written by: John Stewart mill
The transformation of society from aristocratic to increasingly democratic forms of organization brought with it opportunities, then. But it also presented dangers. It meant rule by a social mass which was more powerful, uniform, and omnipresent than the sovereigns of previous eras. The dominance of the majority, Mill held, presented new threats of tyranny over the individual—freedom was no less at risk from a newly empowered many, than from an absolute monarch. The restrictions over freedom that concerned Mill included, to be sure, legislatively enacted restrictions of liberty—but they also took in broader “compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion” (Liberty, XVIII: 223). Informal mechanisms of social pressure and expectation could, in mass democratic societies, be all-controlling. Mill worried that the exercise of such powers would lead to stifling conformism in thought, character and action.
It was in this context that On Liberty was written (Scarre 2007: 1–9). The aim of the argument is announced in the first chapter:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle […] That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. (Liberty, XVIII: 223)
As with all of Mill’s practical philosophy, the argument for this claim is utilitarian.
It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. (Liberty, XVIII: 224)
It could not be known a priori that we should organize society along liberal principles. Indeed, Mill held conditions of freedom are only desirable in civilized societies—“[u]ntil then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one” (Liberty, XVIII: 224). Mill’s case for liberty, in this sense, is based on observation about the conditions under which human beings flourish and are happy.
Mill’s claim that On Liberty presents “one very simple principle”—is “a kind of philosophic text-book of a single truth”—perhaps belies the fact that there are many distinct arguments and conclusions drawn throughout the text (Liberty, XVIII: 223; Autobiography, I: 259). Mill employs different strategies to argue for freedom of thought and discussion, freedom of character, and freedom of action—and although of course such arguments overlap, they must be carefully unpicked if we are to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses. In this section, we will consider the argument for freedom of speech, turning, in the next section, to his case for freedom of character and action more broadly.
Mill’s argument for the freedom of thought and discussion is given in chapter 2 of On Liberty, and in it he aims to show that there should be no attempt “to control the expression of opinion” (Liberty, XVIII: 229; see Riley 2015: 74ff.). The chapter takes the form of a proof from the exhaustion of cases. Mill claims that, for any opinion P which is a candidate for suppression, P must be either: (i) true, (ii) false, or (iii) partially true. Whichever is the case, he argues, P’s assertion will be useful for discovering and maintaining the truth—and as such should be welcome.
True beliefs are in general suppressed because, though they are true, they are thought to be false. To assume that because one thinks a view is false, it should be suppressed, Mill argues, is to assume infallibility for one’s beliefs. Human beings, though, are not creatures capable of infallible knowledge. Mill’s empiricism leads him to believe that we do not have direct a priori insight into the truth, and that all of our beliefs must remain open to revision in light of further observation. As such, discussion must remain open—even on issues which we think securely established. It might be argued, he observes,
that certain true beliefs should be suppressed because, although true, they are thought to be harmful. But to argue that we should suppress a view because it is harmful would either be to assume infallibility on its status as harmful, or to allow debate on that question—which in turn must involve debate on the substantive issue itself. Opinions belonging to case (i) therefore ought to not to be suppressed.
Even when a belief is false, Mill holds, its assertion may still be conducive to securing the truth—and as such, opinions belonging to case (ii) should not be suppressed. The assertion of false opinions leads to debate—which in turn leads to greater understanding. Without active defence of a truth, we risk losing sense of its real meaning, with genuine knowledge becoming reduced to “phrases retained by rote” (Liberty, XVIII: 249). It is therefore just as important to hear counterarguments to the truth as its re-articulation.
However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. (Liberty, XVIII: 243)
Mill holds that
there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them. (Liberty, XVIII: 252)
Such situations make up case (iii). In complicated matters—especially in matter of politics of morality—the truth is “many-sided” (Letter to Thomas Carlyle XII: 181). Most well-thought-out views—whether conservative or liberal—on such matters contain part of the truth. Individuals are rarely in the position to see the “whole truth” for themselves, and the only way for it to emerge is by therefore by “the reconciling and combining of opposites” (Liberty, XVIII: 258, 254).
Mill takes the three cases to be exhaustive: whatever an opinion’s status in terms of truth, then, its suppression would be epistemically damaging (Skorupski 1989: 377–83). The argument’s focus on truth, of course, limits the scope of the argument. Though there may be arguments establishing that forms of communication which do not have truth as their goal—poetry, art, music—should be free from interference, these are not to be found in chapter 2, but later in On Liberty.
