Read with me: On Liberty, Part Two

In the last post in this read-along series, we looked at John Stuart Mill’s introduction to On Liberty. In his introduction, Mill laid out the framework for his argument (see Part One here). He introduced several important concepts, not least of which was the “harm principle”, and the need for the government to protect the minority from the “tyranny of the majority”. These themes are revisited in this chapter, on the importance of the freedom to hold opinions – any opinions – and the freedom to discuss them. A key criticism of Mill’s work to this point was his failure to properly define his terms – a criticism which I will again echo in this commentary on Chapter II. Despite this, Mill proves himself to be adept at the art of arguing – and is again eminently (and so delectably) quotable. I will start by summarising Mill’s argument, before moving on to express my thoughts. What do I get wrong? What does Mill’s argument in this chapter stir up for you? Let me know.

Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

Mill begins by stating that a free press is an important counterpoint to a corrupt or tyrannical government. A government who challenges a free press is a government who fears insurrection: in attempting to control public opinion, they are attempting to determine their own legitimacy. It is out of principle, therefore, that no government should have this power of coercion, for any reason, for:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

Silencing anyone hurts not just the individual, but society as whole. If that one person’s opinion is right, society is deprived of exchanging their error for the truth; if that person is wrong, society is deprived of a clearer perception of the truth by their exposure to this error. Thus lays the basis for Mill’s argument.

If society, or the government, attempts to suppress an opinion, which could potentially be true, they are assuming themselves to be infallible. Who has the authority to make that final judgement on any opinion? Any certainty on the matter is derived from an accident of birth – you may believe something to be true because of the circumstances and timing of your birth. Were you born at a different time, you would have been exposed to a different prevailing opinion, which you would equally hold to be true. 

Mill anticipates the counter arguments: would some not say that we are given our critical faculties so that we may establish truths? Should we accomplish this, given the tools we were handed by God and nature, would we not be within our rights to make bold statements about what is and is not true? Our duty is to be careful in forming our opinions, and thus be certain of them, but still to act.

Perhaps, Mill says: but if we do not allow opinions we believe to be untrue to exist, we cannot be sure of the truth of our own opinions. Having our opinion challenged can make us more sure that it is right, and thus give us greater certainty. Criticism is necessary for the exercise of human judgement. It helps us see different viewpoints through different lenses; rather than seeding doubt, it creates a strong foundation. Even the Catholic Church has someone to advocate on behalf of the devil when canonising a saint. Indeed, we need different viewpoints to help us understand our experiences, for facts alone do not tell their own story: we must learn from each other through discussion.

So the process of discussion, with competing opinions, is how certainty can be established. But this is not the only counter argument Mill presents. Some people would protect opinions for their usefulness to society, rather than for their truth; some opinions, given their value, should be above criticism. This Mill rebuts thusly: first, the usefulness of an opinion is an opinion in its own right, and is itself subject to criticism. Secondly, the truth of an opinion is part of what makes it useful. No opinion contrary to the truth can be useful.

To illustrate his argument, Mill proceeds to give some examples of when men were put to death for their opinions, and in this way the world was denied some truth. Socrates was one, killed for his atheism: even something about which society could be so sure (the existence of God and the afterlife) should not be defended from critics, for society may lose another Socrates. Jesus himself was persecuted for his belief, as society tried to prevent the spread of Christianity. Even Marcus Aurelius, one of history’s wisest thinkers, and someone whose values aligned with Christian teachings, persecuted Christianity. Some might defend such persecution, believing that this is the challenge through which truth must suffer to prove itself as truth. Mill is unconvinced. Such persecution would put anyone off from challenging the prevailing order, and thus the world would lose out by it. Such is the strength of persecution. The only saving grace is that a truth “may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it”.

Yet even if society thinks itself evolved beyond such persecution – they may no longer put heretics to death – there are still barriers and impediments that Mill identifies. Atheists, for example, (at the time of Mill’s writing) may not give evidence or serve as jurors. On this basis, they are excluded from being protected by the state, if their case rests of the proof of their evidence. Further still, it supposes that atheists are liars, but in screening them in this way, only those that lie about their atheism are allowed to take part, and any honest atheist is excluded. As for Christians, it supposes that the only reason for their honesty is the fear of hell – an insult to their conscience! And even if there is no legal impediment, or the law is not enforced, there may still be social stigma. The majority may still tyrannise. People may lose their job for a belief or opinion: one must be completely financially independent to have the freedom to hold and share an opinion that they will be ill-judged for. The stigma itself prevents people from coming forward with potential truths. Such suppression would be nevertheless ineffective, for heretical opinions would “continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate”. This narrows the range of opinions people are exposed to; it prevents an active consideration of first principles, and narrows the ability of people to think broadly and critically. Indeed, it is not the heretics who are harmed, but those who are afraid to pursue a “bold, vigorous, independent train of thought” for fear of being labelled as heretics. Freedom to discuss opinions creates an “intellectually active people”; and it is better to have people thinking for themselves than passively accepting even true opinions. In societies which are free to discuss, the intellects of ordinary people are raised; these societies flourish.

