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Dialogue on freedom of expression and harm in Mill's On Liberty


Continue the dialogue below in the following manner. Have each participant, M, A, U and F, make an additional set of comments, in which he or she either makes the strongest possible attack on some comments already made or defends himself or herself as well as possible against criticisms of his or her position that have already been expressed in the dialogue.

M - A major capitalist who supports Mill

A - An average Canadian who supports Mill

U - A utilitarian who opposes Mill and supports the substantive model

F - A follower of Nietzsche who opposes Mill and supports aritocratic individualism

A: On the first page of Chapter III of On Liberty Mill takes an admirable stand. On the one hand he advocates the fullest possible freedom of expression for the people, but on the other hand he advocates that they be prevented from doing any harm. A perfect combination!

M: I too like what Mill says on the first page of Chapter III, but for completely different reasons. You are deluding yourself, A, when you say that Mill advocates the "fullest possible" freedom of expression for the people; he wants their freedom of expression curtailed at the very moment at which it begins to lead to effective action against the corn-dealers who are making them hungry.

You also overlook the fact that Mill does not condemn the corn-dealers for writing higher prices on their sacks of corn, even though this causes a great deal of harm. Mill wants to curtail freedom of expression only when it will harm the capitalists, not when it will harm the people.

On the first page of Chapter III Mill says: "Acts, of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and when needful, by the active intervention of mankind".

Notice that Mill is here modifying the liberal principle by allowing that some harm is "justifiable". From my capitalist point of view, a little starvation caused by raising prices is justifiable if my profits are maximized.

But you are not a capitalist, A, and I don't see why you don't support the right of the mob to engage in a little "active intervention of mankind" to force the corn-dealers to write lower prices on their sacks of corn.

For that matter, why don't you advocate the overthrow of the capitalists, because many men in the mob are going to end up dead on battlefields in World War I if they survive the corn-dealers' price rises?

Surely strong action against the capitalists is justifiable, from your point of view, because of all the harm that will result from leaving the capitalists in power.

U: Your analysis is correct, M. Whether you are a capitalist, a utilitarian or something else, the liberal principle in its original form simply is not workable.  A capitalist will sometimes want to do things that cause harm, for example start a world war, and so will a utilitarian, for example hurt capitalists in the course of overthrowing them to prevent a world war.

There are bound to be situations in which any course of action will cause some harm. We need a value principle that leads us to weigh costs and benefits before we act. Mill himself is implicitly granting the point when he begins to talk of "justifiable" harm. The issue is then which value principle will be used to show what harm is justifiable.

F: You are stupid, M. You don't see the danger to you in the position Mill takes.

Why allow the mob to gather in the first place? It could easily get out of control and kill the corn-dealers. The police should crack down as soon as people express any discontent.

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