Mill’s libertarianism Notes for March 31

Main points

I began with a brief summary of Mill’s On Liberty. I said that Mill argued for the informational value of both liberty of thought and expression and liberty of action. That is how he proposed to give a utilitarian justification for the harm principle.

This might also be an appealing argument for liberty in either of these areas even for those who are not utilitarians. So our discussion of his arguments could be taken in one of two ways. They could be taken as raising questions about the relationship between Mill’s utilitarianism and his libertarianism. Or they could be taken as raising questions about his libertarianism on its own, apart from his utilitarianism.** This is a refinement of an answer I gave to Michael.

Of course, Mill’s argument won’t be relevant for those who think that individuals have an absolute right to liberty in some area. The costs and benefits of limiting that liberty are irrelevant on such a view. Nozick believes something like that: he’s our next author.


Most of our discussions surrounded Mill’s assertion that those proposing to suppress and opinion must assume their own infallibility in order to be justified in suppressing an opinion. I said that this is not the standard we use in other decisions and asked why the suppression of opinions should be held to a standard that is much higher, so high that it is impossible to meet.

Mill might well be right to say that truth will eventually emerge from free discussion. But bear in mind that, even if that is so, there can be lots of costs associated with free discussion. Hobbes thought that the discussion of different religious views led to civil war. Many states today believe that the discussion of Nazi ideas could lead to something worse. It’s at least possible that they’re right, at least, given their peculiar historical circumstances. Even if I concede my own fallibility, shouldn’t I take these possibilities into account and make my best judgment about the costs and benefits of suppressing an opinion?

I should add that I don’t think Mill needs the premise that those who seek to suppress opinions must presume their infallibility. His arguments seem to me to support a more modest but still quite strong conclusion: the balance of costs and benefits almost never favors suppressing an opinion.


Madhav kindly gave me this portrait. I know that you’ll probably want to post it in a prominent place in your homes.

Me, as drawn by Madhav
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 1, 2010.
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