Questionable Motives

January 10, 2010

Is John Stewart Mill’s essay On Liberty still valid?

Filed under: Argument,JS Mills,Liberty,Review — tildeb @ 1:07 am

It can be said of only a very few texts that they are touchstones for important discussions across many generations. John Stuart Mill produced such a text in 1859, and friends of freedom would do well to celebrate the sesquicentennial of On Liberty. At a time when challenges to human rights and freedom of expression continue around the world, the message of this relatively short work remains a clarion-call for liberty and the supreme dignity of the individual. Mill himself was insightful and modest enough to realise that the 19th century liberalism he virtually incarnated was but a progressive stepping-stone to a future in which, he hoped, the dignity and liberty of the individual citizen would develop to new heights. For all of its at times long-winded exposition and brevity of justification on certain key points, its style is consistently clear and even moving. Most importantly, its ideas reverberate still.

Furthermore, Mill’s related belief that even countering false opinions is a valuable exercise in logical debate may have its limits in dealing with such extreme cases. Some views are so clearly pernicious and illiberal that at the very least, their unimpeded circulation can be seen as a threat to liberalism itself. In an era when we are confronted with ongoing threats from fanatical extremists and recalcitrant authoritarians, defenders of liberty cannot afford to be too complacent about the truth prevailing in the end, as Mill believed it likely would. In our public and business dealings, we accept wisely the need for standards and laws regulating truth in many areas. These include upholding transparency in bargaining, as well as advertising standards, and laws against slander and fraud. Also, the legitimate persistence of laws in liberal democracies related to sedition and conspiracy are an institutional testament to the real need for a liberalism that can defend itself against both external and internal threats. Balancing this with the equally real need to defend civil liberties at home and abroad will require great resolve and sensitivity. For all of its limitations, On Liberty remains one of the best touchstones for this important philosophical debate.

From the excellent review by Eric Litwack here or download the entire essay here.

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