Mill on liberty of thought and expression

Notes for March 27

Main points

We talked about two points:

  1. Mill’s famous Harm Principle
  2. His argument that suppression of opinions is justified only if we are infallible.

The Harm Principle

I expressed uncertainty about how to take the Harm Principle. On the one hand, Mill explicitly proposes it as a principle for determining when individual liberty may be limited.

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. 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.

That seems to be quite uncompromising: we are only allowed to limit an individual’s liberty for the sake of preventing that person from harming others, period.

On the other hand, I said that he himself endorsed several apparent exceptions to this principle. He allowed for limits to individual liberty for the sake of helping others. So I am not sure what to make of the Harm Principle.

It is possible, as Dixie suggested, that the Harm Principle allows limits on individual liberty for the sake of preventing harm to others from some other source. So, for instance, an individual’s testimony can be compelled in court to prevent a wrongful conviction even if the individual being compelled to testify would not be the one who would bring that conviction about.

If that is what Mill meant, then, as Sam pointed out, the Harm Principle does not pose a significant constraint on attempts to limit individual liberty. Individuals might be required to work all day for the sake of the poor, for instance.

This reinforces my confusion about how exactly Mill meant to use the Harm Principle. Most of the book tries to make the case for liberty in three specific areas: liberty of thought and expression, liberty of tastes and pursuits, and liberty of association. So that is where I propose we focus our attention.

Liberty of thought and expression

Mill takes up three cases: (i) the suppressed opinion is true, (ii) the suppressed opinion is false, and (iii) the suppressed opinion is a mixture of truth and falsity. We talked about the first case.

I presented a series of examples in which I thought the suppression of opinion might strike us as at least plausible. These are cases where many people in our society believe that there is genuine harm from the expression of opinions that are not true.

Mill tried to convince us that that we would have to be certain that the beliefs are false in order to be justified in suppressing them. I asked why the standard has to be so high: we don’t demand certainty for any other kind of decision, after all.

Mill has two kinds of answer available to him. First, he maintains that we can only be justified in having any belief if we consider the alternatives. Suppression, he maintains would be incompatible with that. Second, he can say that the power to suppress even a false belief would be used to suppress one that is true and that the loss from suppressing the truth would exceed the gains from suppressing false beliefs.

We will pick up the first of these points next time when we discuss Mill’s opinion that knowledge requires a continual confrontation with the alternatives.

About my examples

In giving examples of beliefs that are candidates for suppression, I hope I made it clear that I myself did not necessarily think that any of them should actually be suppressed. I was just saying that these are cases where suppression is a live issue today.

In particular, I would like to return to what I said about creationism to put my opinions more precisely. I think there is a reasonable case for regulating this opinion by keeping it out of science classes in schools. But I think it’s a debatable case and that the best way of teaching evolutionary theory might involve a comparison with creationism. I proposed the example because I thought it was a good one for debating Mill’s point of view.

I did make a remark to the effect that I thought it would be a disaster for Christianity if the Book of Genesis were taught in schools. Let me clarify that. I believe that Genesis is so exotic in places that making it a part of the school curriculum would erode Christian belief more than it would sustain it. I meant to offer a prediction about how students would react to reading Genesis based on my experiences of using it in classes. I hope I did not even suggest that it is irrational to believe the Bible; that was not at all what I was trying to say. After all, plenty of Christians read Genesis while maintaining or even deepening their faith. (Which cuts against my prediction, in case you’re keeping score.)

Key concepts

  1. The Harm Principle.
  2. Mill’s argument that suppression of opinion requires infallibility.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted March 27, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy