John Stuart Mill on Liberty: Open-mindedness and Freedom of Conscience

“. . . [E]ven if the world is in the right, it is always probable that the dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.” (40) This quote from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty briefly illustrates how mindful he was of the minority, whose voice was extremely important in society regardless of whether they were right or not. Truth is not some whole idea that can be manifested in the mind of merely one individual, for all are biased with their own perspectives and contexts. Rather, truth needs a variety of perspectives to bring about its wholeness, which is why Mill emphasizes the importance of open-mindedness.

Nowhere is this more applicable than in the religious mindset, specifically in the steadfast moral and doctrinal infallibility that accompanies a belief in God. Religious intolerance has historically been a continual problem, not simply among the persecutions by secular governments, but between religions and factions. The superstition and prejudice between parties has put truth in a combative state, each group always arguing for the higher ground of absolute truth. “. . .[I]t made men burn magicians and heretics.” (6) But Mill believes that defenders of the truth do not have to be so defensive. After all, just because one believes he is right does not mean he cannot even listen to those who he believes is wrong. “In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious.” (17) Open-mindedness is not a disintegration – it is a virtue!

“. . .[T]hough the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” (43) But what truth can an untruth contain? Perspective! It is important not to assume one’s own infallibility because so often the mind is clouded by ideas and customs that one interprets as first nature, when in actuality they are second nature brought about by the surrounding society or religious culture. Mill believes society must be careful not to impose mere custom as absolute law, for that would be moral imposition that intrudes on the individual’s right to free conscience.

It is not whether one is right or not right, but it is if one has a right to impose personal morality upon another. “They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals.” (6) Since religion is highly personal and not societal (though the Puritans and others may disagree), Mill believes religious morality should be separate from governmental law, enforced only among those who choose to participate.

Mill believes society should restrict liberty only when an individual’s actions may cause harm to others. “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (8) Because one’s independence is absolute, he is sovereign over his own body and mind.

The Christian church has fought for centuries against heretical doctrines and practices, without allowance for discussion over the disputes. Martin Luther did not want to form a new church; he simply wanted to make the religion a living one that was not a house of corruption and mere dogma. But the church did not allow discussion and instead sought to persecute those who criticized its practices. Mill points out, “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” (29) The importance of discussing ideas openly is often disregarded in favor of one’s grasp of absolute truth. Because the church had no discussion of its doctrines, no debate of its application to moral or civil law, its doctrines became dead dogmas – not living truths as Luther wished them to be.
Though almost 150 years have passed since Mill wrote On Liberty, the principles of individuality and open-mindedness still remain applicable today. It is hard for a culture so engrained in Christianity to sift custom from law, in order to know what sort of morality would be appropriate for the majority to impose upon the minority. Mill argues that an individual’s freedom of conscience should allow him to determine his own morality, so long as it does not adversely affect others. With this in mind, how would Mill view Judge Moore’s recent decision to publicly display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Or President Clinton’s sexual encounters in the White House? Or an individual’s decision to have an abortion? I will attempt to interpret these three examples as I believe Mill would have done.

Judge Moore placed the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. Moore, as an individual, would certainly have the right to place the Ten Commandments in his own home, since then his freedom of conscience would not adversely affect others. But since it is in an obviously public place and Moore is a public official, Mill would take into consideration that it does affect others. Does it adversely affect society to the point of restricting an individual’s right to freedom of speech? After all, maybe it would be of benefit to society to have a standard of morality displayed in the courtroom. However, Mill believes that societal morality is important-so important, that it must not be restricted to the morality of one particular religion. He states, “I believe that other ethics than any one which can be evolved from exclusively Christian sources, must exist side by side with Christian ethics to produce the moral regeneration of mankind; and that the Christian system is no exception to the rule that in an imperfect state of the human mind, the interests of truth require a diversity of opinions.” (42) By endorsing one standard of morality, Judge Moore does not allow for this diversity of opinions, which is ever so necessary in obtaining truth. Thus, in my interpretation of Mill’s opinion, Judge Moore must either allow for all perspectives of morality in his courtroom (which would be difficult to display in a physical sense), or remove his monument to traditional Judeo-Christian ethics.

So if a public official such as Moore can have his actions restricted for the sake of public good, should President Clinton’s sexual encounters with intern Monica Lewinsky be reprimanded as well? I suppose that would depend on Clinton’s actions interfered with his ability to do his job. Mill gives the example of public drunkenness: “No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.” Thus, Mill’s judgment of President Clinton would be contingent upon whether Clinton’s sexual affair affected his ability to do fulfill his public duty properly. It is probably impossible to determine whether the actual act adversely affected his ability to carry out his duties, but certainly the aftermath of media and sworn testimony was a detriment to the American political system.

Aside from politics, what would Mill believe in a modern day situation if a woman wanted to get an abortion? Certainly the individual would have a right to use birth control, since it is a private decision between a woman and her partner that would affect no one else. In Mill’s mind, the government would have no right to interfere with an abortion unless was harmful to a party other than the woman, her partner, and her doctor. This situation is a bit difficult to surmise since one would have to know whether Mill believed the fetus to be an actual life or just mere potential, in which case the decision would be more apparent.

Mill’s On Liberty presents a compelling argument in defense of the individual’s right to freedom of conscience. He gives open-mindedness validity not as simply an act of charity, but as a tool in obtaining the completeness of truth. Truth requires a variety of perspectives, and these perspectives can be found by listening to others even though one may believe them to be wrong. The individual’s freedom of conscience is given priority over social restrictions and moral imposition by society. “The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it. . .” (97)

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