From the beginning of the history, human beings have been thinking for finding, creating the best regime for themselves. Many ideas have been created; many theories have been designed by these thinking humans called philosophers to establish the best political system. John Stuart Mill was one of these political thinkers and he is known as the father of liberalism. Mill in his masterpiece “On Liberty” basically tells us about his ideal state and its principles. Mill tries to solve authority-liberty problem by a set of rules called “harm principle”. According to this harm principle, an individual is free to think and do anything he/she wants unless his/her actions begin to cause harm for other members of the society. In his opinion, the state should appear at that point and restrict some rights of the individual that causes harm for others for the sake of the society. Unless someone’s behaviors cause harm for others, the state should be respectful towards all kinds of ideas, behaviors and should not try to raise its ideal citizens but instead should make efforts to create a peaceful environment in which individuals can live freely according to their own choices, desires. Mill believes in the necessity of different opinions, different tastes both for an individual and for the society and gives great importance to freedom of expression. He says “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation: those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”. In this assignment, I will try to summarize Mill’s ideas about the freedom of expression with regard to this short passage. I will start by explaining his ideas about the end of a rational man and relate this to his ideal state conception. Then, I am going to analyze deeply his ideas about the freedom of expression by giving concrete examples showing the plausibility of them and make my own comments. I will conclude by displaying that Mill is right in saying that different ideas, behaviors are very beneficial and necessary for a harmonious society and for a balanced individual.
In order to understand Mill’s passion of diversity of opinions for creating the ideal state, we should first look at his understanding of the end of a rational man. In chapter III of his book Mill makes an important quotation from a German philosopher Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s doctrine. “…the end of man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal and immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole; that, therefore, the object towards which every human being must ceaselessly direct his efforts, and on which especially those who design to influence their fellow men must ever keep their eyes, is the individuality of power and development; that for this there are two requisites, freedom and variety of situations; and that from the union of these arise individual vigor and manifold diversity, which combine themselves in originality”. Let us analyze this long sentence uttered by Mill referring to Humboldt. The first part of this sentence basically claims that the end of a rational man is to make the highest and most harmonious development of his abilities to a complete and consistent whole. In other words, a rational man’s aim is to develop his abilities as far as possible both in quality and comprehensiveness and transform these qualities into a complete and consistent whole. For instance, a man should try to develop himself in all areas such as in fatherhood, in painting, in playing basketball, in cooking etc. and should make efforts to increase the diversity of these areas as well as the degree of his satisfaction in these areas for becoming a complete and consistent man. Due to the presence of the adjective “complete”, a man should not sacrifice his whole life for specializing in some branches because this will make this person incomplete. For example, if a physics professor, who knows everything about our physics knowledge and even discovers new theories, is not satisfied in his relations with women, this person is not a complete person and thus, not really rational. Likewise, a person should not develop both his ability of loving children and killing children because this would be an inconsistency and this person would be irrational. In the second part of the sentence, “the individuality of power” comes into play. What Mill wants to say is that a man should discover his own abilities, tendencies and to develop them as far as possible unless the development of these abilities will begin to prevent this person to be a complete and consistent whole. For example Mike Tyson, who is one of the most famous and aggressive boxers of the world, may also try to discover his abilities in art and may start to read and write poems. The third part of the phrase contains “freedom” and “variety of situations” conceptions. A man, who wants to discover his different abilities and to develop these for becoming a complete and consistent whole, should have freedom and diversity of situations, which will help him to detect his tendencies. For example, in a society where all people have same kind of interests and ideas, it will be more difficult for a man to find out his abilities. Humans need good and bad models in their way to discover their hidden abilities. For instance, a young physics student must see the genius physics professor’s life and try to develop himself in relations with women as well as in physics. Or a young boxer should be impressed by Mike Tyson’s efforts to write poems additional to his sport life and should try to discover his secret gifts. As we can understand from these examples, both good and bad models are very necessary for individuals to follow Humboldt’s principle. However, the existence of various, different opinions and lifestyles is not enough for a man because a man needs freedom for experiencing these opinions, lifestyles to learn whether these are part of his abilities or not.
From this point we can relate Mill’s understanding of the end of a rational man to his ideal state theory. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, a rational man, who wants to discover and develop his abilities into a complete and consistent whole, needs to live in a liberal environment in which different opinions, behaviors, lifestyles, good and bad models compete in the harmony. This will require the establishment of a very liberal state that will not try to impose an ideology to its citizens and will let them free to live in accordance with their own beliefs, choices. The state will make restrictions only if someone spoils the peace in this land of freedoms by abusing his/her rights to harm other people. Mill’s state of the land of freedoms is regulated according to his harm principle and based on the idea that differences are always beneficial for the development of the individual in addition to that of society. As far as he is concerned, silencing an opinion is nothing but robbing the existing and also forthcoming generations of the human race. Mill thinks in that way because he believes that you can reach justified true knowledge only if you know everything that can be said against your view. When we look at from Mill’s perspective, before accepting his statement as justified true information, we should first listen the arguments of people who reject this statement and profit from these opposing arguments to strengthen his idea. For example, a person may say that we can reach justified true knowledge only through holy books of our religions. So, we should analyze this contrary statement and modify Mill’s statement for suppressing the contrary argument or try to prove that this opposing statement is false. Another person may say that we can reach justified true knowledge only through scientific experiences. What we should do is again to understand this contrary view and defend Mill’s view by profiting from it. We can also make additions to our views if these contrary views contain true information. We may take Mill’s idea one step further and say “you can reach justified true knowledge only if you know everything that can be said against you and only you obtain your information through approved scientific experiments”. John Stuart Mill definitely trusts in the benefit of the different opinions and he collects their advantages in three main articles.
