On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I recently saw on social media a professor of philosophy, in this case a partisan of the political left, deny that there was more than one legitimate side to a contentious question of ethics and political policy. In fact, she claimed, the idea that there even could be two or more sides was an opportunistic fiction invented by her conservative enemies. Around the same time, I heard an intellectual of the political right use the name “John Stuart Mill” as a metonym for what she regards as the shallow libertinage of liberal morality, which leads to social atomization, not to mention ambient sexual corruption.
Much of the classic literature of Victorian England—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or drama—remains relevant and even topical today, since Victorian writers were often the first to address controversies in their modern form that remain unsettled: capitalism vs. socialism in economics, liberalism vs. conservatism in culture and politics, science vs. religion in public life, the role of the arts and humanities in a technological society, the ethics and evils of empire, and the question of sex and gender in modernity. Few of the period’s nonfiction classics speak as vividly to the present as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a slim treatise of 1859 whose thesis is as simply stated as it is endlessly complex in its application:
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others
A ringing slogan—or as ringing as Mill gets in his lawyerly prose—but then what is a “civilised” community? what counts as “harm”? and for that matter, what constitutes “power”? Mill answers these questions and more, albeit some of them indirectly, and we won’t always be persuaded by the answers. But the power of On Liberty in the present, a period in which the partisans of all political creeds (but especially liberals) have largely abandoned any substantial commitment to freedom of speech, is to hear Mill cite all the contemporary arguments against free speech, the ones that we delude ourselves are peculiar to our own moment of social media and identity politics, and handily refute them.
But before quoting Mill against today’s liberals, let me first dispatch the conservative charge that Mill is a reductionist let-it-all-hang-out libertine who presages sex education in preschool and the Tinder/OnlyFans techno-apocalypse where contemporary eros has gone to die. It’s true that Mill defends eccentricity for its own sake, as a social good by which society allows experimental styles of life on the grounds that any one of these may produce the kinds of cultural and social advancement that always emerges from strange individuals (like Jesus Christ) and obscure sects (like his followers). Likewise, Mill was an ahead-of-his-time feminist (see his later book, The Subjection of Women) who didn’t place much faith in conventional gender roles and conventional marriage. These convictions were nurtured by his own relationship with Harriet Taylor, a married woman who could not in that period obtain a divorce from a husband she no longer loved to be with Mill. (He did eventually marry Harriet, however. In the legendarily uxorious dedication to On Liberty, written after her death, he credits her with the ideas expressed in the book.) Mill was a liberal, without doubt. We can legitimately extrapolate from his principles applications he might not have imagined. Gay marriage, for example, seems like a highly Millian idea to me, even if it would not have occurred to the Victorian writer himself.
But Mill’s real intellectual life famously began when he rejected exactly the kind of shallow liberalism of which conservatives continue to complain. He was raised by his father to become a model utilitarian intellectual, educated with extraordinary rigor (reading Thucydides in Greek at age eight and like), and groomed for a career in radical politics premised on furnishing the greatest good for the greatest number without reference to the moral complications involved.
This airless childhood and adolescence caused a mental and moral crisis for Mill in his 20s when he realized that he had no real emotional connection to the politics he promoted. The depression only lifted when he began to read Romantic poetry—Wordsworth was crucial—and realized that the cultivation of the emotions, the inner life, and the aesthetic sensibility are as important to human happiness as external reforms and improvements. Furthermore, the depth and unpredictability of this inner life means that unresolvable moral conflict will always have its share in politics. In On Liberty, he clarifies his philosophical allegiance:
I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.
