to interfere with another person’s freedom to ensure their happiness, wisdom or well-being, because that is to determine what that person’s well-being is. Freedom is defined as liberty of conscience, thought, feeling and opinion, as ‘liberty of tastes and pursuits … doing as we like … without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them’. 

For Mill... individual liberty is vital, not just for the sake of the individual, but for the sake of human progress.

Mill is one of the great champions of nonconformity in thought and action. Even if just one person held a particular opinion while everyone else in the world held the opposite, there would be no justification in silencing that one voice. For Mill, one of the main ingredients of social progress is freedom from the traditions and customs imposed by others, both the past constraints of tradition, and the present ones of custom, which restrict the cultivation of individuality, which in turn ‘is one of the leading essentials of well-being’. Individual liberty is vital, not just for the sake of the individual, but for the sake of human progress. Without it there will be no originality or genius, no new discoveries or innovation. Civilisation cannot advance without individual freedom which encourages spontaneous expression, the development of new thoughts and ideas unconstrained by the patterns of the past.  

It is a powerful argument. On Liberty is full of the fear of Victorian conformity – the individualist’s reaction to a stifling society with a high degree of social control. It is very much a book of its time, assuming the cultural superiority of the modern age. It also breathes an elitism that looks down on the mediocrity of what it calls ‘average men’.  

But more than that, there is, I think, a deeper flaw in this way of thinking about freedom. If freedom is essentially my liberty to say or do what I like, as long as I don’t tread on the toes of my neighbour, then what does that do to my relationship with my neighbour? He or she becomes at best a limitation, or at worst a threat to my freedom. There may be all kinds of things I want to do – play music loud on a summer’s night, or drive my car at 100 mph on a quiet suburban road – but I can’t because I might disturb my neighbour’s peace or risk crashing into an oncoming bus. Or even worse, my neighbour might want to play her music too loud for me, or drive her car too fast in my direction, thus invading my personal space. This approach keeps the peace between us, but at the cost of making us see each other either as irritating limitations to our desires which of course define our self-chosen goals in life, or threats to our own precious autonomy. 

The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa argues that  

“the ethical imperative that guides modern subjects is not a particular or substantive definition of the good life, but the aspiration to acquire the resources necessary or helpful for leading one.”  

In other words, in the individualised world imagined by Mill, we are all left to dream our own dreams, choose our own ambitions, and are all caught up in the fight to get hold of the money, rights, friends, looks, health, and knowledge that will enable us to get to our self-chosen destination. It therefore makes us competitors with each other, not only seeing each other as rivals in this race for resources, but also as potential threats who might stand in the way of our freedom to pursue our dreams.  

There is however another, older view of freedom, rooted more in character and virtue than in individualised personal goals. This version, found in classical literature, sees liberty not as freedom from the limitations and social expectations that stop us following our self-chosen desires, but freedom from the passions. The Greeks viewed the soul as like a ship which should sail serenely towards the harbour of such virtues as prudence, courage and temperance. It was guided on this journey by paideia, or education in virtue, yet was at the same time buffeted by the winds of irrational and destructive impulses such as envy, anger or lust that threaten to blow it off course. For them, our passionate inner desires are not the sacrosanct moral guide to our true selves but are a distraction from the true path of virtue.  

True liberty is freedom from anything that would stop us becoming the person we were created to be.

This version was developed further by Christian thinkers such as St Paul, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. For them, true liberty is freedom from anything that would stop us becoming the person we were created to be: someone capable of love for what is not ourselves – for God and our neighbour. True liberty is freedom from internal urges such as the greed, laziness or pride that turn us in upon ourselves rather than outwards towards God and each other. It is also freedom from external forces such as the grinding poverty that dangles the temptation to steal in order to survive, or an economy that constantly tells us that if you don’t acquire as much stuff as your neighbour you are a failure. It is not so much freedom for ourselves, but freedom from ourselves: freedom from self-centred desires, or the crippling self-absorption that makes us think only of our own interests. It is freedom to create the kind of society where we are more concerned with our neighbours’ wellbeing than our own.  

In this view of freedom, my neighbour becomes not a limitation or a threat, but a gift – someone without whom I cannot become someone capable of the primary virtue of love. Putting it bluntly, if I am to become someone capable of other-centred love, I need someone to practice on.  

This Christian understanding of freedom offers a vision of society where you might begin to trust other people to look after your own needs, because they are looking out for yours. It is also a vision of freedom that delivers personal happiness better than the libertarian view. Becoming the kind of person who has learnt, as St Paul once put it, to ‘look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’ is in fact a recipe for healthy relationships and contentment rather than the increasing isolation of much modern life.  

Mill may have had a point in the stifling conservatism of Victorian Britain, but in an age of increasing loneliness, isolation and anxiety, his view of freedom doesn’t help build good neighbourhoods, families or communities. We need a better version - one that brings us together, rather than drives us apart.

1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  


Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen)