Disillusioned but not disenchanted…
The reason for writing the essay On Liberty as stated by Mill is simply to discuss the idea of what role society can and should take in controlling or interfering with the liberty of an individual. His goal is to discuss the amount of power that society may legitimately exercise over its people. In his discussion of this topic Mill focuses much of his argument on the idea of a democracy. In the democracy Mill sees much of that which would create conflict between liberty and authority, between society and the individual. The main danger to individual liberty which Mill notes is the danger of the “tyranny of the majority.” This danger is that in which the minorities and the individuals are subjected to the whims of the majority and the general public so that the “weaker members of the community” are “preyed upon by innumerable vultures (Mill, p. 2).” This is the danger that is present in the electoral process of the democracy where the candidate with the most support, the one backed by the majority, is the one that is placed in the leadership position. This effectively keeps the minority subjugated and unable to exert influence over society.
The justification for this belief comes in that he believes “self-government” to not be “the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest,” and that this type of rule creates no room for genius and innovation to grow but only stagnation (Mill, p. 6) His cited examples of such “tyranny of the majority” which he uses to justify his argument include references to both Socrates and Jesus. In the first example Socrates, a virtuous man of great genius, is put to death by his peers. The second example shows Jesus, who by Mill’s time is the focus of European religion, was put to death for being a blasphemer.
In his essay Mill’s main thesis is that society and the governing bodies have no right to interfere with the liberty of thought, action or individuality in any person save when those liberties may cause harm to others. The main idea is that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign (Mill, p. 9).” With this stated, Mill then goes on to elaborate on the various factors that also play a part in this theory.
Mill’s thesis entails many points. Of the first of these points is that while society is unable able to interfere with individuals unless they’re harming somebody, this somebody does not include the individuals themselves. According to Mill a person has every right to do harm to themselves save in the cases of the young or mentally impaired, it is only in these cases where society has the right to interfere; society may not intervene simply for the good of the individual (Mill. p. 9). Mill believes in the liberty of conscious and of action.
Apart from this, Mill also believed that keeping away the “tyranny of the majority” was good not only for the individuals and the minorities, but for society itself as well. In this line of thinking Mill believed that the freedom of thought and of action and the argumentation and discussion which leads from it was pivotal in the development of the society, primarily truth in those societies. It is only in this that societies can avoid stagnation and people can truly learn (Mill, p. 35). They must be able to see both sides of the argument and the ideas must be allowed to clash.
A key part of Mill’s thesis is his support of the freedom of expression. Mill saw the freedom of expression not only as a basic right of the individual save when causing harm to others but also as a vital part of the development and “mental well-being” of society. Mill provides many arguments to support this idea.
Of this first of Mill’s arguments is that the opinion that the society may be trying to keep the individual from expressing may be true. On these grounds Mill argues that there are none fit to judge whether the opinion is indeed true or not as any judge would be fallible especially as there is no absolute certainty (Mill, p. 16). The second of Mill’s arguments is that even if the opinion may not be wholly true to silence it would be folly as almost every opinion contains some portion of truth. Mill goes on to note that most likely both sides of any argument generally only contain a portion of the truth and that it is only by bringing these two ideas together that the full truth can be found, a balance must be found between the ideas (Mill, p. 35). The ideas must clash and in this clashing the synthesis between them will be found.
To further expand upon why the freedom of expression and opinion is important in these two areas, Mill notes that in order truly learn and find truth that one must hear the two sides from a person who truly believes in them. To hear them from anybody else wouldn’t do the arguments justice. It is only through argumentation and discussion that the truth can be found and this cannot be achieved when individuality of expression is persecuted. Unless this is achieved then society will suffer not only because truths will be lost but because ways of learning will be lost. With loss of truth and of learning comes stagnation and lack of innovation and thereby lack of exceptional individuals and actually a loss of individuality in itself. As Mill states “genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.” Without genius, without innovation and with nothing more than custom which comes from assimilation the society and the people lose their purpose and the civilization may as well die out (Mill, p. 62). In a place where expression is limited, such as Mill references in China, individuality is lost due to assimilation, with assimilation the individual allows the world to choose their road in life and eventually loses their worth as a human (Mill, p. 56). People must be allowed to be free to develop their ideas and the individuality and in this they must be have that key freedom of expression, in both thought and action.
Mill continues on in other arguments by stating that even if an opinion is put through conflict with other ideas that it will be treated with bias depending on whether it is the opinion of the majority or the minority. Furthermore, without the freedom of expression the ideas could be lost or could begin to lose their worth (Mill, p. 50). Without discussion the ideas are forgotten and furthermore lose their meaning and no longer convey the ideas they originally did. Effectively, without one idea the other loses worth, without bad the idea of good loses value.
Mill’s opinions on the development of “free speech areas” on campuses in order to restrict public expression would be negative. Mill notes that “human beings should be free to form and to express their opinions without reserve (Mill, p. 53).” With this in mind the public should be free to voice their opinions wherever they desire, indeed, “without reserve.” In this aspect the free speech area would serve to limit freedom of expression by confining it to a given area and forcing the opinions into subjugation throughout the general public. Beyond this, it is the general public that is actually in need of the various opinions in order to avoid complete assimilation and in order to maintain mental well-being. By confining free speech society limits the amount of people that could learn from the confined ideas and thereby limits society’s potential to create rounded individuals who have heard both sides of the argument. In this Mill would disagree with the implementation of free speech areas on the grounds that they impede the mental growth of society and limit the freedoms of the individual even when they aren’t hurting anybody.
While the free speech area may limit where ideas may be perpetuated there is a benefit in having this area. In a society where the majority rules and can force opinions into subjugation a place where a person is guaranteed to a right to their opinion and its expression is useful. In this the minority opinions would always have a place to be heard and the truth a place to develop. The opinions of individuals which may possess truth that the majority opinions fail to encompass are given a place and in this these ideas are guaranteed survival. Those that have the desire to learn and to develop their opinions by hearing the opposing side from one who truly believes would have a place to go and thus learning would be made possible. In this, while individuals are limited, they are still given their liberties and thus the area is a positive thing.