If this sounds like Marx’s definition of man as “species being”—we are the only animal that has no settled nature because we can take ourselves as an object of our activity and therefore remake our natures endlessly—it’s because it has the same source in German Romanticism, later assimilated into the British tradition by writers like Coleridge and Carlyle. If such an anthropology, which rejects conservative concepts of a settled human nature and an unalterable natural law, implies reformist or revolutionary politics, it also entails aestheticism, the cultivation of humanity into a succession of lovely objets d’art. Mill echoes Hegel’s and Marx’s progressivism and also anticipates Arnold’s paean to culture and Pater’s to strangeness and beauty:
It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation
As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy instructs, Mill’s overall intellectual project was to synthesize the practical benefits of British empiricism and utilitarianism with the more epic vision of human nature and progress celebrated in German Romanticism—as well as in England’s poetic (as opposed to philosophical and scientific) tradition. Such a vision may emphasize human plasticity, but it is not reductionist or crudely materialist; it would not flatten human interests to animal needs and appetites but is fortified by an idealism totally alien to today’s sexual left, whose credo might be summed up in a sentence I once heard from one of its partisans: “It’s all just skin.” A cerebral Victorian, Mill is if anything closer to the opposite error, the one in which it’s all just mind.
But if Mill is in no danger of libertinage, he also sees the limit of asceticism. Anticipating the Arnold of Culture and Anarchy and (more startlingly) the Nietzsche of The Genealogy of Morals, Mill pushes the source of his anthropology further back than the Romantics, all the way to Classical Greece. He worries not only that Christianity has become a withered and etiolated moralism in respectable Victorian England, but that it always was this prudish and repressive creed in some respects, a reactionary ideology for the victims of pagan robustness, the revenge of the oppressed not only upon the strong but upon the very notion of strength. He calls, therefore, for a restitution of the Classical ethos of strength and nobility:
There is a Greek ideal of self-development, which the Platonic and Christian ideal of self-government blends with, but does not supersede. It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either
Though a democrat, opening opportunity to all, Mill was not exactly an egalitarian. He defends liberty because he thinks it will allow for the emergence of proper elites in an open and usefully trying contest, rather than letting improper elites use repression to shield themselves from competition.
Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people—less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.
And here, before arriving at his defense of free speech, we must confront this book’s most notorious passage, the one that reminds us that our philosopher worked all his adult life for the East India Company: a dictum essentially limiting the freedom he champions to Europeans.
Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.
Couple this with several other passages in the book judging “the East” to be under the despotism of “custom,” and I’m sure we’re ready to tear down some Mill statues, if any can be found. This would, however, be too hasty, not to mention hypocritical.
For one thing, Mill possesses no “racial” concepts that I can find; his idea of “man as a progressive being,” quoted above, would almost rule it out by definition. The East-West balanced despotisms of Charlemagne and Akbar imply fundamental equality. He asserts that India, China, and the Arab world were once immeasurably more civilized than Europe, especially the Northern Europe from which he writes, but that they declined and became Europe’s prey precisely because they did not permit enough freedom to grant their cultures continued genius and flexibility. He worries that the same is happening in England—to prevent this is his very motive in writing the book—and never suggests that Eastern cultures cannot rise again to or beyond their former heights.
His stricture is no doubt rudely phrased by current standards, but few anti-colonial nationalist leaders pragmatically disagreed with it, as they hastened to create both technological and political infrastructure that would sustain independent modern nations. Moreover, as long as liberals in the west continue to measure other countries—Russia, for example, or China—by their level of democracy, i.e., modern institutions preserving the capacity for “free and equal discussion,” they have no cause to complain of Mill’s remark, since their own practices imply their effective agreement with it. (One reason liberals have made themselves so obnoxious over the last generation is exactly this self-righteous disavowal of foundational principles they continue to act upon.)
And, though the word is never used, “infrastructure” is a key idea for On Liberty, since Mill intends free speech to be understood as a social and intellectual technology through which violence can be sublimated into argument, absolutism into compromise. In a pluralistic society—one, for instance, where different individuals and groups hold different religious opinions—the prevention of open conflict is important to all except those who most want to spread the good news by force. A modern society also tends toward the increasing differentiation of class and status groups, whose interests—unless one is a revolutionary socialist or a total laissez-faire capitalist—must be carefully balanced lest society splinter into factionalism or fall under the sway of one section.
