ProjectsBlogGraphicsAbout

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty: Embracing Heresy

07 October, 2019 - 18 min read

Introduction

Born in 1806, in Northern London, John Stuart Mill was the son of a strict academic and philosopher, James Mill, who oversaw much of his son’s rigorous education with the intention of preparing him for leadership and succession of his established prowess. By the age of fifteen, Mill had absorbed an overwhelming liberal education ranging from the classics, to political economics, to calculus (Macleod, 2016). Reflecting on his father’s utilitarian influence in his life, Mill wrote that he had been raised to believe that “the object of education should be to form the strongest possible associations of the salutary class” (Mill, 2003). Mill realized by the age of twenty that, though he was poised for academic and professional success, he would still be unhappy even if he were able to enact all the changes he desired in institutions and social policy. This led him to draw the somber conclusion “I seemed to have nothing left to live for” (Mill, 2003). Recovering from this depressive episode which spanned the course of a year, Mill’s focus turned to the importance of culture and social reform rather than the policy and raw philosophy that dominated his educational upbringing (Macleod, 2016). Writing in response to the growing depreciation of individualism he perceived in Europe, John Stuart Mill offered a thorough defense of liberty and freedom as well as a unique exploration of the role that social –rather than governmental– censorship plays in damaging human progress. In this essay I will argue that his overreliance on examples of Christian doctrine strengthens his argument that constantly challenging one’s beliefs aligns them closer to the truth.

Restatement of Author’s Argument

Mill’s argument can be interpreted in sections. I will divide them by content, rather than chronology of presentation, into three divisions: his introduction on the scope of legitimate authority into the individual sphere, a survey of the dangers of doctrine and socially ingrained “truths,” and his prescriptions to resolve the infringement of freedom of opinion and action upon it. His main thesis is twofold: that there exists a tyranny of the majority opinion which interferes with individuals’ abilities to form their own opinions, and that the same laissez-faire approach ought to be applied to limiting man’s freedom to act on the opinions formed without contamination of the majority will. Mill begins by introducing his position on social theory with specific regard to the limitations of government when intervening in the public spheres of thought. In this section, he touches on the origins of authority and how these impact the scope of governmental reach in parallel to social authority. The next primary section contains his qualms against doctrine. Over the course of multiple chapters he cites examples of claims revered as “truth” held out of tradition rather than rigorous evaluation. Although the majority of his examples focus on religion and Christianity, Mill also references other historical examples of error born out of refusal to question widely held beliefs. Coinciding with these historical examples are also several contemporary instances where he applies his overarching theses to modern issues. The presentation of his suggested approach to the issues he had thus far discussed composes the third section. Mill’s work spans the course of multiple chapters and offers a holistic perspective on the issue of individualism in society which always converges upon some degree of homogeneity.

The first section offers many definitions and establishes Mill’s framework for approaching the social theory of majoritarian society. He begins by claiming that authority is originally derived by a demonstration of power by a governing group over a body who did contest those exactments of will. He juxtaposes the limits on authority with efforts of the tyrannical social majority to restrict ideas, stating that, similar to a political institution, social tyranny can also act as an oppressive force (Mill, 2014, p. 751). He argues that because of the inescapable permeability of the social fabric which penetrates far more aspects of everyone’s life than the government necessarily does, checks against such tyranny and its influence on the common opinion are indispensable in preserving a good human condition and protecting against political despotism (p. 752).

Having established his position on the necessity of constant, open dialogue on anything one deems to hold as truth, Mill transitions to his discussion on the dangers of doctrine. Touching on a hypocritical reliance on faith and religion, he characterizes his current socio-political climate on those matters as “destitute of faith, but terrified of skepticism” (p.758), asserting that although Europe may be undergoing a post-enlightenment abdication of religious vigour, they have failed to progress in morals and opinions due to the degree to which those beliefs were entrenched in the social fabric. He includes myriad examples of how the practice of holding opinions because they are commonplace is intellectually dishonest, jumping into an examination of the role of Christianity stating that the ‘holier-than-thou' Christians who claim that persecutors of the 1st and 2nd Centuries were worse people than they would do well in remembering that one such prosecutor was St. Paul (p. 760). Applying a similar lens of criticism to contemporary examples, Mill continues to develop his thesis that unchecked opinions become ingrained in society in such a way that dampens the formation and discovery of new opinions and truths. Demonstrating that the issue he is identifying is not unique to Christianity, Mill applies the similar criticisms to secular examples, asserting that “If it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, [an idea] will be held as dogma, not a living truth” (p. 765). Mill offers a wide range of examples of doctrine which he asserts should be opposed.

