Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Problems with Mill’s Masterpiece

By Bo Winegard, Quillette

The condition of human life is such that we must of necessity be restrained and compelled by circumstances in nearly every action of our lives. Why, then, is liberty, defined as Mr. Mill defines it, to be regarded as so precious?
~James Fitzjames Stephen

Of all the works written in defense of free speech, and of liberalism more broadly, few have been as celebrated as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which is widely regarded as the definitive source for free speech advocacy. Mill advances the audacious argument that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted … in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” Thus, he demands “liberty of … conscience … in the most comprehensive sense,” of which freedom of expression and the press are “practically inseparable” parts. Mill champions an expansive, almost absolute position on freedom of speech, specifically considering and then rejecting appeals to moderation with the claim that “unless the reasons [for free expression] are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

Furthermore, Mill not only attacks suppression and censorship backed by government force, but also suppression and censorship promoted by pressures for conformity among the public, lamenting that such pressures are often as effective as prison: “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.”


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