4.6 On Liberty and Freedom of Character and Action
Mill’s argument for freedom of character—“Individuality” (Liberty, XVIII: 260)—is given in chapter 3 of On Liberty, and is two-pronged. On the one hand, he argues that it is best for individuals that they are given freedom and space to develop their own character. On the other, he argues that it best for society, too. Mill’s argument for the former is Romantic in tone, maintaining that, because different individuals have different natures, they must be given space to discover and develop their own personalities and ways of living.
Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develope itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing. (Liberty, XVIII: 263)
The basic diversity of human beings means it is not productive for there to exist an expectation that all individuals will live in a similar manner. In this sense, the argument is a pragmatic one: that one mode of life is unlikely to fit all individual tastes. But Mill also suggests that it is a central feature of the good life that it be a life chosen for oneself.
It is possible that he might be guided in some good path […] But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. (Liberty, XVIII: 263)
Along with other thinkers of the period—Arnold, Nietzsche, and Schiller are all useful points of comparison—Mill believes that the great danger of mass-society is self-repression and conformism, leading to the sa
pping of human energy and creativity. Victorian society was, he claimed, governed by an ethos of propriety based on “Christian self-denial”; Mill, in contrast, encourages the “Greek ideal of self-development” (Liberty, XVIII: 266). It is individuals that are well-rounded, authentic and spontaneous, he believes, that are most truly happy.
It is also important for society more broadly that individuals be free to develop their own ways of living. It is beneficial to have a rich variety of “experiments of living” (Liberty, XVIII: 260) on display in any given society, to allow individuals to be inspired by a wide range of possible forms of life. And the variety that exists within such a context, Mill thinks, key to maintaining social progress. A “diversity of character and culture” provides the engine of productive tension that drives a nation forward. Without it, Mill fears “Chinese stationariness” (Liberty, XVIII: 188; De Tocqueville on Democracy in America [II], XVIII: 189).
The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement. (Liberty, XVIII: 272)
In chapters 4 and 5 of On Liberty, Mill’s attention turns from a general defence of the salutary effects of freedom to an an exploration of which actions in particular should or should not be subject to interference. The scope of legitimate coercion is guided by the ‘harm principle’:
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (Liberty, XVIII: 223; cf. Liberty, XVIII: 292)
An individual’s action can be legitimately encroached upon if and only if that action might harm another individual. Of course, it may not be prudent to intervene in all cases in which it be legitimate to do so. In this sense, the principle merely states the conditions under which interference is permissible—not the conditions under which it is desirable.
Mill rules out intervention in that “part of a person’s life which concerns only himself” primarily because individuals—once they have reached “the maturity of their faculties”—are far more competent with respect to their own good than others (Liberty, XVIII: 280, 224; see Turner 2013).
[W]ith respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases. (Liberty, XVIII: 277)
As such, there should exist a general presumption against paternalistic attempts to interfere with an individual’s self-regarding conduct for their own good.
Mill readily admits that no conduct is self-regarding in the sense that it effects only the agent themselves. “No person is an entirely isolated being” (Liberty, XVIII: 280). But it is only when an individual “violate[s] a distinct and assignable obligation to any other person or persons, the case is taken out of the self-regarding class” (Liberty, XVIII: 281). In the sense Mill intends, then, we harm an individual only when we violate an obligation to that individual. The damage done by the bad example set to others by a drunkard provides no legitimate reason for interference with his conduct; if his drunkenness causes him to violate the obligation to support his family, then that action constitutes a harm and is subject to interference.
Mill’s concern, throughout On Liberty, is to preserve the individual’s freedom not only in the face of the threat of legislative or state coercion, but from the threat of more insidious forms of social coercion. In mass society, curtain-twitching judgmentalism and whispered smear-campaigns can be more dangerously
controlling than formal acts of tyranny, “penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself” (Liberty, XVIII: 220). And yet, of course, Mill holds that individuals are themselves free to form unfavorable opinions about the character of others. We are free to remonstrate with an individual, to avoid him, and to encourage others to avoid him—that is our right. But not to “parade the avoidance” (Liberty, XVIII: 278). The dividing line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of our freedom, however, is surely difficult to draw.
