Sources & Extracts

Review this excerpt and then go back to the main thread.


In the early 19th century, both James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill wrote on the subject of a free press and its importance for holding government responsible to the governed and preventing tyranny. In his later essay On Liberty, John addressed the question of liberty in broader terms, no longer confining himself to the case of a free press. He gave classic formulation to several arguments for tolerating the expression of diverse views, including opinions that are false. Mill, like the character Ann in this dialogue, was a utilitarian in ethics. Thus his arguments for freedom of expression are always cast as utilitarian arguments. He summarized his argument for freedom of thought and discussion as follows:

We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the 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 our 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 the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder 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 the ground and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience.

Reference: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, chapter 2.