Reflections on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of political opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chapter One.

It can be said of only a very few texts that they are touchstones for important discussions across many generations. John Stuart Mill produced such a text in 1859, and friends of freedom would do well to celebrate the sesquicentennial of On Liberty. At a time when challenges to human rights and freedom of expression continue around the world, the message of this relatively short work remains a clarion-call for liberty and the supreme dignity of the individual. Mill himself was insightful and modest enough to realise that the 19th century liberalism he virtually incarnated was but a progressive stepping-stone to a future in which, he hoped, the dignity and liberty of the individual citizen would develop to new heights. For all of its at times long-winded exposition and brevity of justification on certain key points, its style is consistently clear and even moving. Most importantly, its ideas reverberate still.

The background to On Liberty is best understood in the context of Victorian social and intellectual history, as well as Mill’s eccentric upbringing. Victorian Britain was a society in which opinion was sharply divided on domestic topics such as the extension of the franchise beyond the category of propertied men to the entire population (of men and yes, women), the relation between religion and politics, and educational reform. As a philosopher, political editor, and MP in the 1860s, Mill consistently advocated what he took to be the cause of freedom. This entailed, he believed, the substitution of educational qualifications for those of property for the right to vote, the enfranchisement of women, and the provision of a wider range of options for primary and secondary school education; all of this in the cause of a better educated and freer citizenry. Mill saw himself clearly as carrying the torch of European liberalism that had been handed down to him by two thinkers: Wilhelm Humboldt of Prussia and France’s Alexis de Tocqueville. Their commitment to freedom in the face of reactionary autocracy on the Continent was a key inspiration for On Liberty, in addition to his own political struggles and commitments. Humboldt’s belief that liberalism and self-development go hand in hand, as well as de Tocqueville’s wariness of mass conformity resonate throughout the text.

Mill was furthermore a philosophical prodigy, infamously and sternly tutored by his distinguished father, James Mill, and his godfather Jeremy Bentham. The excessive control and manipulation that he details in his celebrated Autobiography caused him a nervous breakdown as a young man, and left him with a profound appreciation of the importance of individual liberty and self-expression. Rather than seeing human beings as something to be perfected by the state, he saw, in true liberal form, the need for the individual to be defended against excessive encroachments of the state. This did not lead him to reject the possibility of progress—on the contrary, he saw that the need for human development is a constant across both historical and cultural lines. As an ideal, he offers at the end of On Liberty the traditional New England wards and town hall assemblies, a kind of communal participatory democracy bound only by the most general of national laws.

Whatever liberal model might triumph, Mill saw the real threat to freedom as the forgetting or denial of the supreme value of the reflective individual over the collective. This he wisely saw as the common feature of all forms of dogmatism, bigotry, and overly perfectionistic views. His commitment to the liberty of the individual was also in keeping with his methodological individualism in social science, according to which group categories such as the state or nation are to be seen purely as the sum of many parts, with no transcendental power. The avoidance of the Procrustean bed of collectivism and autocracy in favour of the encouragement of human development through education, democratic debate and limited state intervention is the key challenge addressed in On Liberty.

In On Liberty, Mill depicted the ideal human life as maximally free in its choices, truthful and tolerant in its attitudes and individualistic, even to the point of eccentricity. So what can we learn from all of this in an era of concerns about democracy and civil liberties, religious tensions around the world and at home, and persistent conformity? A great deal, I would say.

Firstly, let us acknowledge that it is likely that a very high proportion of citizens of democratic countries, like Mill, accept a broadly liberal conception of the individual citizen. By ‘liberal’ I mean a perspective in politics that affirms the rights and dignity of the individual against excessive state encroachments. That we define the role and limits of the state variably is ultimately a debate within liberalism as opposed to the consideration of other options such as totalitarianism or theocracy. In that sense, it is a supreme tribute to the congeniality of On Liberty’s conception of the citizen that it is only among extremist political minorities and radical fundamentalists that one encounters militant opposition to Mill’s sketch of the value of the individual. We are almost all, in a sense, Mill’s children, even though we retain important disagreements on state intervention with reference to issues such as health care, national security and corporate regulation. And although Mill’s celebration of individualism and eccentricity may rankle some, we tend to prefer it to abject conformity, and with good reason.