4.7 Authority and Democracy
As we have seen, Mill believes that we can have no genuine knowledge a priori. One important result of this general claim, Mill holds, is that knowledge—on political and ethical matters, as well as within the physical sciences—is more difficult to acquire than those who appeal directly to intuition or common sense might wish. An individual’s need for knowledge far outstrips the possibility of individual observation—as such, the vast majority of our knowledge must be acquired on the basis of testimony.
I yield to no one in the degree of intelligence of which I believe [the people] to be capable. But I do not believe that, along with this intelligence, they will ever have sufficient opportunities of study and experience, to become themselves familiarly conversant with all the inquiries which lead to the truths by which it is good that they should regulate their conduct, and to receive into their own minds the whole of the evidence from which those truths have been collected, and which is necessary for their establishment. […] As long as the day consists but of twenty-four hours, and the age of man extends but to threescore and ten […] the great majority of mankind will need the far greater part of their time and exertions for procuring their daily bread. (Spirit of the Age, XXII: 241)
In previous ages, the existence of a leisured and spiritual class meant that it was relatively easy to establish who possessed the intellectual authority to function as leaders in thought and action (Spirit of the Age, XXII: 304–5). But the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers had discredited these trusted forms of authority, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish “well-grounded opinion” from “charlatanerie” (Civilization, XVIII: 132, 135). The rise of the numerical majority in the modern-era meant that the individual was liable to become “so lost in the crowd, that though he depends more and more upon opinion, he is apt to depend less and less upon well-grounded opinion” (Civilization, XVIII: 132; cf. Liberty, VIII: 268).
Ultimately, Mill remains optimistic about the prospects of the modern individual to successfully autonomously navigate that crowd and identify voices worthy of respect.
No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy […] ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few. […] The honour and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond internally to wise and noble things, and be led to them with his eyes open. (Liberty, XVIII: 269)
He is conscious, however, that effort is required to preserve and cultivate the individual’s ability to recognize and respond to such voices. Formal education, of course, must play a significant role in maintaining an “an enlightened public” who know enough “to be able to discern who are those that know them better” (Inaugural Address, XXI: 223; see Findlay 2017). But Mill also looks to the institution of democracy itself to help solidify the influence of elites.
Mill held, as was noted above (section 4.4), that the democratic expansion of the franchise was inevitable, and to be welcomed. Possessing the vote ensured that an individual’s interests would be represented—and, equally importantly, it had an elevating and educative effect on the
public. Active participation in collective decision making was, Mill held, part of the good and happy life (Urbinati 2002). He was in favor, therefore, of extending the vote to all those who were not reliant on public support and possessed a basic competency in reading, writing, and arithmetic. “But though every one ought to have a voice—that every one should have an equal voice is a totally different proposition” (Considerations, XIX: 473). In an ideal system of democracy, Mill held, those whose opinions are “entitled to a greater amount of consideration” would be given more consideration, with level of education determining the number of votes a person could cast (Considerations, XIX: 474; see Miller 2015).
A system of plural voting would not only counteract the tendency of democracy to descend into rule by the mob, but would embody and signal the general principle that some opinions are more worthy of attention than others.
It is not useful, but hurtful, that the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge. The national institutions should place all things that they are concerned with, before the mind of the citizen in the light in which it is for his good that he should regard them: and as it is for his good that he should think that every one is entitled to some influence, but the better and wiser to more than others. (Considerations, XIX: 478)
Mill’s concern to ensure that the recognition of genuine expertise is not lost in the age of democracy also underlies his support for Thomas Hare’s system of Proportional Representation. Instead of limiting the choice to local candidates, Mill hoped to allow voters to join together and elect the most distinguished candidates from throughout the nation, resulting in the “very élite of the country” being elected to, and exercising an influence within and beyond, Parliament (Considerations, XIX: 456). The desire for expertise also guides Mill’s belief that a Second Chamber would, at best, be a Senate composed of those who had previously held high political offices or employments, and had thereby established their quality as “natural leaders” (Considerations, XIX: 516).
Mill’s attempt to secure conditions in which genuine authorities can be identified and heard amongst the clamor of democratic society is not, of course, an attempt to stifle other voices. Neither is it an attempt to impose the will of experts on an unwilling majority. At all points, Mill remains committed to the freedom of individuals to hold and express their own opinions, and to the sovereignty of the majority will on public matters. His sensitivity towards the very real dangers of populism in modern societies is, that is to say, never allowed to overshadow his basic commitment to liberal democracy as the political system most suited to the cultivation of a free, active, and happy citizenry.