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Mills’ on Liberty

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Essay title: Mills’ on Liberty

Mill's On Liberty was written almost two hundred years after Hobbes's masterpiece (The Leviathan), and, as Mill says at the very beginning of his argument, by that time some liberal principles, like freedom of the press, are now so firmly entrenched that he feels no need to defend them. Certainly in America and in England, the liberal tradition deriving ultimately from Hobbes (via John Locke) had become the organizing principle of government (it is important for an understanding of Canadian law to recognize that our non-aboriginal traditions have no roots other than in modern liberalism: this helps to explain some basic things about what we believe and how we live).

Mill, however, is worried that the present development of liberalism does not create enough room in the private realm, and his essay (of which we are reading only a short condensation) is a detailed and sustained argument for maximizing personal freedom in the modern liberal state. He feels the need to do this because he perceives two great threats to the modern liberal state: excessive power of the government and its written codified laws and excessive power of public opinion and its unwritten laws (what Mill calls, borrowing the phrase from de Tocqueville, a French political thinker, the "tyranny of the majority").

The central thrust of Mill's argument is very straightforward, but it is easily misunderstood. His aim, as he tells up right away, is to make the case that we should permit individuals to say and do what they want as much as possible, subject to only one limitation, namely, that they should inflict no direct harm on other people. In all other cases, individuals should be left free to say and to do what they want, with no legal or social barriers. Only if this happens can the best people develop fully and society prosper.

It is particularly important to notice the basis of Mill's argument. He does not argue that we have a basic right to these freedoms or that the government is under some sort of moral obligation to maximize our freedom, or that such freedoms are divine commandments. His argument is a thoroughly utilitarian one: he argues that adopting his principles will bring direct social benefits for everyone, they will permit faster progress in all sectors of society, in ideas, in education, in business, in everything else.

Without such principles, Mill believes, society is in danger of stagnating. In other words, maximizing the freedom of all is in the best interests of every one in society. Unlike Hobbes, Mill believes that people will not threaten the stability of society if we give them much more freedom than they presently possess. Put in the terms introduced earlier in this lecture, Mill's position is that maximizing negative liberty will provide direct practical benefits to everyone. In making the case for increasing personal liberty, he is appealing directly to our self-interest. Where Hobbes' main concern is civil security (avoiding the dangers of civil war), Mill's is social stagnation. Thus, Hobbes is prepared to limit negative liberty in the name of security, Mill wants to maximize it for the sake of progress.

And the basis of Mill's faith in such progress comes from a central claim that, in a tradition established by the Greeks (to whom Mill appeals), liberty will breed competition and variety and these, in turn, will better foster excellence. Only by competing with each other in the realm of ideas and practical experiments for living and in trade will our society improve. For example, in the realm of ideas, free speech is essential for a number of reasons. Without it we may stifle some ideas which may be true. Or, if the minority ideas are not true, then we lose the opportunity to have our ideas challenged and to think through how we can defend them. Any attempt to stifle the expression of any idea for whatever reason is an assumption of infallibility and runs the risk of making us complacent about our beliefs and thus prevents us from improving our ideas or even understanding them as fully as we might.

This is not a simple plea for tolerance, for the permissive society which lets anything go; nor is it moral relativism, which thinks that all ideas are equally valid. Mill firmly believes that tolerance is not enough, for tolerance is essentially a negative attitude: I don't like your opinion, and I would prefer a situation where you were not around, but since I cannot easily eradicate your opinions, I will not object to or aim to prohibit you from expressing them. Mill sees free speech as a much more proactive element in social interaction. It is a matter of constant debate: we must allow all opinions a public hearing so that we can engage with them, debate them, sharpen ourselves in a constant testing and refinement (and improvement in) our beliefs. Mill's

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