It is on this last point, the threat of conformity, that Mill strikes a prophetic note. Influenced by Tocqueville’s notion of the ‘tyranny of the majority’, he warns us to beware of the power of majorities over unpopular and dissident minorities, even in advanced democratic societies. He furthermore cautions us astutely that custom is only to be respected after critical scrutiny, and slavish complacency may well be the death-blow of individual liberty, no matter how democratic our institutions. He stresses continually that we cannot afford to be complacent in the face of a natural tendency towards fitting in and doing the done thing, because in so doing we forget the need for an honourable opposition to keep us on our intellectual toes, and to remind us of the values of critical thinking and tolerance. Such complacency will also lead to the stifling of genuinely creative individuals who are the true motor of progressive change—not the state.

Furthermore, mass culture, as he already noted long before celebrity culture, can lead to dreary uniformity, and the loss of the dynamic give and take of genuinely democratic debate and culture. Contemporary critics of the worst inanities of reality TV. can take inspiration from Mill’s claim in Chapter Three that:

The circumstances which surround different classes and individuals, and shape their characters, are daily becoming more assimilated….they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects….

Mill feared that abject conformity can occur by a natural social process of complacency and cultural adaptation, without an autocracy or a tyrant to impose it. Such a ‘soft despotism’ (the term is Tocqueville’s), he thought, can prove as great a threat to the freedom of the individual as the repressive state. We, who have witnessed the enormous toll of twentieth century totalitarianism would do well to be wary of a blurring of the distinction between democratic society and tyranny. Nonetheless, we must not be complacent about subtle threats to freedom from within even the most open of societies.

When did Mill think that the state can intervene to limit freedom of expression? Only when what has come to be known as the ‘harm principle’ is violated. Your freedom ends where my rights begin, and vice versa. This has come to be seen as a core principle of liberalism, without which the entire edifice of modern democratic society and its attendant individual rights and freedoms must collapse. He was arguably narrow on the precise applications of this view, suggesting that unless a direct incitement to violence along the lines of a lynch mob is involved, it is best to allow opinions, however noxious, to circulate freely. In such cases, individual citizens thus remain free to express their disapproval in the strongest possible terms, but the state ought not to intervene through force of law ‘short of injury to others’. This seems clear enough in his own example of a potential riot outside the home of a member of a disliked group (Corn dealers were his example in Chapter Three), but may not cover adequately injury caused by cases of slander and incitement to group hatred, such as Holocaust denial and the promotion of terrorism.

Furthermore, Mill’s related belief that even countering false opinions is a valuable exercise in logical debate may have its limits in dealing with such extreme cases. Some views are so clearly pernicious and illiberal that at the very least, their unimpeded circulation can be seen as a threat to liberalism itself. In an era when we are confronted with ongoing threats from fanatical extremists and recalcitrant authoritarians, defenders of liberty cannot afford to be too complacent about the truth prevailing in the end, as Mill believed it likely would. In our public and business dealings, we accept wisely the need for standards and laws regulating truth in many areas. These include upholding transparency in bargaining, as well as advertising standards, and laws against slander and fraud. Also, the legitimate persistence of laws in liberal democracies related to sedition and conspiracy are an institutional testament to the real need for a liberalism that can defend itself against both external and internal threats. Balancing this with the equally real need to defend civil liberties at home and abroad will require great resolve and sensitivity. For all of its limitations, On Liberty remains one of the best touchstones for this important philosophical debate.

Eric B. Litwack is a philosopher on the faculty of Queen’s University’s Bader International Study Centre, in East Sussex. His book Wittgenstein and Value: The Quest for Meaning was published earlier this year by Continuum.

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