John Stuart Mill: a thinker for our time

by frankbeswick

The nineteenth century philosopher was an arch-exponent of freedom of speech and choice of lifestyles.

Free speech is under threat in modern society. Fundamentalists and extremists threaten and sometimes murder those who express views with which they disagree, but they have always been thus and ever will be. However, an insidious threat is the tendency of certain people to take offence at views with which they disagree and demand that the speaker be prosecuted under legislation against hate crime merely for expressing a view. J.S. Mill is the great apostle of liberty, and his works are a great bulwark of personal liberty of conscience and the right to speak one's mind without legal or social threat.

Image courtesy of Krasimera Nevenova

Mill [1806-1873]

You either love Mill or hate him. Marx, a near contemporary of Mill, was in the latter group, for a chasm of thought separated the two men. Marx, the collectivist who saw personal liberty as an impediment to revolution, differed from the individualist Mill, who regarded it as the essence of dignified living. Yet Mill would have sat uneasily in any political party today. He was a traditional liberal devoted to freedom, who sometimes called himself a socialist, though Socialism in Mill's time was a concept wider than it is now, but he ended his career in the Conservative party. A devoted supporter of women's equality, he was an early advocate of votes for women. In some ways my support for Mill is strange, as I am a religious believer, while he was an atheist, but we can find good in those with whom we disagree, and there was much good in J.S.Mill. I, like Mill, am with all those  being persecuted for their beliefs or witch-hunted for lifestyles that do not conform to custom, majority practice or the values of a dominant class. In the Middle Ages I would not have been hunting witches, but hiding them.

The key to Mill's political thought is the harm principle, which is the foundation of his political ethics. The principle is as follows; the only justification for interfering with the liberty of another person is to prevent harm to others. This is a profoundly egalitarian statement, because it insists that people can speak as they wish and live as they wish, as long as they do not harm another person. He limited this right to adults, for he realized that children had to be subjected to restraint, and he was aware that there are adults who need controlling for their own good, but in general Mill believed that in normal circumstances most adults should be free to live and act as they wished. 

Now, Mill was aware of the excuses made by illiberal people, who want to interfere with others' liberty. The first is the common modern excuse, offence. I find your views offensive so I complain to the police. Mill would have no truck with this, as he believed that offence was not harm. That I dislike a person's views is not evidence that I am harmed in any way. Nor would Mill accept arguments that a view might cause harm and therefore should be banned, an  argument beloved of authoritarians and persecutors throughout history. He would reply that the harm has to be demonstrated and measurable, not merely possible and distant. 

It would be wrong to think that Mill believed there should be no constraints at all on free speech. He gives the example of someone shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre, when there is none, which causes fear and threat to life from stampede, when no such threat is present. He also says that calling corn dealers criminals when an angry mob is at their doors is not acceptable, as situations might get out of control. He was not arguing for incitement, and would have no truck with bullying of any kind, but he believed that the expression of arguments and views should be unimpeded by law or social pressure.

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Relying on argument rather than law or social pressure..

Let us imagine that Mill were to face the issue of holocaust denial. This is banned in certain countries, and there are people eager to ban it in Britain, though it remains legal. Holocaust denial is utter folly, the mark of people in denial about reality. But what would Mill say?

Firstly, Mill would have hated Nazism, and as a supporter of the death penalty he would have had no compunction about the execution of Nazis, or indeed about the legal execution of the Nazi party. But he believed that ideas are better expressed openly and discussed rather than suppressed. Mill's ethical philosophy, which is called Rule Utilitarianism, rests on the belief that as a rule individual liberty produces socially beneficial results. 

Argument has positive results, he thinks, because if we are not challenged by arguments our beliefs become stale and we forget the grounds for holding them. Moreover, beliefs become stronger by our arguing for them, as we refine our argumentative and thinking skills by intellectual competition. If there are any weaknesses in our thought argument enables us to become aware of them and refine them, eradicating weaknesses  in understanding. 

The great difference on free speech is between those who argue that knowledge and speech should be suppressed, lest they do harm and those who argue that they should be as widely disseminated as possible, so that they can do good. Mill confidently supports the positive views, and he Insists that views, however odious, should be aired and discussed so that their errors can be exposed. Thus Mill would argue that holocaust denial should be no crime, for he would want its exposure as crass idiocy. Jo Harrington's clashes with a holocaust denier on Wizzley are a perfect example of Mill's vision in practice, the wise challenging the misguided.


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What Would Mill Think of Political Correctness.

He would detest it.Let's take an example. A Christian preacher in Manchester was asked by two gay teenagers whether homosexuality was a sin. He said it was and was verbally abused for his views. The teenagers phoned the police, accused him of homophobic speech. and the police arrested him. He  was allegedly kept overnight without water or access to medication for his rheumatoid arthritis. The police did not bother to provide an evening meal. The preacher was released without charge next day,sued the police and received £13000 for wrongful arrest.The two abusive teenagers were not arrested, despite their committing a breach of the peace. 

Mill would support the teenagers right to be gay. He was in favour of personal liberty and so would support their liberty to act as they saw fit without imposing their views on anyone else. He supported experiments in living, which can only happen if individuals are free to conceive their own lifestyles and act on them without threat.  

But he would have supported the right of the preacher to criticize their lifestyle. Liberty for  Mill is not immunity from criticism. Our experiments in living can be criticized by others, who have a right to voice their criticisms. Here is where Mill would disagree vigorously with political correctness, for this movement seeks to use equality laws to suppress views which it dislikes. Mill would never suppress a view, but would argue against it. For Mill, no one's view is harm. It is not even offence. Argument against views is the way, the law is not. This does not mean that one is free to advocate murder, for that transgresses the harm principle and constitutes incitement. 

