Freedom of thought and opinion is a staple of a free society, no matter how unpopular ideas are. Some of the worst forms of oppression throughout world history have come when people have been persecuted for holding certain beliefs. This belief can be in the form of religion, political thought, or any other ideas. This is a topic that John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher of the 19th century, wrote about extensively in his book On Liberty. Mill argued that we need to hear out all opinions, even if they are believed to be false, as Mill believed that the goal of society was to reach an agreed-upon truth. This could only happen if all ideas were welcomed into society. While Mill makes a strong argument that individuals have the right to freedom of thought, people in power hold different responsibilities than individuals in society that prevent them from believing in whatever they want. Throughout this essay, I will use Mill’s book On Liberty to show that people in power should not have the freedom of thought when the facts have been agreed upon by experts, and ignoring the truth leads to others losing their freedom.
To start, we need a general overview of Mill’s beliefs on liberty and how they relate to freedom of thought. In general, Mill’s thoughts on liberty and ethics are pretty straightforward, as he believes that individuals have the freedom to do what they want as long it does not harm others. He writes, “If anyone does an act hurtful to others, there is a primâ facie case for punishing him by law, or… by general appropriation” (198). Each person has the freedom to as they please as long as it does not harm others; if it does, then punishment is acceptable. We can find this idea in Mill’s concept of liberty of thought and opinion. Mill believed that all opinions had the right to be heard and that any form of suppressing an opinion would be contrary to freedom. We can see this when Mill writes, “If all mankind minus one, where of one opinion, and only one person was of the country opinion, mankind would be no more justified silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power” (204). This shows Mills’s general idea about liberty of thought and opinion. No matter the opinion or the belief, as long as it is not hurting anyone, there is no instance when silencing it is justified. Now, we must understand why he believes this.
The underlying goal for Mill is the lofty ideal of truth and the hope that society can work together to find it, which must be done through discussion. Mill believed that “It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can” (207). For this to happen, open discussion needs to be welcomed, as “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility” (205). If the goal is to find the truth, then any suppression of an idea assumes that it is false without justification. This is an issue as the idea could be true or contain true aspects, thus hurting the pursuit of the truth. Even if the idea is false or contains false aspects, there is still a lot to lose; discussions of false opinions lead to a “clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth, produced by its collision with error” (205). The goal is to find the truth and to create a better society as a whole. This cannot happen if individuals do not have the right to believe what they want.
While the concept of allowing people to believe what they want in the hopes that we will have an open discussion towards the truth is a nice idea, sometimes people may refuse to face facts. We have all been in situations where people stubbornly refuse to accept that their opinion is wrong. This is a situation that is happening more and more on the internet and within our political system. Mill references this idea when he writes, “There is a class of person who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the ground of the opinion and could not make a tenable defence of it” (225). There are people who are told information and believe it without having their ideas based in arguments and sound facts. For Mill, “assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument- this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being” (226). Truth needs to be grounded in rational argument, and to hold something to be true without it is to go against our very nature of what makes us human, our reason and rationality. There are many instances when an individual can believe what he wants no matter if his belief is based on argument or not, as it does not affect others. However, figures of authority and people who hold power within our government are very different as all of their beliefs affect people in this country and people all over the world. Therefore, should these people have the freedom to believe whatever they want?
While believing in facts and the truth should be an easy thing to do, there are many situations when people will consciously or unconsciously ignore facts due to other desires or wishes; this is what is happening in our political system. Our current political system functions with politicians doing their best to consistently win reelection to maintain power. At times, this process allows and encourages politicians to ignore facts and truth to maintain this power. This is especially due to the influence that money has within our system and the liberty that individuals and corporations have to spend on campaigns. This is all due to a supreme court case called Citizens United. The supreme court ruled in January 2010 “that corporations and other outside groups can spend unlimited money on elections” (Lau). Elections are expensive, and money has a large impact on the outcome of the election. With large companies allowed to donate to campaigns as they please, this encourages politicians to do whatever it takes to please these companies, and other donors, leading to the truth being ignored sometimes. To understand this best, we should look at a specific idea that many politicians and companies refuse to believe: climate change.
