Mill and Freedom of Expression

views updated


Chapter Two of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, first published in 1859, remains to this day the classic exposition of the liberal argument for freedom of speech. Mill wrote the essay with the active collaboration of his wife Harriet Taylor, who died during the interval between its original composition and publication. Although the argument purports to rest on a utilitarian claim regarding the net consequences of unregulated expression, his treatment of the subject can be read instead as grounded in the character ideal of the inquisitive, open-minded person, an ideal that might justify a policy of toleration independent of any empirical calculation of collective consequences.

Mill wrote On Liberty at what he perceived to be the dawn of the age of mass society, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the most significant broadening of the franchise in English history. In the essay he identifies the greatest threat to liberty to be not the transgressions of tyrants or corrupt factions but rather laws and informal social sanctions supported by large popular majorities. He considered the spirit of his age to be inhospitable to independent thought and unconventional experiments in living. He lamented that mid-Victorian England had become a nation of timid, complacent, constricted persons, conformist in outlook and suspicious of innovators. He urged a robust principle of free expression, together with a more general principle of liberty, as an antidote.

Mill's treatment of the liberty of thought and discussion considers the reasons for tolerating speech under three different assumptions regarding its truth. First, an unconventional idea, at risk of suppression by means of legal or social sanctions, might be true. Second, it might be wholly false. Third, it might be partly true and partly false.

If an idea is true, there is an obvious case for letting it circulate. However, why should would-be regulators be guided by this possibility in the case of heretical ideas they know with great confidence to be false? Mill responds that such confidence is frequently misplaced. To act on it is to assume one's infallibility. Mill's point is more empirical than logical. Proponents of speech regulation usually concede the logical possibility that ideas they hold to be true could be false, and vice versa. But they seldom, in particular instances, give credence to that possibility for the purpose of guiding their actions. Mill finds this troubling because he is impressed by how regularly the conventional wisdom of one time and place is seen by later ages and different peoples to be the sheerest folly. In On Liberty he catalogues many such dramatic alterations of understanding, including the modern assessment in retrospect of the executions of Socrates and Christ, and of the persecution of the early Christians by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the wisest, most learned men of his day.

In the course of urging a greater appreciation of the possibility that heretical ideas might actually be true, Mill addresses the argument that truth has inherent power to prevail over falsehood. If so, the costs of suppressing nascent true ideas would be only temporary, and the fact that a widely held belief has gained adherents over time would be strong evidence of its validity. Mill denies that truth has any such inherent power to prevail: "the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes." The only advantage truth possesses, he asserts, is that a suppressed true idea may be rediscovered at a later time when conditions for its reception are more favorable.

A final argument for suppressing heretical ideas even if they might be true is that the received wisdom may be socially useful independent of its truth value. Mill is scornful of this notion. He asserts that an idea's social utility depends to a large extent, even if not exclusively, on its truth. We cannot assess the usefulness of an idea if we cannot consider reasons why it may not be true.

Mill does not deny that the received wisdom could in fact be true. Indeed, among the strongest arguments in On Liberty are those that proceed from the assumption that the ideas society wishes to suppress are wholly false. Mill concedes that a society's confidence in its most cherished tenets could strengthen the capacity to act on those beliefs. He maintains, however, that such confidence flows not from the suppression of false ideas but from the willingness to consider all points of view, and from the consequent perception that the best that could be said in opposition to the received wisdom has been articulated and found wanting.

Not only confidence but lively understanding ensues from the experience of fending off the challenges of dissenters, Mill claims. He decries "the deep slumber of a decided opinion" and asserts that in the absence of controversy "teachers and learners go to sleep at their post." He notes that Cicero claimed to study the arguments of his opponents with much greater care and imagination than he devoted to learning his own side of a case. Mill recommends that practice for those engaged in truth seeking as well as forensics. He goes so far as to say that we ought to thank someone who has produced a skillful challenge to our beliefs, for such a person has done for us that which we otherwise should feel the need to do on our own.

Most ideas at risk of legal or social suppression, Mill observes, are neither wholly true nor wholly false but rather contain a mixture of truth and falsity. It is important that such ideas be allowed to circulate because they contribute to the process of adaptation. Wisdom is not so much a matter of demonstrative proof or refutation but of finding the right balance between "the standing antagonisms of practical life"—between, for example, stability and reform, cooperation and competition, luxury and abstinence, or liberty and discipline. Progress ordinarily entails the replacement of one partial truth with another that is somewhat better adapted to its time.

Although his critics sometimes accuse him of intellectual elitism, Mill himself considered his principle of liberty to be for the masses. It is not, he says, "to form great thinkers that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much, and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of." Progress is most often achieved, he maintains, when "the dread of heterodox speculation is for a time suspended" and "the yoke of authority" is broken. Only then, will "the mind of a people" be stirred up from its foundations so as to raise "even persons of the most ordinary intellect to something of the dignity of thinking beings."

Mill did not advocate an unqualified freedom of expression. "[E]ven opinions lose their immunity," he says, "when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act." He offered an example to illustrate the limits of his principle: "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."

Mill's discussion of the liberty of thought and expression constitutes just one part of his comprehensive treatment of the subject of liberty. The full essay On Liberty, he states in the introduction, is designed to assert "one very simple principle." He describes that principle as follows: "The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Given the centrality of this harm principle to Mill's overall project, it is perhaps surprising that his discussion of free speech does not explore the various ways that expression and communication might cause harm. This omission has led some observers to conclude that his argument for free speech has more to do with a claim about the irreducible attributes of personhood or the essential conditions for human flourishing than with any sort of balanced calculation of consequences. Although Mill disclaims any reliance on the notion of natural right, his emphasis on individual character and on "the liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense" suggests that he wished to protect free speech not because he thought it does no or little harm but because he considered it fundamental to life itself.

Vincent Blasi


Berlin, Isaiah 1969 John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life. In Four Essays on Liberty. London: Oxford University Press.

Mc Closkey, H.J. 1970 Liberty of Expression: Its Grounds and Limits. Inquiry 13:219–237.

Stephen, James Fitzjames 1873 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. New York: Holt & Williams.

Waldron, Jeremy 1992 Mill and the Value of Moral Distress. In Liberal Rights. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.