Mill’s “On Liberty” is an academic work examining the presence of –and desire for- liberty in human nature and behavior, as well as the limits imposed upon such. Mill writes this text from a bias of utilitarianism and fallibilism, as he simultaneously believes that: (1) the ultimate goal of human life –the purest of actions, per se- is to bring the most good for the most people, and that; (2) humans are an imperfect species and failing to acknowledge such is assuming one’s infallibility which, as Mill sees it, is wrong. As such, the following paper will examine the relationship between liberty of thought and discussion, and liberty in general as proposed by Mill.
Firstly, and fundamentally, it must be understood what is referred to when we discuss Mill’s definition of liberty. However, a one dimensional definition cannot be offered to such a multi-dimensional concept and, necessarily, an analysis must be conducted of Mill’s thought processes in order to comprehend his perception of liberty, in its truest form. Near immediately Mill asserts that On Liberty will concern “civil, or social liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill 1859, pg 1). Thus we can see that Mill –working in a manner pertaining to classical philosophical practices- has himself chosen to demonstrate what liberty is by first understanding exactly what it is not. Such a statement is further verified by Mill’s reference to the “struggle between liberty and authority” (pg 1) hence alluding to the claim that: liberty is the phenomena of action –or thought- undertaken by choice of the individual without any involvement of authority.
Mill develops this idea by briefly exploring the shifts in the general perception of liberty throughout history. At this point it is interesting to note Mill’s apparent consideration of only Western cultures –drawing upon evidence from “Greece, Rome and England” (pg 1) – rather than an analysis holistically considering diverse and global cultures. Regardless, Mill develops his initial hypothesis –as to what liberty is- by identifying key points in history which he believes have shaped and developed this concept into its current form. These points being the: (1) transition of a body of authority being seen as “in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled” (pg 1) to an imposition of limits unto said authority; (2) emergence of a “new demand for elective and temporary rulers” (pg 2); (3) revelation that “rulers should be identified with the people, that their interest and will should be the interest and will of the nation” (pg 3), and; (4) eventual prevalence of a democratic republic –“popular government” (pg 3)- and the “notion that people have no need to limit their power over themselves” (pg 3).
Though, superficially, this timeline may cause one to believe that Mill perceives the balance between liberty and authority to have been achieved, it is clear that Mill recognizes the faults within said political structure; “such phrases as ‘self-government’ and ‘the power of the people over themselves,’ do not represent the true state of the case” (pg 3-4). As such, Mill identifies the danger of the liberty of the majority suppressing the liberty of the minority; “the will of the people moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people – the majority” (pg 4). These essentially lay the grounds for Mill’s recognition of “social tyranny” and “political oppression” (pg 4) as two forces equally able to quell liberty. Hence Mill introduces the dilemma that: liberty –which was originally thought of as a freedom from the interference of authority, government, into the lives of the people- cannot be actualized when the liberty of one supersedes and prevents the liberty of another. This logic precedes Mill’s statement that: “All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people” (pg 5) which completes Mill’s prior assertion of the “notion that the people have no need to limit their power over themselves” (pg 3). As convoluted as it may seem, these premises are the foundations upon which Mill articulates the intricacy of the nature of simultaneously existing individual and societal liberty; the paradoxical nature of humanity being such that: we each claim to want liberty for all in our lives, yet refuse to acknowledge the fact that such a desire leaves us, individually, vulnerable to an intrusion into our lives by another exercising their own liberty.
Understanding this, let us for a moment consider the above through Mill’s biases as a utilitarian and a fallibilist: if an action is deemed beneficial only when instigated for the greatest benefit of the greatest number and humans are fallible and thus unable to know –with absolute certainty- whether or not any action will indeed bring benefit. Then, does it not seem that humans would be unable to use their liberty –individual or societal- in means known to be beneficial? What then, is the worth of liberty itself should it not be of benefit to the masses? In answer to this apparent contradiction to his own argument, Mill asserts that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (pg 9) and that as “man is a progressive being” (pg 10) the restriction of his liberties will not only: (1) prevent the immediate instigation of beneficial developments for humanity, but also: (2) limit the potential for future developments. This assertion could be opposed by one simply rearranging the above premises, replacing ‘restriction’ with condoning, ‘prevent’ with enable, ‘beneficial’ with detrimental and ‘limit’ with increase. However, it is likely that Mill would be the first to remind any individual that: an argument akin to such is easier likened to an authoritative ruler from Ancient Greece (as previously alluded to) rather than any leader in the modern world, thus refuting the argument as no longer relevant.
