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The Analysis of John Stuart Mill’s Essay "On Liberty"

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In John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty”, he explores the question of whether society has a right to suppress an individual’s expression and opinions. Mill’s states, “if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (Mill, 1869). Mill believes that such a use in power is unconstitutional and that individuals should be free to express any opinions they wish, even if these opinions may be perceived as controversial or ridiculous.

John Stuart Mill recognized that society tends to encourage conformity whether it is through laws the government enforces or if it is through societal pressure. This is a key part in his argument since if a person’s opinion does not harm someone in any way, shape, or form they have no reason to silence these harmless views of another. Mill’s first argument in the defence of free speech is that we simply cannot always know if the opinion we are trying to suppress is wrong. Throughout history, it has been shown that unpopular or heretical views are true or at least a progression towards a greater truth.

A notable example would be Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution which challenged traditional beliefs set by the catholic church on how we were created. This brings into perspective that we cannot always know a controversial view is right or wrong until it is brought into the light of discussion and debate. Mill states, “To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” (Mill, 1869).

Mill is saying the idea of someone being justified in silencing an opinion because they feel their position is correct is assuming the person is incapable of making mistakes. If no violence is instigated, we are unjustified in suppressing unpopular ideas and we have no right to decide for other people what they may or may not be exposed to. Mill address some possible criticisms like the idea that the government has a duty to suppress certain ideas that are harmful to the well being of society, this is where hate speech comes in. Mill argued that this comes from a place of the assumed infallibility of judgement. For instance, what exactly is the appropriate definition of hate speech to be written into law and the proper level of suppression on freedom of speech? Mill thought there was no line to be drawn in any kind of speech. He didn’t think that there shouldn’t be limits placed on the expression and spreading of ideas, but he did believe that there should be a line called at a point to action.

Mill (1869) writes: 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 makes it apparent that there is a clear difference between someone writing an opinion piece about corn dealers and how they are starving the poor, and that same person standing before a group of angry poor people and telling them to grab their pitchforks. One is voicing an opinion no matter how wrong or ignorant it might be and the other is a call to immediate action with the intent to cause harm.

Limiting words of speech has nothing to do with the words or ideas being expressed and more to do with the immediate likelihood of physical violence. In my opinion, the line that Mill draws is consistent with his views that the law should only intervene in situations where it is to protect people from harm. Limiting speech tends to encourage the same reactionary movements it tries to prevent. Another criticism Mill deals with is that because we no longer we put people to death for controversial ideas, then the truth can never truly be extinguished today with the internet we can find almost anything that we want about anything. This may be a reason to suggest that to suppress free speech is futile therefore why even attempt in the first place. Mill also recognized that even though we don’t put people to death anymore for heretical views, legal punishment and societal pressure, in general, have the effect of muffling speech.

Contacting someone’s employer to get them fired, doxing someone’s private information, and public shaming of people on social media over differences of opinion can create a world where people think twice before expressing any ideas. I believe that we have seen this rise of this reactionary populism where for a long time those with liberal views encouraged an environment of ironic intolerance for any ideas outside of their own beliefs, which far from changing minds simply muffled voices for public shaming causing a dogmatic intellectual environment. I believe what we are seeing now with the rise in right-wing populism is that a lot of the ironic intolerance from certain people on the left has encouraged people on different views to no longer speak openly about them due to this culture of intellectual intolerance. You cannot change someone’s mind if you don’t know what their position is on an issue. So by censoring minority opinions the majority is making an environment where only certain ideas are valid, which is not fair.

Mill’s second argument is that if an idea is not challenged people will not fully understand why they believe in that idea, even if the opinion is true. This is important because if we don’t know why we believe in what we believe then we are just as likely to believe in bad ideas as we do good ones. Mill’s observation that belief becomes dead dogmas when go unchallenged is an important one. This is due to a false belief that goes unchallenged is just as likely to become a dead dogma as a true belief and therefore the only way to keep the truth alive is to subject it to challenge. All it can take is for one new idea or one new piece of evidence to completely change what was previously perceived to be true.

The main criticism to this argument is that if someone is taught the grounds of a belief similar how they are taught basic math before learning complex equations then they are not simply reciting a dogma, but have an understanding why they believe what they believe. Mill’s defence is that unlike mathematical equations which are true or false, black in white terms that ideas are more complex than that. We should understand opposing views as well as our own views, so we can prove our opinions to be true with absolute certainty. This makes it more apparent that the majority should not silence any minority opinions if they are not willing to deal with arguments challenging their own beliefs.

Mill’s third argument is that the meaning behind a belief may be lost if it isn’t kept alive by opinions that don’t challenge it. John Stuart noticed this tendency in Christianity where certain beliefs have been protected from criticism for so long that most Christians do not know the meaning behind their beliefs. Another example would be if we say we are against child labour then we must work hard to stop child labour in every aspect, otherwise people may just ignore the rational importance behind the idea of stopping child labour. Mill thought to allow beliefs to be challenged rather than protected forced people to search for the meaning behind their own beliefs. If the majority is not well educated in what they believe they should not silence any unpopular views since they do not understand what they believe in.

The fourth argument Mill delivers is that very often it is not as simple as one view being correct and an opposing view being incorrect, but rather the truth lies somewhere in between. Mill believed that many views held as popular truth contained only partial truth. Mill stated that when we hear an opinion we assume its either right or wrong. This explains why some people due to their assumed infallibility silence those who have opinions that differ from theirs. We can only understand the full truth when we allow different opinions to pave the way for the full truth to emerge. A good example of this would fall into politics wherein a healthy political state we have two parties with opposing views. This relates to our own political system in Canada where we have the liberal party who believe in progression and change, and on the other side we have the conservatives who strive for order and stability.

In conclusion, John Stuart Mill recognized that society tends to encourage conformity whether it is through laws the government enforces or if it is through societal pressure. If a person’s opinion does cause any form of harm to another then they have no reason to silence their views. Freedom of speech is not just about whether the government censors you, it is a philosophical principle.

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The Analysis Of John Stuart Mill’S Essay “On Liberty”. (2020, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-analysis-of-john-stuart-mills-essay-on-liberty/
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The Analysis Of John Stuart Mill’S Essay “On Liberty” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 May 19 [cited 2022 May 23]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-analysis-of-john-stuart-mills-essay-on-liberty/
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