On Liberty

On Liberty

The stories of J.S. Mill and Wilhelm von Humboldt intersect, and this is widely known. It is Mill's work "On Liberty" that made Wilhelm von Humboldt famous. Mill quoted this passage from "The Limits of State Action" at the very beginning of "On Liberty":

The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.

In fact, Mill's book (published in 1859) shares a similar scope with Humboldt's, and the arguments he presents are also quite similar. Given the extraordinary resemblance between the two, I will focus here on what characterizes Mill's argument in favor of freedom of speech and the restriction of government intervention in it. This issue is articulated in the first two chapters of the book (approx. 60 pages.)

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Why Freedom of Speech?

Mill adopts here a nuanced utilitarian approach to defend freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is important because it leads us closer to the truth.

Silencing an opinion means robbing the human race of truth. In fact, if that opinion is right, people will lose the chance to learn and fix their mistaken beliefs; if the opinion is wrong, people lose the chance of accruing evidence that their theory is more robust.

If you instead silence the discussion at all, you are assuming the infallibility of your opinion. But what do you have to lose from a confrontation if your opinion is infallible?

Mill is confident that true opinions may temporarily fade into obscurity, overtaken by erroneous ideas and theories. However, he believes that freedom of speech will ultimately lead to the resurgence of true ideas, as over the course of ages, there will generally be individuals who rediscover them.

Uniformity of thought is deemed undesirable because it undermines our reasoning skills.

Logic and critical thinking are not challenged when people cannot engage in argumentation, and prevailing opinions go unchallenged. Mill acknowledges that in one sense, conformity may seem convenient for maintaining a peaceful society and avoiding conflict, but he argues that the long-term consequences are too high.

“A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”

In the absence of discussion, words become empty, and opinions lose their strength and foundation, as everyone already agrees. The outcome of such uniformity is akin to a religious creed – a set of beliefs never challenged because they are unanimously accepted.

It creates a society where people forsake their individual beliefs, retaining only "formularies" – those notions memorized and never questioned. This creed also hinders progress since it is never subjected to scrutiny. Simultaneously, a society built on creeds is one that cannot advance; it remains stuck in specific circumstances and relies on majority consensus.

But the process of truth-finding is one of reconciling opposites, which strongly demands discussion. And opinions against democracy must be expressed with equal freedom as those in favor of it, according to Mill. Only if issues are defended with equal talent and energy, there is chance that both elements will obtain their due.

A Modern Problem?

WE SHALL NOT BE DECEIVED by the fact that dissenters now are not put to death as heretics were in the past, Mill contends. Freedom of speech is still at risk by the tyranny of the majority and is usually restricted by more subtle means.

“But let us not flatter ourselves that we are yet free from the stain even of legal persecution. Penalties for opinion, or at least for its expression, still exist by law; and their enforcement is not, even in these times, so unexampled as to make it at all incredible that they may some day be revived in full force”

And we're still dealing with this. Every. Single. Day.

Why Is It at Risk?

Mill is concerned that within a society the opinions of the majority of the population would be imposed – more or less directly – over the minority. These opinions may be imposed either by public authorities or merely by habits of following the herd.

“Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities.”

In any case, the consequence of conformism and uniformity of thought is undesirable in that it prevents individuals to fully flourish especially when individual development would be associated with dissent from what the majority thinks.

At the same time, he condemns all those philosophers who think their morality and feelings are “higher” or more noble and therefore to be imposed.

Historically, as Mill explains, citizens had a vested interest in limiting State power and curbing the imposition of opinions. They observed political power concentrated in the hands of monarchs who used to have different interests from the general population. As a result, citizens themselves were interested in seeking constraints on that power.

However, with the rise of democracy and the newly acquired powers of the Chamber of Commons, citizens began to associate political power with themselves. Consequently, they viewed political power as a representation of the entire population, leading to questions about why limits should be imposed on power at all. After all, it would seem like self-imposing restrictions, which might appear stupid.

Mill is concerned with this identification process of the population with power and the following result of an unlimited political power. Since people can never agree on everything, that unlimited political power will be in the hands of just the majority of citizens who will impose its desires and rules on the minority. This would be the tyranny of the majority.


My Take Today

In 1951 Bertrand Russel wrote:

"Much more important than Mill's longer treaties were his two short books On the Subjection of Women and On Liberty. In regard to the first of these, the world has gone completely as he would have wished. In regard to the second, there has been an exactly opposite movement."

Democracy and politicians are becoming rather intolerant of moral and political disagreement. Conformism with the dictates of Social Justice, political correctness, and DEI (aka diversity, equity, inclusion) statements is essentially required if you want to progress or at least survive in your career. And in case you reject it, you are immediately silenced (read: warned), if not canceled (read: suspended, fired).

It is apparent the promotion of only one strand of ideas, mainly those of the political left. And in academia this is even more clear. The next time you walk into the library of your campus, I strongly encourage you to stop and look at the books on the main shelves, precisely in the "new and noteworthy" section. I was astonished. It seems like we live in a society where we all agree about what the more important political ideas are and we all agree on how to address them. There is no disagreement among those books.

The only explanation I give myself is that support to the modern state requires servile minds. Otherwise, how could you bear paying 60% of your income in taxes, be provided with low quality public services, be deprived of your individual rights whenever there is an "emergency" (which means, always), and so on?

If you really think freely, probably you will not blindly trust the state. But probably, at the same time, you have already been silenced. Or canceled.