‘defence Of Freedom’ Essay, Research Paper
John Stuart Mill was one of the great Utilitarian philosophers of the nineteenth century, along with his father, James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. They set out the original strands of utilitarianism and Mill was able to adapt it and smooth away some of its rough edges, coming as he did after his father and Bentham’s major works expounding the new philosophy. Mill was influential both with the governments of the day and beyond, with his profound debates on individuality and liberty still having relevance to the governments of today. ` `Mill was very much in favour of both human diversity of action and expression, and in his works he vigorously argued for both these freedoms. One of the major concepts he attempts to set out in his work is how far governments can legitimately curtail both these freedoms, developing his ‘harm principle’, one of the most enduring concepts of his work, to aid an understanding of this. It is in “On Liberty” that Mill sets out most strongly his ideas on individual freedom, both social and political, and in this text he sets out a comprehensive and profound defence of the freedom of expression. His argument is constructed by adding layer upon layer, all interconnecting, to complete his argument, and to properly explore the problems created for Mill’s theory by incitement to racial hatred, it will be necessary to explore his argument for freedom of expression stage by stage, from its roots to the completed defence of individual freedom. ` `”On Liberty” commences with a discussion concerning the tyrannies which are prevalent in human society, with Mill stating that these tyrannies need to be guarded against if mankind is to develop and prosper fully. Mill makes the point that tyranny need not necessarily stem from authority, although this does often happen, as oppression can also stem from the majority opinion.. This form of tyranny is “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape” (Mill,1962:130). This argument is built upon in the second chapter, whereby this form of oppression is seen by Mill to be invalid, for social tyranny by the majority over the minority shows that there is a diversity of opinion (because a majority and a minority exist, instead of unanimous support). The majority, by tyrannising the minority, shows that it believes itself to be correct and that the minority should not hold their opinion, because the majority believe it to be wrong. This assumption of infallability put forward by Mill is a crucial element in both his work and this argument, and shall be more fully explored later. ` `Mill goes on to argue that social and political oppression is illegitimate, for “if all mankind [were united bar one] over an opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, then he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (Mill,1962:142). Mill makes the underlying point here that to suppress or crush a view is to crush a potentially benevolent development for society. Mill explains this point by arguing that if the opinion were true, then society would benefit from this knowledge, and if it were not true then the society would lose “what is almost as great a benefit; the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collusion with error” (Mill,1962:143) by crushing or suppressing this opinion. ` `Mill argues that it is only a few highly influential members of the society who judge whether an opinion is accurate or not. Their opinions are the deciding ones; it is their unquestioned judgements which decide the validity of an opinion, a state of affairs which puts them in the bracket of infallibility, but they are wrong “to assume that their certainty is the same as absolute certainty” (Mill,1962:143). It is from this state of affairs that oppression comes, as people become reluctant to differ from the perceived truth. Mill clarifies this point later in the text, by asking the question, “Who can compute what the world loses in [those] who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should [be] considered irreligious or immoral?” (Mill,1962:164). It is only by the development of differing ideas can a society obtain a clearer picture of the truth. Indeed, Mill goes on to state that “if opponents of all important human truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them” (Mill,1962:164). ` `However, mankind’s perception of the truth cannot be relied upon as infallible, for one generation’s view of something may be radically different from a previous or future one’s, a point that can be illustrated by the fact that today we see the planets of our galaxy as all orbiting the sun, where the previously held notion was that the sun and all the rest of the planets orbited the earth. From this basis, therefore, Mill argues that regarding something as an absolute is problematic, and we should be hesitant before doing so, therefore society should respect differing opinions in order to progress. There exists a problem here, however, for it is not practical to exist without regarding at least some things as truth, for it is difficult to go about our day to day business without doing this. Mill’s answer to this is that although we cannot be absolutely certain about anything, there are “assurances enough for the purpose of human life (Mill,1962:145). ` `Mill has thus set out two major reasons why diversity of opinion is desirable; that an opinion which is not the majority opinion may still be true, and that to understand the truth more fully then errors must also be understood. To these two arguments he adds another argument to complete his theory; that there are elements of truth in both sides, as he states, “Popular opinions…are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth” (Mill,1962:167). This final argument completes Mill’s theory on freedom of expression and censorship, and it now must be examined to see how incitement to racial hatred fits into the whole theory. ` `On first glance it appears that it would be wrong to suppress racist speech, for, according to Mill, suppression of any ideas, even if they are the opinion of a minority, should be