Free Speech (in association with English PEN, and the Bishopsgate Institute)
lead by Nigel Warburton
6.30 pm - 8.30 pm at the Free Word Centre, Farringdon. Ticket holders only. Course sold out.
2nd Nov. Introductory Session: J.S. Mill's 'On Liberty'
9th Nov. Free Speech and the Internet, Theories of Free Speech, Limits
30th Nov. Library visit to Bishopsgate Library
7th Dec. Gillian Slovo, novelist, on free speech and the arts
Notes on J.S. Mill's On Liberty (1859)
Mill's little book is the classic statement of a liberal position on free speech. The second chapter 'Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion' is still the starting point for many discussions of this topic.
Mill was a consequentialist (consequentialism is a general name for moral theories that judge the rightness of an action on the basis of probable outcomes rather than absolutes) who believed that individual development and flourishing required freedom. He was concerned to counteract both the curbing of individuals' activities by paternalistic laws and also bywhat he called 'the tyranny of the majority', the force of public disapproval. In order to flourish, he believed, geniuses need space in which to live their lives without interference, even if that offends, or worries those around them. But so does every adult who is in a position to decide for him or herself (i.e. is of sound mind and is not a child).
The limit of freedom for Mill was the point were an individual's actions risked harming other people. This is his so-called Harm Principle, and he applies it throughout the book.
In Chapter 2, he gives 4 main arguments as to why free speech should be tolerated and even encouraged up to the point of inciting violence. For Mill, even false opinions have great value, perhaps more value in some cases than widely-held true ones as they stimulate discussion and deeper understanding of what might otherwise be mere dead dogma. It is through the collision of truth with error in the marketplace of ideas that humanity flourishes and progresses. Here's his own summary found towards the end of this chapter (p.115-6 of the Penguin Classics ed.):
We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of manking (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds, which we will now briefly recapitulate:
First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume your own infallibility.
Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never thew hole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remained of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly,the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering hte ground and preventing growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience.
Relevant Links to texts and audio online
The full text of J.S. Mill's On Liberty available online here
A podcast summarising the main themes and possible criticisms of On Liberty (based on my book Philosophy: The Classics)
A general audio discussion of Mill's On Liberty with Mill expert Alan Ryan is available here, together with a downloadable transcript (scroll down in the righthand column of the linked page)
Listen to my podcast interview with Richard Reeves (author of an excellent biography of Mill) on the topic of On Liberty (from the series Philosophy Bites - also available on iTunes)