On liberty and responsibility

April 7, 2006

In the year that marks the bicentenary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, A. C. Grayling imagines how the philosopher would respondto the debate on academic freedom in light of the Frank Ellis case

It will always be the case in society that there will be one or a few who hold opinions strongly at variance with the majority. Such might be reformers and voices in the wilderness, calling to repentance; others might be holders of opinions that are disagreeable to the many or to best opinion. One of the latter is Frank Ellis, whose publicly aired views on the matter of race are for sound reasons not acceptable to good opinion in England - because they are wrong, because they are unjust to those against whom they are directed, and because they are provocative (and we may justly suspect, deliberately so) of dissension and discord.

And yet I hold that Ellis is entitled to voice these opinions, on the basis of the principle of free speech. True, his free speech is bad free speech. But the remedy against bad free speech is more and better free speech, not censorship. Society does itself a greater harm by silencing those with whom it disagrees than by contesting their views, which requires that speech be free on both sides of the case.

Who can argue, as once was argued in the days of enforced religious orthodoxy, that people cannot think as they like? Yet the liberty of expressing and publishing opinions falls under the same principle as liberty of thought, resting in great part on the same reasons and being in practice inseparable from it.

Mankind would be no more justified in silencing one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation and those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

Indeed, it is for the opportunity to express the fairer, truer and more generous opinion that the racist opinions, such as those of Ellis, should be permitted expression - not of course for any merit in themselves but for that opportunity itself, since for every one person who voices such views there will be others who hold them in silence, and their outlook must be challenged too.

In order to illustrate more fully the mischief of denying a hearing to opinions because we condemn them, and to recognise the principal causes that make diversity and conflict of opinion advantageous, we must recognise that when society acts tyrannically - society collectively, rather than the separate individuals who compose it - its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts it may do by the hands of its political and public functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the mind itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs to be protection also against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.

The necessity to the mental wellbeing of mankind (on which all their other wellbeing depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, rests on four distinct grounds, which are best understood when we contemplate the risk of losing truth and the advancement of knowledge through refusing to allow the expression and conflict of opinion of all kinds.

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 our own infallibility. Second, 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 object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Third, 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, fourth, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience. Such being the reasons that make it imperative that human beings should be free to form and express opinions without reserve; and such the baneful consequences to the intellectual and, through that, to the moral nature of man, unless this liberty is either conceded or asserted in spite of prohibition.

No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. But until that limit is reached, no one has the right, or a justification, for silencing even the voicing of falsehood; rather, it is our duty to contest and overcome it with truth, and to be glad of the opportunity to do so.

Adapted from John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty . A. C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. The John Stuart Mill Bicentennial Conference is being held at University College, London, this week.

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