Allowing the citizenry to feel that its diverse perspectives may be shared and heard is a crucial tool that prevents any one class or sect or individual from feeling that they must resort to violence to express their convictions or obtain social recognition. Mill stresses the free speech is not simply freedom for government interference; this is only the bare minimum. Almost more important is protection from economic consequence—
In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.
—and from the crushing weight of social consensus. Mill believes that the “tyranny of the majority” expressed through public opinion is as dangerous as government overreach. This is why he wishes to see at least some Classical values prevail over Christian ones in modern society, especially over the pious, moralistic, and anti-intellectual puritan style of Christianity so dominant in Britain and the U.S. from the 17th century forward. The public must be taught to tolerate a wide range of attitudes from their fellow citizens if the society is to avail itself of free speech’s benefits.
What are the benefits of free speech, besides the aforementioned sublimation of physical violence into argument? First, Mill argues that all persons and institutions are fallible; none possess the whole truth, and many possess pieces of it. To restrict speech, however, especially political or intellectual speech, is to claim that one does have the whole truth and is in no need of correction or supplementation. By permitting free speech, on the other hand, a society raises its chances of discovering more of the truth and can therefore more readily correct its errors. Today’s liberal restrictionists of so-called “misinformation”—an incoherent concept meaning, in practice, any facts or ideas that differ from the ever-shifting party line of approved experts—should heed this warning, lest they cut off their road to reality by shutting down anyone who sees the world differently, including those who might see it more clearly.
Second, as I alluded to above when discussing Mill’s anthropology, he argues that social progress requires free speech, since new ideas often come from the least expected quarters and are often greeted with suspicion and punishment. Third, Mill takes for granted that a modern capitalist society will be politically pluralist, and that free speech is therefore necessary to maintain a balance of partisan, ideological, and class interests so that no one group captures the state:
In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away.
How is the infrastructure of free speech to be erected and sustained? Through a proper education, one in which students are allowed to hear a diversity of views from those who hold them. Citing precedents in intellectual history from the Platonic dialogues (in which philosophy is conducted as an argument between multiple personae) to the legal practice of Cicero (who learned the opposing counsel’s case better than his own) to the process of Catholic canonization (which invites the “devil’s advocate” to speak against the candidate for sainthood), Mill argues that students must be prepared to defend their own positions against counterarguments they themselves are able to reconstruct from the inside: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” Otherwise, people will hold even their own opinions lazily, unfeelingly, and without really knowing why—a state of intellectual torpor that bodes ill for the polity.
Mill is unimpressed with arguments for restricting intemperate speech—what we might now label “harassment” or “hate speech”—since he thinks such standards will be applied unevenly, with powerful people heaping endless abuse on their social inferiors even as they cry offense any time they’re challenged by dissidents from below—which is how, for example, powerful politicians and journalists behave on social media today, proving his point. Mill gives a memorable example of speech he would limit: anti-capitalists in the act of preaching their doctrines before a rioting mob.
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.
While he probably means to exclude incitement to violence from the free speech concept, reasonably enough, it is an odd example in that it bans political speech the moment it might be put into action. Here both far-left and far-right critics are correct to observe that liberalism halts its doctrine of freedom just before anyone pleads the freedom to challenge liberalism itself at its root; therefore, it is, we might say, the intolerance of the tolerant.
Nevertheless, we would be naive to dismiss Mill’s conviction that free speech replaces violence as the means of social dispute and the mechanism of social change. Our currently hegemonic liberals today, the ones who command institutions like the media and higher education, dismiss this idea at their peril. They have come to believe the opposite—that free speech itself incites violence—largely because they’ve drunken an indigestible brew of technocratic expert-class prejudices against the unwashed masses and Marxist and fascist post-1968 High Theory doctrines about the “constitution of the subject by discourse” (i.e., we don’t speak language as rational agents, but language speaks us as a form of ideological hegemony and social control). They should be reminded of their true intellectual heritage, the best of which is found in Mill’s eminently potable synthesis of Enlightenment with Romanticism, before it’s too late. Cut people off from the means of expression, and you may hear not peaceable silence but the clamor of the excluded as they march toward your door.