First of all, the different idea may be true though the majority of people support the contrary idea. We can find many good examples to this statement from world’s history. For instance, most of the German people were supporting Adolph Hitler’s revisionist and aggressive policies before World War II and in a sense Hitler’s authority was legitimate. However, there were still some opposing voices constituted of some intellectuals, journalists who understood Hitler’s sick plans before the catastrophe. These opposing people were minority and their opinions were not respected by Hitler and German people. Their ideas were suppressed by Hitler and disappeared in short time. German people’s chance to get rid of a sick-minded dictator vanished and Hitler’s policies led to wars, death of millions and humiliation for Germans. So, we see that the majority’s decision may not be always correct and thus, we need the criticisms of different opinions. Secondly, an opposing view may not be correct but it may and very commonly does have a portion of truth. For instance, communism, which is a great ideology on theory, did not succeed in application process and in a sense collapsed. Although with today’s understanding we judge communism as fault and dangerous, we should accept that it contains many portions of truth. Communism with its realistic approach to the problems of the proletariat class and to the development of history, contributed a lot to modern liberal ideologies. Nowadays, a liberal ideology that is supported by social democratic ideas derived from Marxism-communism and that respects the rights of minorities, seems to be the best regime for us. This shows that even an ideology like Marxism who is considered as dangerous by most of the people and whose expression is banned by many states, may help us to make progress. Thirdly, in order to understand the essence of our views, we need to understand the opposing views. This is related to Mill’s understanding of justified true knowledge. We accept many ideas without questioning, just because some people teach us in that way. Similarly, we learn many things as false, dangerous without investigating and we look at these opinions with prejudices. Opposing ideas are necessary not only to detect our mistakes but also to strengthen the validity of our ideas. I can give as example, the first round satisfaction of an ultra-nationalist party’s leader in last elections in France. This party had only 20 % of total votes but the increase in his popularity led French people to remember three important principles of their famous revolution that took place in 1789 and changed the world: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The rise in the votes of this party’s leader somehow strengthened the validity of ideas shared by most of the French people and in the second round the ultra-nationalist party’s votes decreased. Because of all these reasons Mill thinks that silencing the expression of an opinion is robbing the human race.
In this paragraph, I am going to make my own comments related to Mill’s ideas. I agree with Mill in the necessity and importance of freedom of expression. Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is accepted almost by the whole world, mentioned; humans are born free and equal in the spirit of brotherhood without any conditions. We are free and we have right to believe in anything. We may believe in the rightness of Sharia, communism or the supremacy of our nation but our freedoms are restricted by an institution called the state and by its rules that aim to avoid harm. We do not exist for the state but instead the state exists for us. The state is nothing but the agreement of a group people living on a territory to establish an invisible common power that will protect their rights and thus, preserve the peace in the society. So, in a sense we are superior to the state because the state is our mean to preserve our freedoms but at the same time the state is superior to us because it possesses binding power. However, if the state begins to be based on individuals instead of being based on a good working system, many problems would appear. People who are in power may use their authority for their self-profit and this may destroy the system. The system should be based on the decisions of the majority but not as strict as Jean Jacques Rousseau’s understanding. Rousseau believes that the general will can never make mistake and we should always follow general will’s decision. Furthermore, he believes that people who do not conform to decisions of the general will, should be compelled to do so. Rousseau’s idea is nothing but the tyranny of the majority and it can never be successful in creating the happiness of all. In my opinion, what the state needs to do both for its citizens’ and its own well being, is to create a system in which majority’s decisions are executed but at the same time different opinions, behaviors are permitted to exist unless they begin to cause harm for the society. In addition, I believe a state’s target should be to realize the happiness of all people not only majority. Thus, a state must strive for creating a healthy, harmonious, peaceful environment in which all individuals may live happily according to their own choices and all opinions are expressed freely. For creating this kind of a state, we should allow different ideas, lifestyles not only because we respect individual choices but also these differences may help us to improve our system. Like Mill summarized in his three arguments, opposing ideas may help us to discover our system’s mistakes or missing parts and also to comprehend the validity of it.
To sum up, in my opinion Mill’s statement about the necessity of different opinions is a very plausible and valid idea. Different opinions, lifestyles and behaviors are cultural richness for a society and these differences should be respected because of two reasons: first, because of the tolerance towards these people’s way to use their liberties and second, due to the advantages of differences. Different ideas may help us to detect our mistakes and missing points and to strengthen our views. In addition, even if these different views are completely wrong, they may increase our trust and knowledge about our true beliefs. We should be always questioning the regime for finding and correcting errors. In our contemporary world, a liberal democracy that respects to a some point the differences of individuals and groups, seems to be the best regime but our inquiry for the most convenient system that will create the well being of the whole community, should never end. Freedom of expression is one of the most important requirements of a modern liberal democracy and is absolutely needed for the well being of the system. Let’s not fear differences; let’s respect people’s ideas and freedoms. Let’s live in peace…
- Mill, John Stuart, 1991, “On Liberty and Other Essays”, New York: Oxford University Press