Climate change is a prime example of a belief that should be regulated as the discussion of whether or not it is real has been had by scientists. Political opinions that have already been agreed upon by experts should have some regulation—creating a system that prevents people in power from believing what they would stipulates that the truth is already known. As previously quoted, Mill believed that “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility” (205). The keyword here is assumption, as, what if we are not assuming? Scientists have already had the argument about climate change. Julia Rosen, who has a Ph.D. in geology, writes in the New York times,
There’s no denying that scientists love a good, old-fashioned argument. But when it comes to climate change, there is virtually no debate: Numerous studies have found that more than 90 percent of scientists who study Earth’s climate agree that the planet is warming and that humans are the primary cause.
The world’s best scientists have already had this argument, and it is hard to say that the truth has not been agreed upon. Beliefs that experts have already agreed upon to be true should not be a part of our political discussion and should not be questioned by our political leaders as the goal of finding the truth has already been achieved.
The second component of climate change and other political beliefs that need to be regulated are dangerous to individuals and the public. The core of Mill’s argument about liberty and freedom of thought is that it is allowed as long as it does not harm others. This is not the case for climate change. When people in power ignore climate change, it directly harms millions of people all over the world. This is something that Mill agrees needs to be regulated and punished. Mill writes, “No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty” (279). Due to the fact that they hold power, they have more responsibility. This responsibility means that their beliefs hold much more weight as they lead to policies being created that affect millions of people worldwide. Therefore, their beliefs cannot harm other people, which is the key component of Mill’s beliefs on liberty. Mills stated when one does harm the liberty of other people; consequences are acceptable. Thus, we need to consider policies that will prevent politicians from avoiding the truth that harms other individuals.
How can regulation of the political system help maintain liberty without hurting more people than it is protecting? The first steps that need to be taken ensure that the current system does not encourage political leaders to ignore the truth. This is an idea that Mill references when he writes, “oppositions of interest between individuals often arise from bad social institutions, but are unavoidable while those institutions last” (294). While Mill is referring to social institutions, this can very easily be applied to the political institutions that we have here in the United States. Due to certain policies in place, such as Citizen’s United, certain politicians will avoid the truth. Money has too much say in our political system, especially when it comes from corporations. Therefore, it is not the fault of politicians but the system that creates a conflict of interest. The politician needs to decide between their jobs or the truth at times, and the system lets and encourages them to choose their jobs. However, the most challenging component of this question is that we live in a representative democracy, and the people are the ones who give certain people power, no matter if their beliefs are based on truth. While the power is in the people’s hands, measures can be put in place that prevents dangerous political beliefs from gaining power. While this may sound a bit difficult, it is something that the framers of the constitution built into our system with the electoral college. Therefore, inhibiting who gains and maintains power in this country is not so farfetched an idea and should be discussed more often.
While the idea of limiting who can gain power and what beliefs can gain traction in this country may seem contrary to the goal of freedom, we need to understand that total freedom does not lead to the most freedom collectively. It also should be noted that this issue is becoming more prevalent and can be applied to more issues than just climate change. Science and facts are being attacked for many reasons, and with the rise of the internet, false information can spread so easily, whether true or false. Therefore, putting limits and checks on who can gain control and what people in power cannot hold ideas needs to be a conversation that we have. Like Mill believed, through intentional discussion, the best systems and policies can be implemented to ensure that dangerous political beliefs do not become a part of our government.
Lau, Tim. “Citizens United Explained.” Brennan Center for Justice, 12 Dec. 2019.
Rosen, Julia. “The Science of Climate Change Explained: Facts, Evidence and Proof.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Apr. 2021.
Stuart, Mill. “On liberty.” The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, Modern Library, edited by Marshal Cohen, Random House publishing, 1961, pp. 185-321.