So society may risk entrenching its ignorance by suppressing potentially true opinions. What if society holds the true opinion? What does it lose then?

In such a state, Mill argues, a truth that is not actively debated becomes stale: it ceases to be a “living truth”, and instead becomes a “dead dogma”. People may know the truth without knowing its basis, and they would therefore not understand the truth, or its meaning. They would not be equipped to argue or defend the truth; they would merely hold it as a prejudice independently of any evidence or argument.

Knowing the basis for truth is important for cultivating one’s intellectual faculties. It is important for any discipline, for “on every subject for which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons”. There are a variety of ways to explain facts in science, and more so in politics or moral philosophy. Furthermore, if you are to truly understand your position, you must study the opposing argument. You must know it better than you know your own, for until you can refute the other side, you have no grounds to hold either opinion. Until then, you must suspend your judgement, or else risk being led by authority or inclination. And you must encounter the best version of the argument, from its most passionate advocate, in its most “plausible and persuasive form”. You must be able to grasp the argument in all its complexity. Your opinion may be true, but, unless you engage with the opposing argument, for all you know it may be false.

Mill then presents further counter arguments. Might it not be enough, some suggest, that an authority can understand all this, and that common people can simply trust whatever conclusion that authority comes to? Surely no one has the knowledge or talent to resolve every difficulty? Perhaps, says Mill: but this does not mean that speech should be restricted. People must have the choice to engage with these ideas, or defer to an authority. Even those accepting of authority need to know that all objections have been raised, and that the authority has considered all angles. This can only be accomplished if speech is free.

Furthermore, Mill argues, without discussion, the grounds of the truth disappear, and with it disappears the meaning of the truth. Later generations, accepting it passively, do not get the full effect of understanding the opinion on their character or conscience. The truth must play on their imagination, feeling, and understanding. Christians, Mill argues, will passively accept the teachings of Christ, but without active debate they do not understand them. They respect the sound of the doctrine, but have no feeling for it. They are not charitable, as Christ taught they should be. Indeed, Mill suggests, the lack of debate is probably why Christianity had stopped spreading. Further still, people need debate and discussion of ideas to fully understand their experiences; understanding of previous debates may mean that they do not have to be taught by experience. It may help them avoid making mistakes.

Does this mean that a truth will perish as soon as it becomes universally received? As we know more will we understand less? If this is the case, and there truly is no one left to argue for an opposing view, then teachers must recreate it as best they can, and use it as a tool for teaching. By teaching the arguments for and against, by recreating the debate, they are able to make the difficulties of understanding apparent to the learner. They will develop the skill of being to point out flaws in an argument, a skill as important to understanding as being able to present one’s own argument. Thus their intellects will be trained: even a wrong argument is a good learning tool. Indeed, 

No one’s opinions deserve the name of knowledge, except so far as he has either had forced upon him by others, or gone through of himself, the same mental process which would have been required of him in carrying on an active controversy with opponents.

So if your opinion is false, free discussion will help you discover the truth; if your opinion is true, free discussion will reinforce it. Yet more common, Mill states, is that a truth will lie between two sides of a debate, and in silencing one, we lose part of the truth. In politics, for example, both a party of stability and a party of progress are necessary, and between them they will figure out what is best to preserve and what is best to change. Opposition from the other keeps both within the limits of reason and sanity. Both sides must argue with passion and vigour – and must be allowed to argue with passion and vigour – to retain the balance. Indeed, the view of a minority must be especially protected, because it represents neglected interests, for “only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth”. Dissentients, even if wrong, has something worth hearing to say for themselves. Even that which most would say is true – Christian teachings – is more poetry than precise law, and as such needs to be actively debated in order to uncover its truths – truths which complement secular standards. Mill is under no illusion that free discussion will eliminate sectarianism or partisanship. Yet suppression of either side is a greater evil.

Finally, Mill briefly discusses the objection that, while thought should remain free, discussion should be carried out in a way that is fair. This would mean silencing people who are offensive; it would mean silencing those who misrepresent their opponents. Yet this would not do, Mill argues. Offence is subjective. Misrepresentation may be an honest mistake, and even if it is not, it is a difficult thing to adjudicate by law. Further, rarely do people want these standards applied to both sides. Those in the majority will frequently decry those in the minority as immoral with impunity, and yet demand protection from such accusations themselves.