The liberty to live without tyranny was a vital part of Mill's philosophy. The obvious tyranny of someone like Hitler was odious to him, but so were more subtle forms of tyranny. He condemned the tyranny of the majority, which means public opinion, and the tyranny of custom. He would have condemned the tyranny of groups well-placed in society to voice their views and impose them upon others. 


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A great advantage to Mill's thoughts is that they expose some errors common in the modern age. Political correctness confuses tolerance with approval. The preacher was deemed intolerant merely for disagreeing. But tolerance is not approval. It exists when we accept the rights of those with whom we disagree, so tolerance, rather than meaning approval, implies disagreement and sometimes disapproval. 

Furthermore, Mill would have no truck with false accusations of prejudice. He never accused his opponents of anything, but merely disagreed with them in a civilized way. The antithesis to this is the politically correct practice of accusing those who disagree with them of prejudice. This is a version of the accusation commonly used by the left of bigotry. Those who disagree are routinely branded as bigots. Yet this use of accusations of prejudice and bigotry is itself a manifestation of these vices. As prejudice is making an unthinking judgment, to accuse a person of prejudice without examining whether their judgment is rational and well-informed is itself prejudice. There is more bigotry among those who brandish these terms than there is among their victims. 

Furthermore, reading Mill would enlighten people to the fact that there are different pathways through  rationality, each of which can be equally rational. Mill was not into accusations that all his opponents were irrational, but tackled arguments head on without accusations. His view is supported by the philosopher John Gray, writing in Gray's Anatomy, an anthology of his writings. Gray points out that there are two views of rationality, a Gallic view derived from French secular thought, and an English view derived from Locke,etc. The Gallic view insists that there is only one rational pathway and all other views are irrational, leading to its exponents brandishing accusations of bigotry and prejudice to their opponents. The alternative view is that rationality is a technique and that there can be different manifestations/forms of rationality and that differing views can be equally rational. Gray links political correctness with the Gallic view, but believes that the English is the correct way.   

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Mill is loved or hated. You might have gathered that I love him, for he advocates the kind of life that I want to live, a peaceful one in which I live and let live. I want the freedom to express my views, but not the freedom to intimidate or suppress those who disagree with me. But I do not want to be persecuted either. I want to be neither persecutor nor martyr; neither witch-hunter nor witch. 

There are deficiencies in Mill's political programme, as individualism, however charitable, cannot deal with all social problems. This deficiency has been eagerly grasped by Mill's opponents, but while we can accept that there are limitations in Mill's thought, his fundamental vision would produce a society in which all can be happy and free to live without persecution. That is a good thing.

Mill was an atheist; and I know that he had reservations about my church. But he was a tolerant man, and if I manage to make it to heaven, I would like to meet him there. 

Updated: 01/31/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/04/2016

What I love about Mill was his deep tolerance of others' opinions. Unlike the modern politically correct, who confuse tolerance with approval and agreement, Mill was capable of strongly disagreeing with you but completely respecting your liberty to live and believe according to your own conscience. A wise man!

frankbeswick on 03/03/2016

True, but there is a philosophical opinion that Mill was attempting to make a bridge between Utilitarianism and Liberalism, which he blended in the theory of Rule Utilitarianism. I believe that his greatest contribution was the harm principle and his promotion of liberty,because if we all abided by that principle, no person would be persecuted. His support for freedom of speech was a major contribution to political life and thought.

arthurchappell on 03/03/2016

He is best known for his Utilitarianism, the notion that life is about giving the greatest happiness to the greatest number possible

Mira on 06/17/2015

Good points. It's certainly a complicated issue.

frankbeswick on 06/17/2015

I would not call banning insults political correctness, as insults are not governed by free speech, which is aimed at the airing of views. However, there have been instances where individuals have been dismissed from jobs or arrested by incompetent, heavy handed police, merely for expressing an opinion that a member of a supposedly victim, minority group disliked. In classrooms I have on two occasions even been asked by children whether they were allowed to use the word black in their written work. I told them not to let anyone intimidate them and that their free speech could not be banned.

I have also worked in a town where white children told me that when they complained to police that they were being subject to racial abuse by some Asians, the police refused to respond on the grounds that blacks can't be racist.This is political correctness gone mad and it was resulting in serious harm to children.

Mira on 06/17/2015

Nice article, Frank! :) I think that asking people to be political correct often keeps them in a state of tolerance about issues without giving them the debate tools which would allow them to move from a stance of tolerance to one of approval. At the same time, I think political correctness does have its merits by not allowing people to air out terrible statements which often are beyond the scope of reason, and, therefore, hard to reason with.

frankbeswick on 06/17/2015

You are absolutely right in your analysis of the situation.

Guest on 06/16/2015

Wow, you have an excellent knowledge, writing ability and clarity. Wonderful piece about free speech. It is true that our free speech is put to test almost every day if you watch the news. Can't help but wonder what will be taken away next.....they allow certain people to say what they think; the rest is always dubbed as haters.

Thank you for sharing.

CruiseReady on 06/01/2015

Excellent piece, btw! (I meant to say that before)

CruiseReady on 06/01/2015

I did not know of Mill before, but, based on what you say of him, I certainly like him now! It seems his lessons, though "old," have yet to be learned by a large segment of society. How much nicer the world would be, if all those who consider themselves tolerant would actually practice tolerance!

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