John Stuart Mill, Children's Liberty, and the Unraveling of Autonomy


In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill famously excluded children and so-called barbarians from his otherwise broad grant of liberty to human beings. While many scholars have analyzed and criticized the barbarian exclusion, little attention has been focused on the denial of liberty to children. This article argues that Mill's theory of liberty rests on an untenable dividing line between childhood dependence and adult autonomy. The processes of discipline and socialization to which children are subject render them incapable as adults of achieving the kind of autonomy that Mill prescribes. Using relational autonomy as an alternative to Mill's model of autonomy, I propose that we should neither flatly deny liberty to children nor present absolute independence as a normative ideal for adults.

Publication Title

Review of Politics