A Critical Analysis of John Stuart Mill's Book: on Liberty

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How much freedom can a person in a society have? How much freedom is too much? When can society step in and intervene with a person’s freedom? John Stuart Mill attempts to answer these questions and more in his book, On Liberty. This essay will be analyzing Mill’s book On Liberty and will be discussing Mill’s views on personal freedom in a society as well as my own opinion and whether I agree with Mill’s view or not. Mill’s views on liberty and personal freedoms are very relevant to how Canada should be governing free speech, as it helps reinforce human rights and creates equality, and freedom of speech allows us humans to create change in our society and allows people to make more informed decisions.

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In Mill’s book On Liberty Mills talks about the importance of free speech and individual freedoms. Mills argument is that freedom is a good thing if it doesn’t harm anyone else. Now harm is very vague and one of the assumptions Mills makes is that he assumes we all have the same definition of harm as he does. Mills assumes we see harm the same way he sees harm. Harm can mean different things to different people. People can read and interpret that differently. Mills is vague about what harm really means. However, it is only in the case that someone is going to harm another that coercive force is acceptable to protect the other individuals of society. Otherwise Mill’s states that the majority has no right to suppress the freedoms of the minority.

Society has no right to compromise your individual freedoms unless you are going to harm someone else. That is at the heart of Mills argument. Mills backs up his argument for free speech by saying that silencing a person’s opinion or view that is against the majority view in society robs, “the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation. ” To be more specific it robs the person who disagrees with the silenced opinion. Mills clearly states that even if just one person held a particular view society is not justified in silencing it. Same as if that person with that particular view is not justified in silencing all of mankind. It works both ways. Mills states that opinions should be expressed equally, and each have their own chance of being heard by the public. Then it is up to the individual to decide which one they agree with, but no opinion is silenced completely so that it never gets a chance to talk. Both are presented equally before the public.

Now one of Mills reasons to argue this is that the silenced opinion could be true. Then your robing all of mankind the truth. Since all of us humans are not perfect we have no right to decide issues for all people but rather it should be discussed, and every opinion shared equally. Then Mills goes on to the topic should an individual be able to express and act on their opinions without facing legal punishment or any kind of social stigma? Mills’ states that actions should not be as free as opinions however both should be limited when actions or opinions harm other members of society. Mills also notes that the reasons to respect other opinions are very similar to the reasons why we should respect other’s actions. This is key to how liberty of speech can create social change in society. People as Mills states should be allowed to act on their opinions and express them freely. This is how social change occurs by a group of people standing up and speaking out on a certain view or opinion they have about something. Change in society is impossible without this freedom. You can’t change society unless people have the freedom to their own opinions and can act on them in a civil way. In a way that doesn’t harm others and change can be a great thing in society.

In chapter four Mills goes on to talk about how much authority can a society have over an individual. When can society intervene and compromise the freedoms of the individual? Well Mills states that society and the individual should have control over the areas in their life that they are particularly interested in. Mill states the we all receive the protection of society, so we owe a conduct in return. A conduct of not hurting others interests when those interests should be rights. To say it in more general terms treating people with respect. Giving everyone in society the respect they deserve and allow them to exercise their individual freedoms. Mill also says that everyone in society is to be carrying the burdens of society and defending it. Lastly Mills dives into the topic of individuals being disapproved by opinion but not by law for harming others or violating their rights. Mills is saying here that you can hurt someone with your words. You can hurt other people’s feeling and there is no law against that.

So, in this case Mills says that people will be disapproved or looked down upon by other opinions, but no legal action will take place. Someone was hurt but it did not violate their rights as an individual in society. Mills is saying there is a difference between the two. Mills also goes on to state that society’s interests are not concerned with actions that only affect the person doing the action or by others who agreed by consent. Mills says that those actions should be legally and socially acceptable. No one should keep you from doing what you want to do in life is Mills argument here. He is saying that no one has the right to stop you from doing certain actions that only affect the person involved.

These activities should be allowed, and no one should be showing the person anger or hate, and they should not be an enemy to society just because they are participating in unpopular activities that only affect the individual. That person has the rights to do whatever they want if it doesn’t hurt anybody else. In this case its only affecting the individual who is involved so Mills agrees with this. However, there is one big limitation to this and that no individual action will have completely no effect on society. Most individual actions do also in a secondary sense affect those that are around them. In many cases an individual action can cause harm or good to a large amount of people. With Mills argument he misses that completely. Mills says that society is not interested in individual activities that could harm the person acting. Though there are tons of decisions that look to be individual in nature but end up affecting a large portion of society in the long run.

Finally, in Chapter five Mills sums up his essay and says that it can be broken down into two main points. The first being that people are not accountable to society for actions that only concern themselves. In other words, society must use warning and persuasion to deter people from actions that may harm themselves. Society is not responsible for your own actions. The second main point is that individuals are responsible for their actions that hurt others. Society can punish them legally or socially to whatever they see fit. Mills also gives an example of someone in a competitive job market. When a person succeeds in getting a job other are harmed because they are not employed. Mills states that there is no need to punish the harm in this case as the general social good produced is a positive one. Once again however Mills is very vague about what harm really means. When do you draw the line and say society can compromise the freedoms of an individual? Mills would say when it is harming someone else but what exactly is considered harm? Some other limitations with this are that Mills only looks at the general social good. Social good meaning what’s best for the greatest amount of people. In other words, what’s best for most people.

What about the minorities that are hurt in this case? Is it not society’s job to protect the minorities and their rights and freedoms? As for Mills argument with respect to free speech I agree with it. Mills makes some solid points as to why we should have absolute freedoms unless we are going to harm others. Mills does a good job at talking about the freedom to express individual opinions and thoughts. I believe also that we should be free to our personal opinions and thoughts on certain things and that we should have the freedom to express them. I also believe that Mills example of how society is at a loss when we silence an unpopular view. We lose out information about the other side of the argument and that can hurt society in the long run. Knowing both sides of an argument or why a decision is right or wrong is key to helping people make smarter decisions and being able to back them up. Knowing what the other side thinks and being able to defend your argument is key to make intelligent confident decisions. By seeing both sides you can make a more informed decision.

Also challenging the truth can help the truth become even stronger. If no one is challenging the truth, then people’s lives will not reflect the truth they believe in because they can’t back it up and prove its true. You have got to be able to speak the truth but also back it up with solid proof and without anyone challenging the truth it becomes weak after a while. Challenging the truth is key to help make it stronger. Mills clearly agrees with this as he believes everyone’s opinions should be presented fairly and none silenced.

In conclusion Mills makes an excellent argument as to why free speech should be allowed and how it really benefits society. I fully agree with Mills and his argument and the logic behind it. Mills makes very solid claims that it helps society progress and move forward as well as create social change. Freedom of speech can help people make more informed decisions since both sides of an argument can be presented fairly and equally. As well as it helps create equally and promote human rights two extremely important things need to help make a society run smoothly.

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