On Liberty

On Liberty Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2

On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

Mill asserts that the government shouldn't act at the beckon of the people because the public shouldn't have the power of coercion over their elected governing body. The government is much more dangerous when dependent on unreliable public opinion. Indeed, public opinion is the popular sentiment of mankind, but forming this opinion requires the silencing of a lot of voices. This omission of minority opinions is very hurtful to the public whether the opinions are wrong or right. If a silenced opinion is right, obviously the public misses out on the truth. However, if the suppressed opinion is wrong, the danger in its loss is often more grave. If a minority opinion can be wrong, it leads to "the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth."

The majority opinion is not guaranteed to be correct; it can be wrong for the majority has no true authority and no absolute certainty. The fallibility of majority opinions is exemplified by looking at past history, according to Mill. Past popular opinion has often been rejected by present-day society, and there is no guarantee that present popular opinion won't also be rejected by the future. Individuals can only form the most intelligent, educated opinions that they are capable of, but they shouldn't force those opinions on the whole of society unless they are certain of their truth. Mill believes that in order to make good decisions, men must use discussion and experience. Men who are fair keep their mind open to all ideas and search for opposing arguments, realizing the necessity of a devil's advocate. To Mill, a so-called fact must be held up to debate or "it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth." Mill points out that even in the doctrine of Christianity, which is assumed by Christians to be correct, the importance to listening to all sides is expressed. Mill also points out that a man doesn't have to be evil to argue against the basic beliefs upheld by society, invoking Socrates as proof that people can misjudge even the most competent and well-intentioned minds. On the other hand, men can misjudge potential good ideas for society. Mill refers to Marcus Aurelius, who, although a good man, wrongly judged and refuted Christianity. Contrary to popular opinion, Mill states that the truth does not always emerge in the end; men don't necessarily support the truth with more passion than they support falsehoods.

Also, Mill points to the fact that a belief in God shouldn't be the litmus test for someone's trustworthiness. If an Atheist tells the truth and admits that he doesn't believe in God, he is not trusted but if he lies and says he has faith, he will be trusted ­ obviously the wrong result. Mill also refutes the importance of doctrine, particularly religious ones. He believes that very few people actually follow the doctrine to its letter, rather they just follow the laws dictated by society, only living up to the standards that society imposes and not the higher ones include in doctrines.

Mill points to a final type of dissenting opinion that isn't necessarily right or wrong, but nonetheless helpful. It is the type of opinion that provides part of the truth that is missing in public opinion. This augmentation effect is the most probable state of affairs, states Mill. He says that both popular and opposing opinions are rarely completely right and a balance between the two should be reached in order for the real truth to be found. Too often, says Mill, either opinion is preferred in its entirety and the other opinion that holds part of the truth is neglected. Mill extends this theory to religion, saying that those who adhere to the Bible as the complete truth are misinterpreting its intent to supplement the strong personal ethics and character already assumed to be present. To make his point that morality and religion do not necessarily go hand in hand, Mill asserts that some of the most moral individuals were indeed not Christians.

Analysis of Chapter 2

In this chapter, Mill's ideas on society are tempered with his views on religion and its importance in the search for truth. Although Mill believes in the sovereignty of the individual, he refutes the idea that government should adhere to popular opinion. He doesn't believe that the government should ever stop victimless free expression even if public opinion deems it necessary. Mill's extreme liberalism is reflected in his statement that mankind does not even have the authority to silence one opinion, much less the whole of the minority. Mill's argument of human fallibility is strong - Mill asserts that all opinions need to be heard in order for anyone to decide what is the truth. However, this argument based on infallibility seems to be an infinite one, a student of Mill would wonder where the indecision would end, after how much deliberation would a truth be validated? How would one ever be certain of the truth and what kind of chaos would the resulting uncertainty yield?

The basis of Mill's idea is the argument that has been present in many liberation movements throughout history before and after Mill's time: the argument that issues should not be forever closed for debate once a consensus has been reached. The Women's Suffrage Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War are all examples of where the minority opinion, which needed to be heard, was suppressed in error.

Indeed, probably the most interesting aspect of Mill's work in this chapter is his views on religion. While he doesn't discount the importance of Christian faith, he seems to place it in perspective. He doesn't believe that one should solely adhere to the doctrine of religion and ignore the importance of personal integrity standing on its own merit. Mill's inference that Christianity was more of a dead dogma than a living truth created great controversy at the time of On Liberty's publication. Also, he addresses the bias that many non-Christians face when their opinions are discounted because of their religious beliefs by stating the fact that many of the most brilliant moral men were indeed, refuters of the Christian faith. He doesn't accept the correlation between religious belief and honesty because he believes that honesty is an intrinsic factor of personal quality, not religion.