John Stuart Mills' - on Liberty

Topics: Freedom of speech, John Stuart Mill, Liberty Pages: 7 (2619 words) Published: March 9, 2013
Freedom of Speech is one of the most quintessential and fundamental right of any Liberal Democratic society. Freedom of speech, and by extension freedom of thought, is the litmus test to determine if a nation, country or society is truly free. This right is the bedrock for which a free society can operate. This right has been defended and protected by many different institutions around the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by the United Nations in 1948, states in article 19 that “[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference”. In the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of speech is expressed in Section 2(b) as “a freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”. There have also been many great philosophers and advocates who have battled to gain and promote this right. Visionaries such as John Locke, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson eloquently supported for the right to freely debate, and believed it to be a fundamental right for human liberty. Though these advocates were exceptional, the man the most influential in defining free speech and its importance is John Stuart Mill and his essay “On Liberty”. “On Liberty” proposes that for freedom to properly flourish, it must be free in all aspects, with almost no limitations from any source, either government or individuals. Although written in 1859, Mill’s opinion is still relevant and can be applied to current political controversies and events in Canada such as the infamous Human Rights Complaints against Maclean’s Magazine. Thus, “On Liberty”, a treatise that espoused a doctrine of almost unrestricted speech and action, is still applicable to modern political events. Furthermore, it provides an almost perfect analysis of free speech and the proper limits on it. John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is an essay which has a very simple theory, the “Harm Principle”. The Harm Principle states “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. Mill reiterates this point when he says “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. Although this principle sounds like one based only on philosophy, it also has a very utilitarian purpose. J.S. Mill uses three different hypothetical situations to prove that allowing all matter of speech and opinion is useful. His first argument is that the opinion being espoused is in fact correct. He states that “ages themselves are no more infallible than individuals”. Though a certain age might believe that their opinion is correct, history has shown that in retrospect, ideas once held in great regard, “will be deemed not only false but absurd”. He uses historical examples such as the execution of Socrates and the persecution of the Christians by Marcus Aurelius to show that the opinion held by the majority in their respective era is now seen in a different and more negative light. The second argument that John Stuart Mill makes is that even if the opinion is wrong, it still holds value as contrast to the truth. It is from the hottest fires that one gets the hardest steel, and the steel of truth, Mill argues, is forged from the fire of criticism from false and different opinions. J.S. Mill says that when the truth is able to collide against falsehoods, one is able to get a “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth”. Also, he states that if society makes it illegal or immoral for someone to incorrectly argue against an accepted belief, the truth becomes a dead dogma, unable to stand up to even superficial challenges against it. As well, it leads to apathy towards that belief, even though it is widely accepted. Moreover, John Stuart Mill would find the idea of a government censuring political thought reprehensible. Though some might argue that “it is not conscientiousness, but cowardice … to allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the...
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