6: Freedom to Be Me


Liberty Enlightening the World
New York

  • Read, analyze, and critique philosophical texts
  • Define and appropriately use important terms such as utilitarianism, liberty, and assumption of infallibility
  • Apply ethical concepts and principles to address moral concerns.

I. Eighteenth Century Thought on Liberty

Key Terms

Assumption of Infallibility

  • A. John Locke
    • English physician
    • Enlightenment Thinker
    • Life, liberty, property
  • B. Thomas Paine
    • American colonist
    • Common Sense
    • Argued for equality and liberty among men
  • C. Jeremy Bentham
    • English barrister
    • Founded the Philosophical Radicals
    • Utilitarianism
    • Actions judged by results
    • Actions that lead to happiness are better


The burden of proof should be on those who want to limit liberty, not on those who want more liberty

II. John Stuart Mill

  • Father: James Mill, active member of the Philosophical Radicals
  • Extensive education by father
  • No formal schooling
  • Wrote books around the same time he was a Member of Parliament
  • On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), The Subjection of Women (1869) 

III. Summary of On Liberty

  • Defense of the liberty of the individual with regard to the state’s authority
  • The state should be restricted when it comes to the freedom of individuals
  • Especially applies to democracies to prevent them from becoming a “tyranny of the majority”
  • Minority opinions should be permitted
  • Truth is strengthened by open debate
  • Government intervention is only appropriate if an individual’s actions harm another individual
  • Justified through Utilitarianism


Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign

IV. On Liberty, Chapter 1

  • Introduction
  • Clarifies objectives of the book
  • He will discuss social liberty
  • What kind of power society can have over the individual and still consider itself just
  • Asserts the only time an Individual’s liberty can be threatened or suppressed is if the Individual is harming others
  • This harming others does not apply to arguing with another’s opinion
  • The discussion of liberty is restricted to competent adults (no children, no “backward” societies)
  • Three categories of human liberty
    • Human consciousness
    • Self-determination
    • Actions with consenting adults

V. On Liberty, Chapter 2

  • A. Should the opinions of another person be limited? No.
  • B. Why shouldn’t opinions be limited? First, the suppressed opinion might be true.
    • People can be wrong
    • Everyone won’t agree with a position
    • The Assumption of Infallibility is misleading
    • Both people and the world are fallible
    • Counterclaims to Mill’s first argument
      1. If one disagrees with another’s opinion it is his moral and intellectual obligation to prevent others from agreeing with it
        • Not so, says Mill, because opinions must be tested by experience and discussion
        • A person must be open to the possibility he or she might be wrong
      2. The state should promote beliefs that benefit society
        • Not so, says Mill, because this presumes an Assumption of Infallibility. How can we possibly determine what benefits society?
        • When states make the decision to suppress those that voice contrary opinions, people die who in hindsight shouldn’t have
        • Even if we could be certain an opinion is true, it should hold up to criticism
        • When “true” but unpopular opinions are persecuted, the good of humanity is threatened
        • Even if we don’t kill dissenters anymore, any suppression of opinion is wrong because it attaches a social stigma to the ideas
      3. If a public opinion is true, dissenting opinions should be suppressed.
        • Not so, says Mill, because a public opinion should hold up to criticism, especially if it is true
        • Consider when “true" beliefs were persecuted for the good of humanity
        • Truth when suppressed may take time to be raised again
      4. We don’t actually kill dissenters anymore, so their opinions still exist.
        • Not so, says Mill, because any suppression of an opinion is wrong
        • Attaching a social stigma to a belief is only the first step
          • Consequences could grow in the future if we open the door to any persecution of thought
  • C. Why shouldn’t opinions be limited? Second, without debate, the “true” and popular opinion will become dead dogma
    • Counterclaims to Mill’s second argument
      1. Teach people why beliefs are held
        • Not possible without argument, Mill says
        • If people cannot disagree with you, it’s impossible to fully understand your argument
        • A stagnant belief is a dead belief
      2. Let philosophers and theologians become experts on why a belief is held
        • This counterclaim defeats itself because it allows for dissent
        • Beyond this point, who distinguishes between common man and philosopher?
  • D. Why shouldn’t opinions be limited? Third, without debate, the “true” and popular opinion will lose meaning
    • Reasoning behind the meaning will be lost
    • We will descend into rote phrases
    • We will rely on logical fallacies like Arguments from Tradition and beliefs lose their living power
    • Counterclaims to Mill’s third argument
      1. Is it necessary for everyone who holds a belief to understand why?
        • Even if Mill answers no, it’s not necessary, that doesn’t disprove his argument
        • Regardless, Mill maintains that there is a loss of meaning
        • For example, rather than considering what should be done, modern religions focus only on abstaining from evil
        • A list of “don’t do these things” requires no understanding and that is what religion has been reduced to
  • E. Why shouldn’t opinions be limited? Fourth, when there are two majority opinions, neither is completely right and the best answer is somewhere in between
    • Opposing viewpoints bring a “fragment of wisdom” to light to improve the majority opinion
    • Counterclaims to Mill’s fourth argument
      1. Some principles say they are the whole truth (religion)
        • Human imperfection negates this idea
  • F. Mill’s final thoughts on debate
    • Can there be a “fair discussion” rule as part of dissenting opinions?
    • Not really
    • The rules for being fair would be governed by the majority
    • This would inevitably lead to discrimination against the minority
    • The state has no right to restrict Individual opinion except in cases where another individual will be harmed