Yet, Mill does concede that the decisions made through one’s liberty may occasionally impede unto –or restrict- the decisions another is able to make through their liberty. Thus, he introduces the Harm onto Others Principle (pg 9-10) essentially stating that any individual deserves the freest of liberties until the point at which their actions, or inactions, directly affect another. Then, he claims, it is justified for the “penalties of law or opinion” (pg 7) to be implicated. Considering all of the above, Mill’s final definition regarding “the appropriate region of human liberty” (pg 11) can be understood. That definition being that: human liberty exists in three parts. First; freedom over the inward domain of consciousness – thought, feeling, opinion and other such moral sentiments- which, intrinsically encompasses the liberty to write and publish such opinions. Second; freedom to act upon said consciousness, to frame one’s life to suit one’s own character not by any societal guidelines. Thirdly; the freedom of equality, for all to have –and use- the aforementioned liberties equally (individually and en masse) without fear of oppression (pg 11-12).
Put simply, the three dimensions Mill uses to define liberty are: (1) morality, the freedom to decide for oneself what is right and wrong; (2) action, the ability to live one’s life by one’s own morals, and; (3) unity, the freedom for all to utilize their own liberties in community without persecution. Mill reiterates the importance of these stating: “no society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected is free” (pg 12), this freedom, he believes, is largely dependent on maintaining an appropriate balance between “individual independence and social control” (pg 5) –hence avoiding “social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” (pg 4)-. Now, before advancing, it is fundamental to acknowledge that Mill assumes that all humans are essentially good, morally righteous people. Drawing upon Socratic-like ideals, Mill believes that the soul of a human –their essence, their purest form- is in no way foul, vindictive, manipulative or unfairly judgmental. Rather, he believes that any of these attitudes are learnt –as reality corrupts the soul- and can be unlearnt, or more appropriately: that kindness and purity can be remembered.
When acknowledging this assumption made by Mill, it is easy to see why he argues that the freedom of thought and discussion is the most essential of all liberties; that the total freedom of opinion and expression is the foundation upon which any free society must be constructed. Mill states that: “if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person that he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (pg 16). As such, he develops his argument to consider three potential scenarios of a silenced opinion: (1) the opinion being stifled is potentially true; (2) the opinion being stifled is potentially false, and; (3) the opinion being stifled is neither wholly true nor false but rather a component of the truth, a missing aspect of the currently held opinion. Assuming that one of these three scenarios is the reality of any situation, Mill disregards the significance of all of them. In fact, Mill asserts that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility” as one assumes that “their certainty is the same as absolute certainty” (pg 17). Statements which concur with Mill’s bias as a fallibilist and emphasis Mill’s perspective that: it is irrelevant whether or not an opinion be true or false, it still deserves to exist.
The logic of this statement derives from the fact that “there is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation”; any opinion which prevails over all contesting perspectives may be assumed as truth until the point at which it is proved false by a counter-argument, so long as it is subjected to such counter-arguments; “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (pg 50). Participating in this process –by arguing assumptions, challenging that which is taken as fact and actively seeking to broaden one’s horizons- is, Mill claims, the only means by which humans gain wisdom (pg 19). Further understanding –in the context of Mill’s utilitarian bias- that the “truth of an opinion is a part of its utility” (pg 21) justifies the motivation for these actions and the desire of one to seek the truth, and the wisdom associated with this.
Essentially, Mill claims that without the liberty of thought and discussion, without the freedom for each to consider their own opinions to be truth up until the point in which they are clearly proved to be fallacious, holistic liberty will never be achieved. Though Mill recognizes that this most fundamental of liberties is routinely impeded by various authoritative figures –including governments and religious organizations- he states that “the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind” (pg 31); without the freedom for adverse opinions to exist, and eventually clash, humans will never get closer to realizing absolute truth legitimately “the whole strength and value, then, of human judgment depends on one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong” (pg 19). Mill argues that without the liberty of thought and discussion, humanity will never achieve other forms of freedom, that intellectual development will cease and, that the revelations of our forefathers will have been in vain. However, in no way does he ever claim that a suppression of this liberty will cause a society to be weak. In fact, he believes that such a society would be very powerful. As he states it: “though culture without freedom never made a large and liberal mind, it can make a clever nisi prius advocate of a cause” (pg 37).
Conclusively, it can be seen through the logical progression of Mill’s arguments that the liberty of thought and discussion is the most primal and fundamental of liberties. It is a “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” (pg 50). Through his own biases (utilitarianism and fallibilism) Mill recognizes that obtaining wisdom –or even true knowledge- is one of the most primal goals for humans, as this action yields a vast utility, and that any attempts to quell one’s liberty of thought and discussion is a direct contradiction to this goal. Hence, the development of Mill’s arguments reveal him to believe that total freedom of thought and discussion is not only a deserved right of humans but also one of their own primary goals, one necessary for the obtaining of liberty in general. In the most basic of terms, Mill believes liberty to exist in three distinct dimensions, of those, the liberty of thought and discussion is the most fundamental, that hypothesized dimension preceding even color and shape; the nature of the liberty of thought and discussion is so fundamental to humans as a species that Mill perceives it to be a pre-requisite for any other form of liberty, regardless of whether it is the second, third or even some unknown other dimension of this concept itself.