discouraged. However Mill examines in the third chapter of “On Liberty” whether men should be free to act on their opinions, which is a very different state of affairs to merely expressing them, and incitement to racial hatred is trying to get people to act on racist ideas, presumably by causing physical damage to someone of another race, instead of just expressing racist ideas. It is at this stage that Mill qualifies his views on expressing opinions, as opposed to acting on them, with his harm principle, whereby “no-one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions” (Mill,1962:184). The harm principle states explicitly that “the liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people” (Mill,1962:184), which seems to make incitement to racial hatred wrong for Mill, for someone inciting others to racial hatred is doing a lot more than ‘making a nuisance of themselves’. ` `Mill further clarifies his theory towards examples such as this by offering the example of a corn dealer, “an opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but [not] when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer” (Mill,1962:184). This example does serve to further expound Mill’s view towards incitement to racial hatred, for it is easy to draw parallels between this and the attitude towards the corn dealer. Mill states that the circumstances in which the view is expressed regulate whether expression of that opinion is permissible or not. The problem here is that he draws a fine line between where the opinion can and cannot be expressed, for it is possible that upon reading how corn dealers are starvers of the poor, the reader may go out and attack the corn dealer because of this. However, while it is accurate that reading this opinion in the newspaper is less likely to make someone attack the corn dealer than hearing it as part of an angry mob outside said corn dealer’s house, there is still a chance that someone may harm the corn dealer upon reading this opinion. The corn dealer and someone of a minority race have virtually exact parallels in this case, so Mill is legitimising incitement to racial hatred appearing in a newspaper, but not being spoken outside the house of someone who is in a racial minority when there is an angry mob of racists (or prospective racists) outside their door. ` `This part of Mill’s theory does appear to be a little lacking, even bearing in mind that the press in his time was different than ours of today, for an article in one of today’s major newspapers inciting people to racial hatred would no doubt cause a great uproar, and justifiably so. This apparent contradiction in Mill’s theory proves difficult to resolve within the text, meaning that in this particular context doubt appears over the validity of his theory concerning freedom of expression, for if racial equality cannot be doubted (as doubting it or expressing opinions that it is not true can lead to violence and harm) then it must be infallible as no counterargument (that the races are not equal) can be allowed. It seems that in this case practical considerations must outweigh Mill’s intellectual reasonings, as the idea of infallability, a problematic one for Mill, has again reared its ugly head. However, for the truth about racism and racial hatred to be ascertained, there needs to be a diversity of opinion, but the harm principle seems to invalidate it, or at least not cover this particular area coherently. ` `The problems that have been expressed about the cogency of Mill’s theory here are again tested by his explanation of what actions he feels lie outside and inside the area permitted by the harm principle, “Actions, of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others…require to be controlled” (Mill,1962:184). This statement causes Mill great problems, for he does not qualify it with what is justified and who decides what is justified and who is harmed, especially as Mill has argued for the first two chapters that we must be very wary of such statements. In this case, those who decide what is justified must adhere to a fixed, certain set of rules, which brings up the concept of infallability again. Mill’s attempt to reconcile this, as earlier mentioned, is to argue that we know enough about the world to facilitate day to day life, but laws need to have a basis of stability and certainty, as simple ideas for living day to day life are not really sufficient for this purpose, so Mill’s attempt at reconciliation may be doomed to failure. ` `Mill’s theory could deal fairly effectively with something like racist remarks, but it incitement to racial hatred which begins to cause his theory a few problems, for the example of the corn dealer does not deal with sufficiently, only drawing a blurred line between occasions when it is permissible to read something and another occasion when it is not permissible to say exactly the same thing. One of the major problems with incitement to racial hatred for Mill is the harm principle, an idea which should in fact resolve a problem such as this, for incitement to racial hatred, by definition, is an attempt to harm, or get someone else to harm, other members of society. ` `His qualification of this that does have some impact, however, is the fact that he states clearly that there are some cases whereby expression itself constitutes action, which must be limited if it might harm others, although the example of the corn dealer only serves to blur matters with this example, not clarify them. The other problem with this qualification is that it goes against his theory of freedom of expression, running into the problem of infallibility again. The method of expressing something does not cause as many problems for Mill as does the result of that expression, in the case of incitement to racial hatred it is the racist violence that the inciter is trying to cause. To conclude, incitement to racial hatred does cause some problems for Mill’s defence of freedom of expression, as it is not just a simple opinion, but an opinion that will, by definition, cause harm to another person (or set of people), and Mill does not manage to reconcile this problem satisfactorily.