John Stuart Mill: One rebel against the world


The case for free speech is often based on something like a natural right. We all have a natural right to speak freely, goes the argument. That basically was the argument given by one of the two liberal giants of philosophy—John Locke.  John Stuart Mill took a different approach. He justified freedom of speech on the principle of utility alone. In other words, people should have free speech because that will permit the greatest happiness to be established for the greatest number of people. Simple. But how could one argue that?


John Stuart Mill wrote his classic defence of freedom, and in particular “liberty of thought and discussion” as he called it, in 1859. His arguments can be very useful in deciding whether or not racists, male chauvinists, people who are ageists, Satanists, vaccine deniers, inciters of riots, fascists, and demagogues among others,  should be allowed to speak. It all depends on whether or not allowing them to speak ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number. I want to explore that idea.

John Stuart Mill starts off early in his book to declare that his sole guiding light will be the principle of utility. This is how he explains his philosophy that has come to be called Utilitarianism: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain, by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Of course, by “pleasure” Mill did not endorse any crude definition of pleasure. Pleasure for example, includes all the “higher pleasures.” I also include the cruder pleasures or happiness but not only those. Quality of pleasures is important to Mill.

A couple of years ago I re-read Mill’s famous book, On Liberty, that was written in 1859 after I heard an inspiring talk by Robert George and Cornel West at Arizona State university. One was a conservative and the other a left wing radical but both  strongly recommended this book. I figured it was time to re-read that book.

In that classic book Mill defended freedom of “thought and discussion.”  Mill set himself an astonishing difficult task. Here is how he spelled out the problem:

“Let us suppose therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, nor more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted on a few persons or many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as a great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”


That is an incredibly powerful statement of the right to hear all opinions, even false ones! We have the right to hear even those opinions with which we strongly disagree. We benefit from that clash of opinions.  The greatest happiness is produced by that openness to ideas. Note as well that he points out those who disagree with an opinion lose even more than those who agree with it! I find this an amazingly profound argument. Even if the entire world is arrayed against one solitary opinion we should be able to hear it and not quell it. Even then we would not be justified in silencing that one opinion!


In other words, even a true opinion benefits from being challenged because that challenge lends it “a livelier and clearer expression of the truth.” If you love truth, you must love freedom of expression.



Leave a Reply