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Mill Matters Mightily

by Rick Lewis

In this year’s first issue of Philosophy Now, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. In the final issue of the year, we look at another book published in the same year, 1859. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill is much shorter but has had nearly as great and long-lasting effect on political thought as Darwin’s book had on biology. It is still the book people reach for when they want to protest against infringements of personal freedom.

Mill’s ‘dangerous idea’ is that individuals should be able to do absolutely anything they like, so long as they don’t harm other people in the process. The idea horrified many in Mill’s own time, and would still horrify some folk today, except that familiarity has dulled its shock value, because it goes against some widely-held ideas about politics, morality and religion. Like the Communist Manifesto published eleven years earlier, the book is an impassioned appeal for a particular form of society; unlike that book it is also a detailed set of philosophical arguments. Some of the central ideas, which Helen McCabe describes in her article, became widely accepted even by many opponents of political individualism, who felt the need to show that their own social reforms were at least compatible with Mill’s arguments.

While I was at university there were attempts by the students’ union to ban some controversial visiting speakers. I remember reading an article which blasted the college authorities for deploying what it called the ‘naive free speech argument’ – that universities should support free expression of all viewpoints. Puzzled as to why support for free speech should be ‘naive’, I bought a copy of On Liberty – my first-ever philosophy book. I remember being quite shocked by the intricacy of its arguments. Mill may be right or he may be wrong, but one thing he isn’t is naive. One point he makes in defence of free speech is that even a doctrine which we think is definitely true will eventually become a dead dogma if it goes unchallenged either because of universal acceptance or because opposing views are suppressed. Even those who nominally accept it will no longer feel much conviction about it. Ironically, Mill’s own doctrine may have fallen into this trap, a victim of its own success. We are so used to hearing (and repeating) that free speech is a good thing that we’re in danger of forgetting the powerful arguments which underpin it; and that presents us with a problem when we are faced by challenges to free speech, or by difficult marginal cases. This is one reason why it is good to critically re-examine Mill on this anniversary – which is what some of our contributors have set out to do.

Other articles here look at what the book has to tell us about modern life. As with any true classic On Liberty never really loses its relevance. Questions about the toleration of unpopular views recur in every generation. For instance, should public broadcasters allocate air-time to neo-fascists? Should there be laws (as there already are in Germany) prohibiting people from denying the Holocaust? Or, to take a different example, what about the teenage girl recently prosecuted for writing (very bad) poetry about her admiration for Jihadist terrorists? What opinions would you, personally, ban from public discourse? If you think some opinions should under some circumstances be banned, you owe it to yourself to weigh your reasons against the arguments in Mill’s little book.

Mill wanted us to defend the freedom of the individual against what he saw as the twin tyrannies of government legislation and public opinion. So how are we doing now, 150 years down the line? Not so well. Public opinion has maybe grown more tolerant in some respects, but our lives are more heavily regulated than ever. Democracy triumphantly survived the totalitarian challenges of the 20th century but governments seem keener than ever to interfere in our activities. Perhaps in a secular age, the state is tempted to fill the void left by God, watching over our every move, to protect us lest we should fall into harm and to punish us if we go astray. Unless we are sure the politicians have the infinite wisdom and benevolence appropriate to this new role, we should be very concerned.

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