*        *        *

This is one of the most beautiful and eloquent defences of free discussion ever made. Its beauty lies not just in its prose, but in the willingness of Mill to adopt potentially unpopular positions in defence of those whose opinions he himself disagrees with. In doing so, he risks being aligned with these people – atheists, for example – and facing the same level of ostracism they face. In adopting these positions, Mill also offers a lesson in how to argue effectively. Indeed, look at how Mill structures his argument: he defines his position clearly at the start; he introduces counter arguments, before rebutting them; and in his final section, he considers the possibility of a third (and most compelling) premise, which draws together the previous two. This is an excellent model for anyone thinking about essay writing at any level.

And there are further lessons, too. One is to measure arguments by how they perform at the extremes. Rather than functioning as a reductio ad absurdum, such practice is valuable, for “unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case”. This is a good way to test the certainty of principles (and, in this context, should be permitted as part of free discussion). Even better is his emphasis on knowing your opponent’s argument better than you know your own. Any student (and I do, of course, mean this broadly) engaged in a discipline that involves argument and debate should take note. Study your opposition; until you can refute the other side, you have no grounds to hold either opinion. Finally, Mill has something valuable to teach us about human nature. He remains sceptical of those who think as part of the majority (the public is made up of “a few wise and many foolish individuals”). He also acknowledges the limitations of our ability or willingness to think broadly, for “one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception”. When we cannot question everything – when we have limited time and ability – we must at some point defer to an authority. The solution is to remain aware of when we are deferring to authority and, to avoid one-sidedness, consider the position of several authorities.

This chapter also reveals a lot to the reader about Mill’s position on religion, which is worthy of note. Many of his examples revolve around the truth of Christianity, and the instinct of many to defend it. By supporting the right of heretical thinkers to engage in free discussion, Mill puts himself in a difficult position. But in doing so, he is critical of many in society who purport to be Christians, but who do not actively follow or engage with the teachings. He also situates himself within the Protestant tradition, emphasising the need for an individual approach to engaging with Christ, self-teaching, and moral training. His critique of absolutist approaches to religion, and in particular the Catholic Church, embeds this tract firmly within the tradition of the Catholic versus Protestant issues which defined the centuries prior to Mill’s writing. Amidst the turbulence that followed the break with Rome, the need for religious tolerance emerged as a matter of pragmatism, rather than as a matter of principle; Mill is part of the tradition which seeks to rationalise tolerance of dissent within a coherent, principled worldview. His tendency to start with religion, before extrapolating into politics, philosophy, and elsewhere, further reinforces this. Within his view, Mill is able to reconcile the juxtaposition of the Christian teachings as the revealed truth, and the pursuit of science and investigation. This allows Mill to support free discussion, and to indulge in (and recognise the importance of) the teachings of non-Christians, and especially pre-Christian teachers, or those such as Marcus Aurelius, who was an active participant in Christian persecution, but whose wisdom Mill otherwise respects.

Chapter II is not without its flaws. One glaring omission – at least in my eyes – is the failure of Mill to define his terms. This may well not have been a problem for the time, but it makes the text difficult to interpret today, given its lack of precision. What is an opinion? How can an opinion, in essence a value judgement, be true? Within this term, Mill bundles a lot of different approaches to knowledge and modes of thinking: speculation, conjecture, hypothesis, evaluation, judgement, or working theory – even established theory; things which may be proved or disproved. Is an opinion really falsifiable, if it is a value judgement I make of something? Or is it my reasons for holding an opinion that can be true or untrue? Despite a lack of clarity here, Mill does make the distinction between “fact” and “opinion”; a fact is something which is either true or false. He makes this distinction, for example when he states that facts do not tell their own story. It is our discussion about the facts that helps us interpret them: we can judge their truth or validity, or their meaning and interconnection. But if we are to distinguish between fact and opinion, and defend our right to hold an opinion, does this extend to our right to perpetuate facts as if they are true, when they are in reality false? Or is this our opinion that the fact is true that we are sharing? But then is a fact which is not true no longer a fact, and either a falsehood or a lie, and therefore not covered by this sphere of protection? Or does Mill imply that we can never really know if a fact is true or not – it can only be more or less valid to us, limited as we are by our perspective? Perhaps this is open to interpretation – or is there something I have missed here? Please let me know.