Having covered a lot of ground in his identification of social complacency as far as validating “truth” goes and the necessity of liberty of opinion, Mill offers the second part of his thesis as well as his suggestions for the course of society, questioning whether the same provisions regarding freedom of opinion apply to man’s capacity to act on them (p. 775), and where the line of autonomy in such situations must be drawn (p. 783). In discussing this topic, he elaborates on when it is necessary for authority –both social and governmental– to be exercised including circumstances such as: the exception of political despotism when dealing with barbarians (p. 754), cultivating an environment which raises up the weakest members of society via exertion of social norms and beliefs (p. 787), the implementation of absurd “social rights” (p. 791), the justification of taxation for revenue versus moral imposition (p. 797), whether or not an individual ought to be able to sell himself into slavery, and existing mysogynistic issues within common legal systems of the time (p. 799). Formally addressing the matter at the outset of the fifth chapter of On Liberty aptly titled “Applications,” Mill presents two maxims for the proper approach to intervention: the individual is only legally accountable in circumstances which involve people other than himself (society is limited in these circumstances to verbal confrontation and outright avoidance), and, the threshold for involvement by society or authority is only met when it is necessary for protection (p. 793). Along with further examples and specification of these maxims, Mill appends a corollary to this chapter discussing limitations of government that do not pertain to principles of liberty he had laid out thus far. The three broad situations he offers are when individual subsidiary efforts are likely better than governmental efforts; when individuals may be better served by learning from a failure that would not have occurred if the government simply performed some task for them; and when it would be better to restrict the inflation of government power (p. 801 - 802). Mill’s argument against social censorship of thought and behavior is relentless and littered with relevant examples to justify his stance.

Analysis

The entirety of Mill’s argument is valid, but some portions are less sound than others. His oscillation between historical examples and contemporary practices which demonstrate the ever-narrowing scope of thought that he aimed to combat in his essay is both convincing and thorough. Throughout the paper, he acknowledges and engages with counter-arguments (likely due to the necessity of the Socratic dialectic which he identifies as a shortcoming of modern European society and education), unpacking criticisms of his stance before they even have the chance to arise. While the reliance on Christianity as one of the primary backbones for his examples is often accurate, there are several contentastable points which he presents as fact. However, whether intentional or not, this forces his audience (many of which likely held Christianic values) to reconcile their own beliefs with what he presents as the truth, proving his point that either they were wrong and need to re-examine exactly why they believe what they believe, or, leads them to develop a stronger truth, having been able to diffuse the most earnest and strong criticisms they are faced with. Mill’s flimsy, weaker examples actually lend themselves to his overall argument.

The most compelling points Mill makes are his general statements with regard to how individuals and society as a whole ought to act towards minority opinions, behaviors, or even just opinions they themselves disagree with. In what I characterized as his second section, discussing examples of doctrine, Mill repeatedly demonstrates the necessity for constant examination. He makes this claim with urgency because “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful is the cause of half their errors” (p. 769). And, while he concedes that majority opinions often contain some grain of truth, Mill conjures the image of genius, a minority trait, to defend the minority opinion perspective, arguing that: if there is a disparity between the majority and minority opinion, the perspective to be encouraged and preserved for fear of eradicating it “is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in the minority” (p. 771). In this manner, Mill implicitly favors the middling element of a democracy which prevents radicalism and revisionism. Furthermore, Mill states that “All attempts by the State to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects are evil;” but that the state does bear some responsibility in ensuring that its citizens possess the resources to come to a conclusion on a given subject themself, just as fathers are obligated to provide education and nourishment (amongst other things) to their children. Mill implores his audience to act like civilized people when it comes to both discussion and action, constantly referring to the value of engaging with dissenters. Additionally, he goes so far as to reprimand those too cowardly in their in their own beliefs, stating that “The worst offense … is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men” (p. 774), arguing that one cannot rightly pass moral evaluations of disparate thoughts if they do not attempt to earnestly make the case for them. Mill rightly states that the only path to truth is to meet contradictory ideas on their strongest terms and compare which idea holds up best and, via his genuine acknowledgement and of potential criticisms followed by thoughtful answers, he tactfully demonstrates the applicability of his proposed means of discerning truth.

