Every year or so, I re-read John Stuart Mill’s great statement of liberal principles and values, On Liberty (first published in 1859). More than any other, I suspect, this book has shaped my own thinking about politics, law, and society. Each time I read it, I notice new twists and subtleties. It’s always worth returning to such classic texts to examine their original arguments: these often lose much of their richness and persuasive power in more modern summaries.
On Liberty provides a masterful defense of individual freedom and, in particular, a certain conception of free speech. Mill does not defend a mere freedom from government censorship and control. He is equally, or perhaps more, worried about informal social constraints on our ability to think, speak, and live as we please, subject only to the implications of the harm principle, which he borrowed from Wilhelm von Humboldt. To simplify drastically, this principle involves an imperative not to inflict direct harm on others.
As Mill acknowledges, governments possess great power. They can imprison us, or worse, if we violate their commands. But Mill also identifies what he calls “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling,” the intrusive and ubiquitous pressures to conform that come from society at large and particularly from the expectations of people with whom we interact.
Chapter II of On Liberty is headed “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” and it is noteworthy that Mill uses this expression rather than “freedom of speech” (or “the freedom of speech,” as in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Although he offers a range of reasons we should be at liberty to speak our minds and he highlights the role of a free press as a counter to tyrannical or corrupt government, Mill’s point is not that we should be able to say anything whatsoever, however harmful it might be to others. His emphasis is on something more specific: a human need for the freedom to explore, consider, and discuss topics of general interest, including those relating to religion, morality, politics, and science. For Mill, then, liberty of thought and discussion is all-important, and it is not just a freedom from government censorship but also from social punishments for honest speech.
In other words, Mill defends free inquiry, making clear that this includes testing ideas by discussing and debating them with others. In that respect, he uses a variety of expressions more or less synonymously. At different times he refers to “freedom of opinion,” “liberty of thought,” and “free discussion.” At one point, as an alternative to “liberty of thought and discussion,” he mentions “freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion.” With all its variations, this language reflects Mill’s concern that we be well-placed to think for ourselves and to discuss our thoughts with others without fear of sanctions.
More modern analyses of free speech often seem to suggest paradoxes. If we are free to speak as we please, does this mean we are free to silence the speech of others by shouting them down or by using our words to blackmail them into silence? Based on Mill’s reasoning, however, there need be no paradox. The purpose of unfettered discussion is to subject rival ideas to rational criticism and, more generally, to explore what can be said for and against them. It follows that Mill would not support hecklers’ vetoes and other tactics that bypass appeals to evidence and reason. The veto of a heckling mob contributes nothing to a social environment of honest inquiry and debate.
Throughout On Liberty, Mill uses more general language that refers to independence of thought, speech, and action. He calls for “different experiments of living” and ample scope for people with “different varieties of character.” He emphasizes “free development of individuality,” recognition of “individual spontaneity,” and the need to encourage “individuality of desires and impulses.” He repeatedly affirms the values of individuality, originality, and spontaneity; On Liberty is thoroughly soaked in this vocabulary. At one point, he uses a metaphor of organic growth:
Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.
This is the unmistakable voice of Enlightenment liberalism: generous, tolerant, broadminded, willing to let others follow their desires. By contrast, the language of On Liberty is conspicuously absent in the speech and writing of many current thinkers who regard themselves as, in some sense, liberals.
All too often, the language of self-styled liberals suggests an attitude of censoriousness and an urge to punish non-conformity. This is apparent in the incessant use of words of complaint, such as problematic and inappropriate, to castigate the speech and actions of others. These words sound fussy and insipid, and they have no clear cognitive content, yet they’ve become effective instruments of social vigilantism. Their popularity reveals a contemporary pessimism about spontaneity, independent thinking, and the exercise of individual choice, as if these are all dangerous and must be reined in.
To be fair, much contemporary pessimism is understandable. It reacts to twentieth-century horrors such as the First World War trenches, the Nazi Holocaust, and weapons of nuclear destruction. It recognizes legacies of discrimination and bigotry. For all that, something important has been lost since Mill wrote On Liberty. Without the language of freedom—and an accompanying attitude of tolerance and generosity—liberalism is deprived of what made it attractive in the first place. It’s a frightened, damaged, petulant version of liberal thought.