John Stuart Mill's weak argument for free speech

John Stuart Mill made a famous argument for free speech in On Liberty. Famous, but not very good.

The gist of Mills argument is as follows (and of course I simplify):

1) We are not infallible in our judgments, therefore the ideas whose expression we would ban might just be true; and

2) Even if, per impossibile, we are certain that some ideas are false, banning their expression is still bad, because true ideas are only really known when they have to be regularly defended against falsehood.

There are several problems here:

1) What Mill is doing here is of course expressing an idea. And per his own doctrine, we can't really be sure that the idea is true. So the notion of banning the expression of certain ideas always has to be kept on the table as a live option. But Mill clearly wants to rule censorship completely out of bounds, something that per his doctrine can't be done with any idea!

2) Mill's arguments seem to extend seamlessly to the world of actions. After all, often the very point of expressing some idea is to prompt some action. Mill is obviously not in favor of, say, making genocide legal. But it is not at all clear to me why, given the case Mill is making for free speech, it is okay to ban genocide but absolutely wrong to ban the advocacy of genocide. Surely the advocacy of genocide is usually the first step in any actual genocide. If we have to allow the advocacy because, after all, can we really be certain that the idea is wrong, then by similar reasoning shouldn't we allow the advocates to try it out on occasion? Do we really know if it's a bad idea until we test it out in practice? Of course I am not in favor of genocide, but then I also don't think it's a bad idea for Germany to ban the expression of Nazi ideas, given certain events that occurred there last century.

3) The last problem I wish to note is practical rather than theoretical, but nonetheless rather pressing at the moment. Per Mill, we should never ban the expression of political ideas by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. But expressing those ideas is a step on the way to getting them enacted, and when they are enacted, books like Mill's On Liberty will be banned. In order to be good sports, do liberals have to allow this to happen?


  1. I don't see your (1) as a problem at all. Mill wasn't in favor of prohibiting people from recommending censorship, was he? So I don't see any inconsistency on that count.

  2. Well, reading the chapter, I get the sense that mill is urging us "please, let's take This censorship option off the table once and for all." But that is exactly what he says we can't do with other ideas. If you haven't read the chapter recently, then I'd say take a look at it, and see if I am not right about this.

    1. I agree with Bob. Mill is arguing against censorship. He certainly isn't arguing that pro-censorship speech should be censored!

      As for objection number 2, this is an objection that Mill explicitly considers.

    2. "Mill is arguing against censorship."

      Have you actually read the chapter?! Because I see a long section Very explicitly arguing against the stifling of dissenting opinions, Saying that in some ways that can even be worse than censorship. Or was that just inserted in my version to trip me up?

    3. "What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry; and where there is the strong permanent leaven of intolerance in the feelings of a people, which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country, it needs but little to provoke them into actively persecuting those whom they have never ceased to think proper objects of persecution. 5 For it is this—it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom."

    4. "For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread. Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favours from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear. There is no room for any appeal ad misericordiam in behalf of such persons. But though we do not now inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us, as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination over the whole intellectual firmament. Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain, or even lose, ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the general principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public, to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters, and logical, consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world. The sort of men who can be looked for under it, are either mere conformers to commonplace, or time-servers for truth, whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves. Those who avoid this alternative, do so by narrowing their thoughts and interest to things which can be spoken of without venturing within the region of principles, that is, to small practical matters, which would come right of themselves, if but the minds of mankind were strengthened and enlarged, and which will never be made effectually right until then: while that which would strengthen and enlarge men's minds, free and daring speculation on the highest subjects, is abandoned."

  3. There's still a difference between banning an argument and contending that the argument should be taken off the table. But apart from that, even if Mill's principle didn't work as an absolute it might still be practically valid. If Mill "bans" one argument but permits all others, his point still broadly holds. It's the difference between playing Russian roulette with one bullet in the chamber (a Mill "ban") vs. playing Russian roulette with only one empty chamber (a system in which everything may readily be banned, except the principle of banning itself, since that's a keystone of the system).

    Your second criticism seems, if not question-begging, at least predicated on grounds that Mill would not accept, namely that action and speech aren't sufficiently distinct. What's wrong with proposing a "two key" launch-system for some horrible weapon, where the first key may be tried freely, but not the second? There may be risk in letting people advocate genocide, but do those risks outweigh the benefits? If Mill is consistent, of course, he must admit that there's some possibility that genocide advocates are correct. (That's not as crazy as it sounds, since there are indeed people who believe that what God's chosen did to the Amalekites was just.)

    To clarify, I think one can reasonably hold to a view that a.) competition in ideas or actions lets us sort the better from the worse, b.) but good actions tend to be based on sound ideas, and c.) making mistakes in actions is more dangerous than making mistakes in ideas alone, thus d.) the room for experimentation in ideas should be broader than the room for experimentation in practice. With this approach, a lot of bad actions are eliminated when they're just bad ideas.

    This approach takes some things for granted that philosophers may not want to take for granted, but can any set of rules for practice withstand absolute philosophical rigor? The difficulty may be whether Millian rules should be read as strictly philosophical or as practical. Is Mill a bad philosopher, or a philosopher who happens not to be doing philosophy when he talks politics, even if he's using philosophical idiom?

    On point three, I'm not sure any broad theory of politics can be made airtight, such that the will and activity of the people within a given society cannot violate the spirit of the theory. No, of course liberalism cannot survive in a strongly illiberal society, but that's not an argument against liberals practicing liberalism to the extent that they can. Christian politics can't survive in an entirely non-Christian society either. Sharia isn't likely to survive the death of Islam. Lack of legal enforcement of the right mindset isn't necessarily the core problem here---whether the mindset (liberalism, Christianity, etc.) is legally enforced or not, it simply has to be present one way or another in order for laws (or habits) of that flavor to stand. In the abstract, a legally enforced religious code might fall just as easily as an unenforced liberal system that commits suicide by permitting illiberal thought that leads to illiberal revolution.

    This leads to a meta-problem where even if liberalism doesn't enshrine itself as legally coerced belief, it will seek to root itself as deeply in the mind of the public as it can while obeying its own strictures. This qualifies the idea of liberalism as an absolutely neutral arbiter; it seeks adherents just as other creeds do. But it seems to me that liberalism's pretense to neutrality isn't actually an indispensable philosophical core, it's just a pseudo-philosophical shorthand for a historical practice. In other words, liberal thinking itself is a liturgical language that derives from practice, though practice may then be modified by its derived abstraction. Again, I suspect that's true of any political system.

    1. "There's still a difference between banning an argument and contending that the argument should be taken off the table."

      But Mill is very explicit in the essay that he regards simply never considering counter-arguments in some ways even worse than banning them.

      "What's wrong with proposing a "two key" launch-system for some horrible weapon, where the first key may be tried freely, but not the second?"

      Well, Mill *could* have made an argument like this... but he didn't. So I don't see any reason I had to address arguments he *might* have made!

  4. I dunno if I see your (1) as a problem or not, but it strongly reminds me of the Russel-Whitehead versions of the "liar" which came to light in Principia Mathematica. Russel's solution (since bypassed) was the Theory of Types. Could that apply here?