Interestingly enough, in attacking what he perceives to be the opinions those held on faith or out of practice, rather than ongoing discernment of truth and making controversial statements about the spread and practice of Christianity, Mill’s argument presented in the first section of On Liberty is most strengthened. The following is a collection of questionable claims Mill makes specifically about Christianity. After identifying the widely held belief in Christianity as one such monolith of uncontested doctrine, Mill asserts that “It is scarcely too much to say that one in a thousand [Christians] guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws”, a bold and unquantifiable statement generalizing the overwhelming majority of Christians as hypocritical zealots who only purport Chirstian values “up to the point which it is usual to act upon them” (p. 768). While he dismisses the theory of resilient truths –that Christianity, amongst other monotheistic religions, bear a kernel of truth because they survived persecution– stating that Christianity instead survived because “the persecutions were only occasional… and separated by long intervals of uninterrupted propagandism” (p. 761), I would echo the sentiments of more recent historians who document a heavier degree of empire-wide persecution of Christians by the Romans throughout the first, second, and third centuries, during which Christian practice was rarely legal; they were compelled to make sacrificial pagan libations as demonstrations of fealty to the empire, and, under emperor Trajan Decius in the mid-third Century, culminated in the institution of aggressive and violent nationwide persecutory tactics (Ehrman, 2015). While martyrdom narratives were certainly utilized as propagandist conversion tools, without the less-than-infrequent persecutions, Christianity would not have sustained its following nor spread as voraciously as it did. Although these assertions about the behaviors of Christians, as well as its legitimacy as rooted in the history of its rapid spread, are somewhat inflammatory he includes other examples of similar instances of hypocrisy or intellectual dishonesty with regard to justifications of “truth” such that his overall identification of shallow-minded attachment to doctrine still holds.

The second set of contestable claims Mill makes that I wish to address pertain to the texts that the beliefs are derived from themselves. With respect to the Gospel, Mill criticizes the ambiguity of many of the passages, relegating them to a status of poetry rather than something around which one could orient their individual and/or spiritual morals. Mill reduces the sayings of Christ to a strictly literal interpretation, stating that “they are irreconcilable with nothing which a comprehensive morality requires” (Mill, 2014, p. 772). He characterizes the Old Testament as an elaborate system fit for barbarians and that the ideals presented are negative rather than positive. He claims that the Bible espouses an apparent approval of slavery (with no citation nor footnote), and that Christian morals are driven by the threat of hell and reward of heaven rather than altruistic motive. Last on the laundry lists of claims I wish to challenge are his criticisms of the Bible as lacking a social code of ethics and operating rather as a doctrine of passive obedience towards the state (p. 772 - 773). In the span of two pages, Mill presents several contestable points of criticism on Christianity and the Church, however the gripes are brief, and undeveloped; he fails to engage them on the fairest ground of presentation as he had been claiming is essential to uncovering truth. Instead, Mill offers an argument which demonstrates the transparent opposition to the Church which was contagious among Enlightenment thinkers.