Another issue with Mill’s argument is the underlying assumption that people will be engaging in discussions in good faith. He assumes that we are all truth-seekers, bound by this fundamental aim to uncover knowledge, or figure out better ways to live. By engaging in critical discussion, we exercise our judgement, and we see things through different lenses. But this assumes that those taking part in the discussion engage with an open mind, that they are honest and, if mistaken, seek to be corrected. These are laudable aims – and should be encouraged as a code of conduct for any debate – but this is not necessarily true of the real world. People have ulterior motives. They lie for their own gain. This flaw is made all the more apparent in Mill’s justification of free discussion within party politics. I do not necessarily disagree that we need a party of stability and a party of progress – this makes viewing the interaction of the two major parties more palatable; one can watch politics as an interested bystander, with a love not for any team, but for the sport more generally. Yet his conclusion that this interaction will necessarily lead to both sides bringing out the best in each other, finding truth between, seems naive. Might they not bring out the worst in each other, and rather than keeping within reason and sanity, be pushed to the extremes, playing to people’s prejudices and engaging in demagoguery? This may not necessarily invalidate Mill’s argument – prejudice and demagoguery in a democracy may still be preferable to living in a dictatorship – but it is not the rosey picture that Mill paints.

What does this chapter mean for us today? There are a number of threads that we can link directly to recent phenomena. One is the preponderance of echo chambers, especially with discussion happening more frequently online, where people have more direct control over the views they are exposed to. Mill hints at this early on. Suppression of discussion, or in this case the failure to properly expose oneself to a range of different opinions, makes people doubt their fallibility. People within these places become, in Mill’s words, “absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference”, and they will “usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects”. Even without active intervention from the state, people have, through the power of social media, been able to cultivate their own echo chambers, where they are free from criticism. The solution is, in Mill’s view (and I certainly do not disagree), exposure to a diverse range of opinions.

Another key link is to the spread of fake news and misinformation. Mill supports – rightly – the importance of minority viewpoints, and the right of people in the minority to be heard. But what if this extends, as it does today, to conspiracy theorists or anti-vaxxers, whose claims are not only in the minority, but criticised for encouraging vaccine hesitancy? Does Mill’s advocacy for balance on both sides of a debate (both arguing with passion and vigour) create a false equivalence as a result of “bothsideing”? While there certainly are dangers with how speech translates into action (something we will come on to shortly), Mill’s emphasis is that there is always something worth hearing, even if those people are categorically wrong. He is worth quoting at length on this:

When there are persons to be found, who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.

In this context, then, what are anti-vaxxers communicating? Their deeper message – the truth we would lose by their silence – may well be their mistrust of authority, alienation from expertise, and their desire to be heard and to have control over their own lives. These concerns have deeper causes: their cries come at a time when society is dominated by centralised government (especially in the UK), big corporations, and centralised media (an especially troubling situation given, as Mill argues, the importance of free media to challenging government). Power has been concentrated in the hands of a few people, which can – and does – lead them to engage in exploitative practices, or manipulate their users and consumers. Is this the essence of truth that we would miss by their silence?

Finally, these ideas relate directly to the discussion over “cancel culture” and deplatforming that has become a feature of Western discourse over recent years. The passage of interest concerns Mill’s contention that, even if the law does not prevent speech, society will. The majority will tyrannise over the minority by restricting employment, for example: a recent feature of modern discussion is the risk that people who express dissenting or offensive views may lose their jobs. The employer, of course, worries that it reflects badly on their reputation. Mill does not suggest that the employer should be prevented from sacking this employee; rather, he laments that society should be in this situation at all. Rather than stigmatising dissenting (or heretical) views, we should cease to care (to the degree that we would wish financial harm on someone), as consumers or business owners, about what views others hold. We should engage in spirited discussion with one another, but not attempt to undercut people’s livelihoods. “Cancel culture” would, in Mill’s view, narrow the range of views that people are exposed to, while heretical opinions would continue to smoulder amongst those who hold them. Today, the heretics move online, operating under pseudonyms, and risk becoming more entrenched in their views, perhaps drifting further to the extremes. By not threatening their job security, and inviting them to share their views, we are able to challenge them, and bring dissenters into the conversation.

This is, of course, not without its problems. Would Mill support the kind of speech that seeks to radicalise or incite violence? Does he support free discussion that involves libel or slander, which could lead to damaging reputations and loss of business? What he does not discuss here is how opinion, and the free discussion thereof, relates to action – because of this, we should not read this chapter in isolation. For that, and for the caveats that come with the arguments expressed in this chapter, we must explore further, delving into Chapter III of On Liberty

Let me know what you think in the comments.

The copy I’m reading is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, with a forward by John Gray, published first in 1991, and reissued in 2008:

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 20-61.


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4 thoughts on “Read with me: On Liberty, Part Two

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