In his famous essay, John Stuart Mill defends the importance of individual liberty, which he suggests has been ignored in previous philosophical work. He explores the boundaries between our own individual liberty and society’s right to impede upon it, which Mill foresees as being “the vital question of the future.”
The major conclusion of the essay can be summarized like this: individuals should be free to make their own choices concerning themselves and their own interests without coercion from society or others, except if their choices harm others or society. Being able to consult our individual preference and ideas are a necessary ingredient for human happiness. People are at their best, happiest, and display their most admirable qualities when they are free to pursue their own interests. When society interferes and says you must do this and can’t do that in matters that only concern ourselves, people feel stifled and unhappy.
The problem is that society often does try to shape our values and limit our freedom. One way society does this is through laws. Some laws are just and necessary in so far as they regulate situations where one person may harm another, but many laws try to control behavior, actions, or permissible thoughts of others that have no direct effect on other people. Even democratic representative governments can pose problems for individual liberty in so far as the political ruling class serves the tyranny of the majority. There is a danger in the majority of society or the current ruling class infringing upon personal liberty and forcing others to adopt their values.
People often want to legislate their own sense of morality. Mill argues that what they are really doing is consulting their own preferences and confusing them with objective reality. Our ideas of how we think others should act are often just our personal preferences. I think it is worth mention that this can also happen at an individual level and not only at the societal level. Think of everyday remarks such as someone who says in disgust “why would you want to eat sushi?” People who make remarks like this fail to acknowledge that people have diverse tastes and they’re not forcing you to eat sushi if you dislike it.
Another factor that prevents us from consulting our inclinations and embracing our individual liberty is custom. Often we ignore our own preferences in order to conform to customs of our social class, religion, or culture. Customs require no discernment or critical thinking; they are already there and all we must do is accept them. Again, I don’t believe Mill is claiming we should never follow a custom if they conform to our individual preferences. Instead I think he means we shouldn’t follow customs blindly; we shouldn’t practice a custom simply because everyone else does or without thinking about our own reasons. If a person considers why they follow a custom and decide they enjoy the custom, then in many cases this may be a sufficient reason for continuing to follow it.
One way people can push back against ideas they dislike or think are harmful for individuals is through free speech. Mill is a strong advocate of free speech. People should be free to convince others that their way of life or their ideas about a particular topic are wrong. His arguments against society infringing on personal liberty mostly pertain to laws or attempts of suppression of free speech. One reason to support free speech is that people should have the opportunity to hear both sides of an argument. Suppression is bad because it prevents us from hearing both sides. We shouldn’t silence opinions because they may be true and since humans are fallible we may miss an opportunity of learning the truth. If we silence those who have different ideas, we may fail to learn the reason why our own ideas are false and discover what is true. In some cases, it’s possible that neither side has the truth, but “a portion of truth.” It is only in “the collision of adverse opinions” that occurs during a debate that we can hope to identify the portion of truth in each position that is missing from the other. Mill conceptualizes history as short bursts of progress made from one age to another in which the succeeding age has discovered a portion of the truth and progressed further than its predecessor, but not all the way, which is why progress continues to be made as history moves forward. Free speech is a critical part in the beginning stages of this progress from age to age that benefits everyone. Another reason that free speech is so important is that in cases where a person has the truth, it is worthless as a truth if it is never tested in the arena of debate. In Mill’s view, a truth is worthless if we can’t explain why it is true. Truth, even when true, becomes a dogma without good reasons and evidence and tests in debate to back it up. The wise man tests his opinions by seeing if they can survive the many objections they will encounter and corrects his own when necessary. It is this process of testing and accumulation over time that brings wisdom to society as a whole. The only time opinions or free speech should be limited is when it may cause someone to act violently to others. He also suggests that insults and intemperate language should be avoided in debates whenever possible. Insults and mockery typically are advantageous to received or accepted opinion, however, minority opinions should avoid it for practical purposes as it decreases the likelihood of getting a fair hearing from those in the majority. The ideal person in a discussion gives everyone a fair hearing, interprets everyone’s arguments fairly, and even calls out unfair debate tactics of people on his or her own side.
Defending the principle of personal liberty allows everyone who takes advantage of it to engage in that which will make them happiest and the best human being they can be. Those who don’t wish to take advantage of this liberty and are fine with the status quo or received traditions can still benefit from those who do. Freethinking individuals are in a good position to identify when old truths no longer suffice or have evidence to support them, while their originality of lifestyle can offer new models for society of ways to live. Without those who innovate, life and society would not progress. We would be in a “stagnant pool.” Society needs these free individuals to create progress and persons of genius thrive in an atmosphere of freedom.
At the same, we do have some obligations to society as members who benefit from it. We have a duty to society to provide help to others who are in danger (such as someone who is on the side of the road and injured in a car accident), serve on a jury in a trial, and be drafted for the nation’s defense. In its best form, society protects our interests, so we owe our service to society in these things as needed.