In order to address these criticisms in the manner proposed by Mill throughout the rest of his writing, it is necessary to approach them through the appropriate lens of interpretation. That is not to say that one must attempt to be a Christian in order to challenge Christianity. Rather, that, as with any other literary exegesis, one must understand the circumstances during which something was written and for what purpose. To address his first point, that the Gospel is strewn with ambiguous messages and eloquence rather than explicit legal or ethical code, I would argue that this contrast with the highly explicit enumerations within the Torah are an instrumental characteristic of Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism: shifting the focus from rigid adherence the Abrahamic Law to leading a more flexibly moral life reflective of Christ’s own. What Mill describes as vague and irreconcilable I would argue are broad and accessible truths. After stating that the Gospel is too broad, Mill flips to the Old Testament, describing it as a barbarous text for barbarous people (p. 772), likely in reference to passages immediately following the Exodus which contain instructions (albeit presented as religious imperatives) for the Israelites to not only survive in the desert via numerous passages pertaining hygiene on their journey to the promised land, but to also identify them as God’s people, set apart from the rest of the society by their esoteric practices. Whereas the Talmud contains borderline-excessive legalese, the Gospel consists of numerous repudiations of the stringent Jewish Law in favor of the comparatively transcendent virtues contained in Jesus’ parables, dialogues, and advocacy for positive ideals. Whereas Mill claims that Christian morality is driven by the threat of hell and incentive of heaven, I would argue that the overwhelming majority of Jesus’ message in the Gospel pertains to an immediate relationship with God through Christ. While it happens to be eternal, Jesus’ message focuses on the quality of that relationship, rather than the duration. Lastly, Mill’s criticism that Christianity observed a status quo between an oppressive state and oppressed minority (“give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”), and therefore cannot be revered as a beacon of social ethics, fails to understand that 1st Century Christians held a strictly apocalyptic worldview. They believed that the world would end in their lifetime. Therefore, rather than draw more attention by identifying themselves as insurgent groups of radical monotheists worshipping a king other than the emperor, Jesus’ advice on obedience to the state makes sense: what difference would it make where your money goes, you need to be focused on the afterlife. Though several of his criticisms are correct and just (such as condemning the theocratic practices in Spain which lasted until 1859, restrictions on heretical books, and the ongoing appropriation of Christian morality by the Catholic Church to act as a political body), a substantial portion of his examples are cherry-picked or presented as strawmen.

As would be necessary in order to genuinely present the position he claims, Mill exhaustively acknowledges counterarguments in order to demonstrate the value of engaging with opposing beliefs. Rarely, does he make assumptions of fact without justifying them extensively, and the few cases where he does have been addressed above. A notable exception is when he humorously asks, for the purpose of argument, the audience to suspend any qualms they may have with his argument thus far “dismissing the supposition that any of the received opinions may be false, let us assume them to be true and examine into the worth of the manner in which they are likely to be held” (p. 765). Other counterpoints he addresses include the possibility of a lame duck government that would result from his restrictions on authority (p. 756), the aforementioned argument of resilient truth from persecution, the dialectic with himself against the necessity of pursuit of truth (p. 766), and the limits of what is knowable (p. 768). As always, Mill is thorough in his explication of his idea. With the exceptions addressed above, his prose are sincere, robust, and thoughtful.

Whereas my criticism of Mill’s argument lies in a narrow subset of examples he offers, his thesis on the whole is strong and my disagreements merely strengthen his point that ideas can only be truly developed through perpetual examination lest they fall to the status of unquestionable doctrine. This portion of his thesis is strongest in the passages of On Liberty that the reader most vehemently disagrees with, as they force him or her to reconcile their own opinions against the criticisms resulting in either a stance strengthened by challenge, or a change of perspective in the face of truth.

Conclusion

ecause of Mill’s use and misuse of Christianity as an example of the dogmatic practices he identifies as damaging for society in the area of critical thinking, his argument that commonly held opinions must always be scrutinized in order to prevent them from losing their truth is strengthened. In On Liberty, Mill presents ideas challenging much of the previously held theories on the limitations of governmental reach and further augments those ideas to apply to social authority over the individual or minority as well. Arguing in favor of preserving and protecting minority opinions, challenging doctrine, and earnestly engaging with opposing beliefs, Mill’s essay serves as a manifesto for how he thought the individual should approach the social spheres of thought. Commenting on the limitations of governmental and social limitations for censoring freedom of both ideas and actions, he also offers provisions for when he believes intervention is necessary, implicitly favoring a libertarian approach to such interactions. While parts of his argument regarding doctrine often rely on questionable claims about Christianic history and beliefs, these claims serve to force the reader to pursue the truth by earnestly engaging with the challenges presented, and ultimately discern truth or abdicate their previous beliefs in favor of the new facts presented, demonstrating the necessity for the vigilant mindset Mill advocates for. On Liberty represents an exhaustive take on the necessity for individual pursuit of truth and liberty of opinion.

References

  • Ehrman, Bart D. “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.” Sixth ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Macleod, C. (Ed.). (2016, August 25). John Stuart Mill. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/.
  • Mill, John Stuart. (2003). Autobiography [10378]. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10378/10378-h/10378-h.htm#link2HCH0001.
  • Mill, John Stuart. (2014). On Liberty. In S. M. Cahn (Ed.), Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.