Lecture 4: Freedom of Speech: John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

Freedom and Tradition: An Introduction to Classical Liberalism and Conservatism

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke
Fall 2006

Freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech have been a consequence of freedom of religion. As we have seen, this made its appearance on the stage of history in the Western world with Locke’s Letter on Toleration and the Act of Toleration of 1689, receiving its ultimate affirmation in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For many people, however, the outstanding explanation and defense of freedom of both speech and action, and the peak of Classical Liberalism as a philosophy, is to be found in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859. I do not entirely concur in this judgement, for reasons I will explain. However, there is no question but that it is a great work and one that everyone attracted to the philosophy of freedom can benefit from studying.

Like Locke, Mill bases his argument on the principle of No Harm, which he explains as follows:

“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

This is a splendid statement of the central conviction of Classical Liberalism which can only warm the hearts of all its adherents. However, as we shall see, there is one tiny flaw in it, which is easily overlooked, yet will eventually have devastating consequences. In the meantime, however, he adds another sterling explanation:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

Who, in Mill’s view, should enjoy this freedom? Not children, obviously; only adults. But his conception of this class, taken for granted during the nineteenth century, has now become highly controversial in the twenty-first century.

“It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.”

One of the possible plans open to the United States in Iraq at the present time would be the establishment of a benevolent dictatorship friendly to the U.S. Mr Bush seems to have ruled this out because of his (understandable enough) commitment to democracy, but Mill would clearly have no scruples about such a plan. I remarked earlier that in general there are two kinds of argument for the free society and related ideas: one based on moral principle, the other on usefulness. Locke’s argument is of the former kind: it is drawn from the consideration that all human beings have a right not to be harmed unless they have done something to deserve it. Hobbes’s argument is based on utility: a society will not function properly without an effective government. Mill, however, subscribes to a third position which attempts to combine these two: it argues that moral principle itself rests ultimately on utility. The rules of justice are right because they work, that is, they have good consequences. This is the theory known as utilitarianism. It is summarized in the thesis that we have a moral duty to act in such a way as to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. By “happiness” Mill understands pleasure (though some pleasures are higher than others) and the absence of pain. It is this thesis that provides the foundation for Mill’s argument for the free society.

“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. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a prima facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation.”

Mill’s utilitarianism is itself based on his empiricism. This is the view that we can have genuine knowledge only of things we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. This theory eliminates any knowledge of objective necessity, since necessity can never be perceived by the senses, and so it eliminates any knowledge of causation, which is a form of necessity, as well as the idea that things have a necessary essence or nature. In one of his other works Mill argues that there cannot be such a thing as a natural moral law because “nature” can never stand for anything but a set of facts.  I mention these underlying considerations because they lead Mill to adopt a fallacious conception of his key idea, “harm,” and so to betray his own principles. If we examine the first sentence in the passage quoted above on p. 1, we see that he extends the concept of coercion to include not only “physical force” but also “the moral coercion of public opinion.” A mere opinion, in other words, he thinks, if held by a large number of people, is coercive. And it is precisely this alleged “coerciveness” of public opinion that is the chief motive leading Mill to write his book.

“It is this — it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom.”

Mill in fact was an atheist, from childhood. But this fact only came to light with the publication of his book Theism after his death. During his lifetime he seems to have taken some pains to conceal it, precisely because he feared the reaction of the public. He evidently felt that the public opinion of his time, in what was then a very Christian nation, on this matter was oppressive.  But with all due respect to Mill, the view that opinion can constitute coercion is nonsense. While we can perhaps sympathize with his feelings, a feeling is just a feeling, and a belief is just a belief. Coercion implies a force we are not capable of resisting. But it is perfectly possible to disagree with an opinion, no matter how many people share it. It happens all the time that opinions accepted without question by the society at large are questioned by thoughtful, or sometimes merely cantankerous, individuals. This fuzzing of the boundary between genuine coercion and other strong influences on people’s behavior is a tell-tale mark of the doctrines of socialism. It is what justifies socialists (in their own eyes) from advocating coercion as a remedy for harmless inequalities. Typically it results from a belief in determinism, the view that human beings do not possess free will, and their actions are predetermined by anterior forces stemming either from their biological nature within or from the society surrounding them. And this view, in turn, is typically a product of materialism, the view that nothing exists but material objects and their relationships.  This sloppy thinking (there is no other word for it) about coercion leads Mill immediately to compromise the grand principle he has stated otherwise so admirably. For having written 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. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” He goes on to say “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.” This means there are other reasons than self-protection which justify coercion.

