Mill on liberty of action

Notes for April 1

Main points

We took up two topics today. The first is a holdover from our discussion of Mill’s arguments in favor of liberty of thought and discussion. Then we turned to his case for individual liberty in the conduct of one’s life.

We continually emphasized the nature of a utilitarian case for liberty. It has to be the case that liberty is good for an individual and also that it is good for society at large. We also had to remember that the question is always comparative. Mill’s case is not that individuals make good choices, just that the government would be worse.

Liberty of thought and discussion

Mill had distinguished three cases:

  1. The suppressed opinion is true.
  2. The suppressed opinion is false.
  3. The suppressed opinion is a mixture of truth and falsity.

We talked about the first case last time; we started with the second this time. (And I’m going to leave the third alone: it should be a combination of what we have already discussed.)

So the question is: what’s the harm of getting rid of a false opinion?

You would expect Mill to say that those who hold the false would be hurt by the effort. That’s true and that sort of thing counts for a utilitarian. But it’s not Mill’s case. Mill’s argument was a surprising one. He said that those with true beliefs would not truly understand what they believe unless they were confronted with falsehood.

So those who aggressively defend false opinions are indirectly promoting the truth. They are helping those who have true beliefs to understand the truth. If they were not around to provoke discussion, the truth would “be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth” (p. 34).

It’s a good question why that is so. As Mill points out, it’s not true in general: no one teaches mathematics by asking students to compare valid rules of arithmetic with invalid ones. But, as Mill also said, things seem different with opinions. I myself find it difficult to say exactly why.

Liberty of action

Mill makes several obvious points in favor of liberty of action: people know more about how to make themselves happy than others do and they have stronger motivations to make themselves happy than others have.

To my mind, the most interesting part of the argument concerns cases where individuals make bad decisions. Mill argues that errors are a necessary part of learning and making ways of life truly one’s own. We talked a bit about some limitations of that point: sometimes errors are permanent and sometimes others know better than you do (especially your parents). Mill’s position will have to be that, on the whole, this is not true, that society would do a poor job of correcting even predictable individual errors (unlike your parents), and that society should tolerate errors in order to make space for the eccentric geniuses whose innovations are necessary for social progress.

I thought it was curious that Mill did not have many compelling examples of harmful limits on individual liberty. I agree with him that prohibition of alcoholic drinks was a bad idea, but it’s hard to see how limits on buying alcohol prevented people from engaging in experiments in living. Plus, given the addictive nature of alcohol and other drugs, I would have thought this would be a more difficult case for him.

The example of the treatment of the Mormons is in a different class. I think he also should have added the social restrictions on women.

## Key concepts

  1. Mill’s case for tolerating false opinions.
  2. Mill’s case for liberty of action.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted April 15, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy