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John Stuart Mills’ – on Liberty

In the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of speech is expressed in Section 2(b) as “a freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”. There have also been many great philosophers and advocates who have battled to gain and promote this right. Visionaries such as John Locke, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson eloquently supported for the right to freely debate, and believed it to be a fundamental right for human liberty. Though these advocates were exceptional, the man the most influential in defining free speech and its importance is John Stuart Mill and his essay “On Liberty”.

On Liberty” proposes that for freedom to properly flourish, it must be free in all aspects, with almost no limitations from any source, either government or individuals. Although written in 1859, Mill’s opinion is still relevant and can be applied to current political controversies and events in Canada such as the infamous Human Rights Complaints against Maclean’s Magazine. Thus, “On Liberty”, a treatise that espoused a doctrine of almost unrestricted speech and action, is still applicable to modern political events. Furthermore, it provides an almost perfect analysis of free speech and the proper limits on it.

John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” is an essay which has a very simple theory, the “Harm Principle”. The Harm Principle states ‘that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. Mill reiterates this point when he says “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. Although this principle sounds like one based only on philosophy, it also has a very utilitarian purpose. J. S. Mill uses three different hypothetical situations to prove that allowing all matter of speech and opinion is useful.

His first argument is that the opinion being espoused is in fact correct. He states that “ages themselves are no more infallible than individuals”. Though a certain age might believe that their opinion is correct, history has shown that in retrospect, ideas once held in great regard, “will be deemed not only false but absurd”. He uses historical examples such as the execution of Socrates and the persecution of the Christians by Marcus Aurelius to show that the opinion held by the majority in their respective era is now seen in a different and more negative light. The second argument that

John Stuart Mill makes is that even if the opinion is wrong, it still holds value as contrast to the truth. It is from the hottest fires that one gets the hardest steel, and the steel of truth, Mill argues, is forged from the fire of criticism from false and different opinions. J. S. Mill says that when the truth is able to collide against falsehoods, one is able to get a “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth”. Also, he states that if society makes it illegal or immoral for someone to incorrectly argue against an accepted belief, the truth becomes a dead dogma, nable to stand up to even superficial challenges against it.

As well, it leads to apathy towards that belief, even though it is widely accepted. Moreover, John Stuart Mill would find the idea of a government censuring political thought reprehensible. Though some might argue that “it is not conscientiousness, but cowardice to allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind”, such as hate speech, to be spoken, Mill claims that this will give a fallible government too much power to determine what is a dangerous doctrine and what is legitimate belief, thus limiting free speech.

John Stuart Mill’s final argument uses the pretense that an opinion can be partially correct and incorrect. Just as there is a “party of order and a party of progress”, and they are both “necessary elements of a healthy state of political life to keep their respective doctrines within reason, the truth is very similar. The truth is reached through the collision of adverse opinions and the “reconciling and combining [of] opposites” and compromise and thus the best aspect of each doctrine is chosen and the whole truth is discovered.

Mill does allow for one area of exception where the government is allowed to intervene and limit free speech. This exception is when the speech is likely to lead to a “positive instigation to some mischievous act”. The direct example he uses is that the opinion “corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is theft” should be uninhibited when circulated in the press. However, these opinions and actions may “justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob” or “in form of a placard” outside the house of a corn dealer or property owner.

Also, Mill makes the distinction between legal action against an individual for their beliefs, and a person’s own reaction to an opinion. Mill argues that the holder of a certain ideas “may be justly punished by opinion, not the law’. Thus Mill advocates for a wide variety of beliefs to be allowed and only considers limits reasonable to a person’s freedom of speech when it causes or will cause direct harm. Mill’s essay “On Liberty’ can be translated to modern Canada, and specifically its human rights commissions. “Hurt feelings aside, the greatest human rights abusers in Canada are the human rights commissions”.

This quote from the Toronto Sun, although controversial, speaks to the problems of Canadian and Provincial Human Rights Commissions and free speech. These commissions have been empowered to hear cases both in the realm of free speech and hate speech. The case which garnered the most attention was the case of Mark Steyn and Maclean’s Magazine. In this controversy, complaints were brought towards the Canadian Human Rights Commission, British Columbia Human Rights Commission, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, by the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC).

They accused Maclean’s, more specifically Mark Steyn’s writings (although not a defendant), of hate speech and contributing to xenophobia and Islamophobia. In this modern free speech issue, consulting a classic essay such as “On Liberty” helps to provide valuable insight. As stated before, John Stuart Mill would disagree with the method taken by the CIC in involving the government in an issue of free speech. J. S. Mill would tell these claimants that while they may see the articles in Maclean’s as offensive, it is their duty not to involve the government, but to exercise their “right to express their distaste”.

They could also avoid the person or institution writing these opinions, as long as through this process they do not make another individual person’s life uncomfortable. Another reason why J. S. Mill WOUld have not limited Maclean’s free speech rights was because of their venue and circumstance of the presentation of these articles. These articles were published and circulated through the media to stir public thought and debate, just as any good political writer would do.

However, if Mark Steyn or anyone in general, had orated this speech to a mob, in front of a Mosque or any Muslims house or place of worship, he could be legally punished for trying to cause a “mischievous act” and thus cause direct harm. However, since it was published in a magazine and thus didn’t cause direct harm, John Stuart Mill would take no exceptions to its publication. Even though “On Liberty” was written over 150 years ago in Victorian England, its central ideas are still almost applicable to 21st Century Canada.

Its main tenet, the Harm remains a major doctrine of Liberal Democracy. As well as being the correct view on free speech (due to the previously stated arguments), Mill’s justification for allowing all speech continues to be a significant aspect of the dialogue on free speech. Nonetheless, one significant criticism of this essay and doctrine has been that his principle does not properly address indirect harm, such as hate speech, and that the history of events in the 20th Century, proves and dictates that the government must play a more important role in regulating speech to protect citizens.

However, there are many problems and adverse effects that come from this philosophy. Firstly, who would be the fair arbiter for what is hate speech and what is acceptable speech. The price that a society pays to filter out hate through government regulation is the regulation of all speech, whether it is legitimate or not. Should the government really hold the power to regulate what is debated in national magazines and by millions of Canadians? If the government is able to regulate what one citizen or group of citizens say, what prevents them from regulating honest opinion.

Although some might say it is cynical to suggest the government would abuse its powers, others suggest it is a reasonable assumption to make that allowing bureaucrats and legislators to regulate speech could corrupt the regulators and government, thus eliminating the essential right of freedom of speech. Also, who is to say that what the government is infallible n its assessment of what would be deemed acceptable speech. As shown above, and throughout “On Liberty’, government is just as imperfect as any individual in its assessment of morals and values.

It is John Stuart Mill’s idea of a market place of idea where the truth and falsehoods are able to compete and collide to form the best opinions for society to accept, not government regulation. Also, best summarized by Rex Murphy, “If Mark Steyn’s article offended them, so what. Not every article in every magazine or newspaper is meant to be a valentine card addressed to every readers self-esteem”. His articles did exactly what every single reputable publication should do, and that is to create public dialogue on controversial topics. Mill would argue, journalism like this is essential to foster a society of “intellectually active people”.

Also Maclean’s published a whole magnitude of letters after the Mark Steyn article, “more than any in its history’. That in essence is democracy and the free exchange of ideas and opinions. The second problem with a view of more government regulation is that it regulates an area which already self-regulates itself quite sufficiently. It would be a fair tatement to say that most reasonable minded Canadians do not approve of discrimination or hate. Most Canadians try to avoid bigotry at any circumstance they can because they know intrinsically that it is incorrect and cruel.

An example of this is the vile and vitriolic words and speech that groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church (such as signs of “God Hates F**s”, or protesting soldiers’ funerals). These people are seen as morally reprehensible in their discrimination against ones sexuality and its insensitivity towards families who have lost loved ones. Yet it is not the government who has caused this group o be seen as on the fringe, but rather it’s the vast majoritVs own tastes and opinions which have pushed this group to the peripheral.

Celebrities such as the Foo Fighters, or Michael Moore have mocked and ridiculed this group. Through their own actions, they have marginalized themselves, and now have become a punch line to jokes rather than a major political actor. Although this group is seen as extremely radical it is effective in symbolizing, rather than act as a singular example, what the effects of poor speech are. When this radical opinion is juxtaposed with the truth, it proves Mill’s point that government does ot need to regulate speech because their opinions acts as great contrast to the truth.

Rather than helping their own cause, their opinions have helped to act as a contrast to other opinions, just as Mill stated, which has caused their group to be even more sidelined, thus showing that the government does not need to regulate speech, because society already greatly regulates morally disgraceful opinions. “On Liberty’ has had an almost immeasurable impact on Western thought and philosophy. Its eloquence and reasoning has helped to make it a classic that is venerated internationally. Since 1859, this essay has dramatically ffected policies on free speech as well as being the foundation of classical liberal opinion on free speech.

Its espousal of the “Harm Doctrine”, an idea that speech and action should be free and inhibited except when it harms another, has had a monumental impact on governments and individuals worldwide. Throughout his work, J. S. Mill makes very strong utilitarian arguments for unlimited speech, with very narrow limitations. This philosophy is one which still can be applied to modern examples such as the Maclean’s Magazine “Islamophobia” controversy. Also, even though it was written over a century and a half old, its analysis of he merits of nearly unrestricted speech still hold true today.

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