“There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing.”

We are told here that we can cause harm to a person by not rescuing him. This makes little logical sense, since it is not possible to cause anything by doing nothing, and it is emphatically not what classical liberals typically believe. Mill is led into this non-sequitur by his utilitarianism. For further investigation of this point you are referred to Chapter 5 of my book No Harm. Mill seems to realize, perhaps unconsciously, that he has a serious problem here, because he becomes somewhat defensive about it, acknowledging cases like this may be better left to the individual’s conscience.

“The latter case, it is true, requires a much more cautious exercise of compulsion than the former. To make any one answerable for doing evil to others, is the rule; to make him answerable for not preventing evil, is, comparatively speaking, the exception. Yet there are many cases clear enough and grave enough to justify that exception. In all things which regard the external relations of the individual, he is de jure amenable to those whose interests are concerned, and if need be, to society as their protector. There are often good reasons for not holding him to the responsibility; but these reasons must arise from the special expediencies of the case: either because it is a kind of case in which he is on the whole likely to act better, when left to his own discretion, than when controlled in any way in which society have it in their power to control him; or because the attempt to exercise control would produce other evils, greater than those which it would prevent. When such reasons as these preclude the enforcement of responsibility, the conscience of the agent himself should step into the vacant judgment-seat, and protect those interests of others which have no external protection; judging himself all the more rigidly, because the case does not admit of his being made accountable to the judgment of his fellow-creatures.”

This fuzziness leads Mill to move, almost unnoticed, to a different criterion from causing harm to persons, namely, causing damage to their interests. Let us set aside for the moment, however, this contentious criticism, and continue with the main outline of his overall argument for freedom.  The first part of his argument proper is concerned solely with freedom of speech, the second with freedom of action and what we would today call life-style. Mill summarizes his own argument as follows:

“We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.  First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.  Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”

You will notice that this is not an argument from rights. Mill is not saying human beings have a right to free speech, but that they need it for their well-being, and if they are deprived of it it will have unfortunate consequences for them.  His first thesis is that when society prohibits the expression of a certain opinion, there remains a possibility, which may be remote but can never be entirely ruled out, that the opinion in question may after all turn out to be true, because no one is infallible. (France has just passed a law prohibiting the opinion that the Turks did not massacre the Armenians, and Germany has a law prohibiting the opinion that the Holocaust did not happen.) Mill argues that the great secret of human progress lies in the fact that people can correct their own errors.

“(Man) is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter — he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.”

I believe Mill is absolutely right on this. This principle of self-correction is the foundation of the physical sciences, and without a doubt the secret of their immense success. In physics and chemistry, if you have thought up a theory, it is never enough, in order to have it accepted, to show only the evidence in favor of it: you must always also show the evidence against it. This is what it means to be rational and fair-minded: a rational person is one who habitually takes into account the evidence and arguments that run counter to his own opinions. Mill points out three historical cases where those acknowledged as among the best and the brightest made horrendous errors: Socrates, “master of all the eminent thinkers who have lived since,” was condemned to death by his fellow-citizens of Athens, “an age and country abounding in individual greatness,” for impiety and immorality. Jesus Christ, “the man who left on the memory of those who witnessed his life and conversation, such an impression of his moral grandeur that eighteen subsequent centuries have done homage to him as the Almighty in person,” was ignominiously put to death by men who were “not worse than men commonly are, but rather the contrary, men who possessed in a full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral and patriotic feelings of their time,” as a blasphemer. And Marcus Aurelius, who has some claim to be considered the noblest of the Roman emperors, with the broadest range of sympathy for human beings and their fate, but who nonetheless persecuted Christianity. Mill’s second point is that even if we grant the prevalent opinion is true, there are good reasons for allowing people the freedom to contradict it. The chief reason is that opinions which are never questioned lose their vitality.

