Mill’s libertarianism Notes for November 7

Main points

We discussed everything in On Liberty after the Harm Principle. That is, just about everything! Needless to say, this put more emphasis on general themes than on the details of Mill’s case.

I see the book as falling into four basic parts:

  1. An initial statement of the problem Mill saw (social conformity and democratic politics) and the proposition he would argue for (the Harm Principle). (Ch. 1)
  2. A case for individual liberty based on the intellectual side of our nature: liberty improves our decisions about what to believe. (Ch. 2)
  3. A case for liberty based on the emotional side of our nature: liberty improves our decisions about what to want. (Chs. 3-4)
  4. Applications to law and social policy. (Ch. 5)

Mill’s utilitarian case for liberty

The utilitarian case for liberty works on two levels: the individual and the social. Mill argues that individuals need liberty to truly understand their beliefs and to find the aspirations that will truly make them happy. On the social level, individual liberty is a source of new ideas that societies need to avoid becoming stagnant.

Quite a lot turns on what Mill means by “truly” understanding one’s beliefs and aspirations in life. The alternative isn’t that individuals without liberty will lack beliefs and desires; it’s that they will adopt them from the broader society. Why does Mill think that is inadequate?

I presented what I think is the idea that runs through most of his arguments, at least in chapter 2.

  1. Understanding a proposition that P (e.g. ‘that the best way to live is to tend one’s garden’) requires understanding the reasons for thinking that P is true.
  2. Fully understanding the reasons for thinking that P is true involves understanding the reasons for thinking that P is not true.** Special thanks to Rachel and Michael.
  3. Due to facts about our psychology, we will only consider the reasons against our beliefs if we are confronted with people who disagree with us.
  4. Therefore, our ability to understand things depends on leaving others at liberty to express their opinions.

We discussed the reasons for accepting each step of the argument. Rachel and Michael pushed me to improve the second premise. I had put it this way: “understanding the reasons for thinking that P is true involves understanding the reasons for thinking that P is not true.” But, as they pointed out, there’s a difference between knowing the reasons for a proposition and knowing the reasons against it. So I needed to qualify the first use of “understanding” in that premise. Good point! I’m still not completely satisfied with this, but it’s better than it was thanks to them.

As for Mill’s discussion of the liberty to choose one’s own way of life, my chief point was that most of Mill’s arguments were devoted to the cases in which individuals do not make the best decisions for themselves.

Callum’s question from last time

Callum noted that Mill presents the case for freedom of thought and freedom of expression as inseparable. How could that be, he asked, when the two things are obviously different? Good question! Here are two things Mill might say in response.

First, he accepted the point. He allowed for regulation of speech. So, he maintained, everyone should be free to express the opinion that corn merchants are withholding food, but the state could prevent someone from saying it in a way that would provoke a deadly riot. (See the first paragraph in chapter 3).

Nonetheless, his reasons for joining the liberty of thought and expression follow from his account of the social value of liberty. Given our natural inclination to conformity, we need to hear from people who disagree with us in order to truly understand even our own opinions.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 8, 2012.
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