John Stuart Mill: The Freedom to Make & Express Opinions

Why Freedom is so Important for Everyday Life

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty addresses a crucial question to living in a polity: can the rulers in place restrict your freedom in exchange for the collective good?

Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ answers this question directly, stating that we should be allowed to do something unless we are doing harm to others.

I believe that principle is invaluable for any polity today.

As an empiricist, Mill values pluralism or what he calls the “experiments of living” because of the value different individuals provide to one another in any given polity.

For Mill, individuals are “free to form opinions” as they wish and the best way to do this is to have access to those opinions. Mill’s view of liberty takes into account the natural fallibility humans have both in their views and actions. Therefore, he sees that any one person, wherever they may find themselves, should not have the right to impose their views on others due to the very serious likelihood of them being wrong.

Similarly, his justification of what we may think of as ‘hate speech’ today seems well-defended since our terms change according to the wants and needs of the populace of the time.

To reiterate, Mill’s “experiments of living” are in complete alignment with his understanding of freedom until harm is done to others. For Mill, if an experiment of living would cause harm, then we ought to impose punishment and infringe freedom. If not, then we ought to provide the liberty for citizens to experience that life.

Mill’s Free Development of Individuality

In accordance with Mill’s understanding of experiments of living, he believes in the value of the individual. As a classical liberal, Mill viewed “the free development of individuality” as an intrinsic good that a just polity should provide to its citizens.

Mill firmly believes that the encouragement of individuality is connected to the flourishing of original thought.

It is only by allowing for pluralism, that ideas become challenged and sharpened by outside input. Otherwise, it is far too likely for unchallenged dogma to arise in society and for free speech to be suppressed.

Mill believes that if we were not to allow this flourishing of individuality and original thought, citizens would merely copy each other and stifle ideological progress. He writes that no one imagines “excellence in conduct” as that which is only to “copy one another.” Instead, when we imagine exceptional progress, we picture originality.

Mill firmly believes that the encouragement of individuality is connected to the flourishing of original thought.

The Maturity of Our Faculties

Of course, one objection might be that it is impossible not to indoctrinate children or even mature citizens via education. In the end, we are all products of our environments to a certain extent.

Mill would respond that due to the “maturity of [our] faculties,” we should be allowed to “use” and “interpret” human experience as we wish to.

Without hearing free thought and witnessing diverse experience, citizens are inadvertently deprived of their freedom to choose a way of life. Therefore, if we are brought up in one way of life, yet have not been given any other option, we have stifled our options for liberty.

In the words of Mill, anyone who performs actions because they are widely accepted, “makes no choice” at all.

As an individual, this person is not training his rational faculties in the interest of his right to diversity of thought. In fact, Mill argues that our reason is “weakened” by not having a wide array of viewpoints to choose from.

That is all to say that Mill’s understanding of human nature is not of a “machine,” but rather a “tree” — it requires nurturing, slow growth, and a good environment.

The only way for this tree to be fruitful is if it is given an opportunity to use its faculties and uproot itself if need be. The experiments of living are necessary for a good polity.

This short blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:

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