“…however true (an opinion) may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

One should hold one’s beliefs by conviction, based on reasons, not by mere custom.

“Assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument–this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.”

The truth of an opinion depends on the evidence, and in human affairs if there is a disagreement, the evidence is never entirely on one side.

“But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons. Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion. But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favor some opinion different from it. The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own.”

To understand our own opinion properly and fully, and see its ramifications, we need to be able to put ourselves mentally in the position of those who reject it.

“Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavored to see the reasons of both in the strongest light.”

In subsequent chapters Mill argues that the same reasons that justify freedom of opinion also justify freedom of action and life-style, provided that harm is not caused to others.

“No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard…The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.”

Mill’s argument for freedom of lifestyle has two parts. In the first he maintains that originality and individuality are better for the individual, because they represent a fuller unfolding and development of his personality. In the second he holds that they are more beneficial to others and to society as a whole, because society has many different needs, and there are many ways we can benefit one another. Here again Mill makes use of his distinction between acts that are self-regarding and those that have an effect on others. And again, he never speaks of a “right” to individuality, but only of its practical benefits.

“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.”

Freedom, Mill argues, is the first condition needed for originality and individuality to flourish.

“…the object “towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow-men must ever keep their eyes, is the individuality of power and development;” that for this there are two requisites, “freedom, and a variety of situations;” and that from the union of these arise “individual vigor and manifold diversity,” which combine themselves in “originality.” (Quoting the German author von Humboldt.)”

Mill takes a dim view of custom, at least when it is adopted without thinking.

“The traditions and customs of other people are, to a certain extent, evidence of what their experience has taught them; presumptive evidence, and as such, have a claim to this deference: but, in the first place, their experience may be too narrow; or they may not have interpreted it rightly. Secondly, their interpretation of experience may be correct but unsuitable to him. Customs are made for customary circumstances, and customary characters: and his circumstances or his character may be uncustomary. Thirdly, though the customs be both good as customs, and suitable to him, yet to conform to custom, merely as custom, does not educate or develop in him any of the qualities which are the distinctive endowment of a human being. The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice.  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 develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.  A person whose desires and impulses are his own–are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture–is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character. If, in addition to being his own, his impulses are strong, and are under the government of a strong will, he has an energetic character. Whoever thinks that individuality of desires and impulses should not be encouraged to unfold itself, must maintain that society has no need of strong natures–is not the better for containing many persons who have much character–and that a high general average of energy is not desirable.  It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is Self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable, is comprised in Obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise; “whatever is not a duty is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. That is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary conditions of the case, the same for all. In some such insidious form there is at present a strong tendency to this narrow theory of life, and to the pinched and hidebound type of human character which it patronizes. Many persons, no doubt, sincerely think that human beings thus cramped and dwarfed, are as their Maker designed them to be; just as many have thought that trees are a much finer thing when clipped into pollards, or cut out into figures of animals, than as nature made them. But if it be any part of religion to believe that man was made by a good Being, it is more consistent with that faith to believe, that this Being gave all human faculties that they might be cultivated and unfolded, not rooted out and consumed, and that he takes delight in every nearer approach made by his creatures to the ideal conception embodied in them, every increase in any of their capabilities of comprehension, of action, or of enjoyment. There is a different type of human excellence from the Calvinistic; a conception of humanity as having its nature bestowed on it for other purposes than merely to be abnegated. “Pagan self-assertion” is one of the elements of human worth, as well as “Christian self-denial.”[2] There is a Greek ideal of self-development, which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with, but does not supersede. It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.  It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. As much compression as is necessary to prevent the stronger specimens of human nature from encroaching on the rights of others, cannot be dispensed with; but for this there is ample compensation even in the point of view of human development. The means of development which the individual loses by being prevented from gratifying his inclinations to the injury of others, are chiefly obtained at the expense of the development of other people. In the first place, then, I would suggest that they might possibly learn something from them. It will not be denied by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life.  Already energetic characters on any large scale are becoming merely traditional. There is now scarcely any outlet for energy in this country except business.

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.”