What are Mill's views on freedom of thought and expression in On Liberty?

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During the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill was one of the foremost believers in and practitioners of Utilitarianism, a system of thought that essentially declared an action to be proper if it was beneficial to the largest portion of society. In other words, according to the Oxford Reference, "an action is right in so far as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct."

In his highly respected essay, On Liberty, he is adamant that the preservation of individual liberty rests largely on protecting freedom of thought no matter how egregious or immoral and, by extension, the freedom to express oneself based on that thought. His ideas largely echoed the sentiments of the first amendment to the Constitution, which is to protect free speech in all manners and forms. Protecting the most egregious speech—the type of speech most citizens would disagree with—is the most crucial element to free expression, as speech that everyone loves or agrees with is hardly in need of protecting.

However, while Mill understood that thoughts alone are self-contained and therefore without consequence, expressions of those thoughts can have a very real and tangible effect on others. As such, he believed in limitations on those expressions that could arguably be perceived as harming or having an adverse effect on others. Again, he largely echoes many sentiments of classical liberalism inherent in documents written by the founding fathers, namely the fact that your rights end when you begin depriving others of theirs.

He essentially buttresses this idea with four supporting arguments. First, suppressing someone else's ideas hinders the search for truth while simultaneously showing our own infallibility. Second, the prevailing opinion on any given subject is rarely the whole truth, and only through other less popular opinions can the whole truth come out. Third, not allowing one to defend his or her opinions also means disallowing all evidence in support of them. And fourth, only through the free debate of ideas will we as a society fully comprehend the meaning behind our beliefs, our morals.

Ultimately, Mill seems preoccupied with the search for truth and feels strongly that the free exchange of ideas through thought and expression are the means to achieve it so long as those expressions don't deprive others of their freedoms.

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Mill believes that no opinions should be suppressed in society. In his writing the word opinions can be taken as both thoughts and expressions. Mill is very clear that opinions should not be suppressed because all opinions offer some benefit to society. Mill notes that opinions can be wholly false, partly true, or wholly true, and each of these types of opinions offers some benefit to society. Wholly true opinions help to increase the knowledge of the society and can lead to progress and other benefits. Wholly false opinions are beneficial to society because they help individuals to better understand wholly true opinions. According to Mill, if wholly true opinions are not contested in some manner, then they become closer to prejudices which are held without any understanding of why the opinions are true. Partly true opinions provide the benefits of both of the other types of opinion.

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John Stuart Mill is very much for both the freedom of thought and the freedom of expression in his influential essay On Liberty. In fact, these freedoms are the core of his political and philosophical thought, and underlie much of his other works as well. They are also the underpinning of many of the liberal forms of government that dominate the Western world, including democracy.

Importantly for Mill, being able to think and express yourself without limitation cannot be a bad thing because it leads to either new ideas or to new and vigorous defense of old ones: either the expression of a new idea is adopted by society because it is better or the new idea challenges the old one and reveals new reasons for why it is adhered to. This either leads to an innovative concept that has the potential to change how we live or continues an old conversation and prevents the old idea from being followed dogmatically and out of mere tradition.

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Mill holds a very passionate view of freedom of thought and expression in On Liberty.  Mill’s ideas have been a source of inspiration for those concerned with civil liberty and individual freedom.  Mill's fundamental premise was concerned with the social or political order and their relationship to individual freedom.  Mill argues that unless there is a specific risk posed to another person, there should not be a limitation or curtailing of freedom.  Mill was concerned much more with physical and material harm than with moral or spiritual harm when he asserted that society might restrain the individual from harming others.  Flying in the face of other theories he had advocated in his writing, Mill's passionate defense of individual freedom of though and expression becomes his fundamental driving force in the work.

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