On the Relationship between Chapters One and Two of John Stuart Mill’s on Liberty
22 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2011
Date Written: April 14, 2011
An important question in free speech theory and in Millian scholarship is the relationship between Chapters One and Two of Mill’s On Liberty. This essay, prepared on the occasion of and as a comment on Vincent Blasi’s Sullivan Lecture at the Capital University Law School, argues that Chapter Two, dealing with the “Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” is best understood as an exception to the general libertarian themes of Chapter One Iand, indeed, the balance of the book), rather than as an instantiation of them. Only by undervaluing Mill’s views about the potential harms of speech, by making Mill less of a utilitarian than he claimed to be, and by slighting the social epistemic claims in Chapter Two can that Chapter be made compatible with Mill’s presentation of the Harm Principle in Chapter One and the rest of the book. But if we take Mill’s epistemic claims seriously (which is decidedly not the same as believing that they are empirically sound), then Chapter One can be understood as largely about actions that do not cause harms to agents other than the actor, and Chapter Two can be seen as an argument for why some other-regarding and harm-producing speech acts may, in the aggregate, produce sufficient social epistemic benefits as to be deserving of a special immunity from state control. It is true, as Blasi argues, that a concern for the character-building nature of both autonomy and confrontation with harmful speech may render Chapters One and Two compatible with each other, but that compatibility requires relegating Mill’s famous epistemic arguments to a secondary role, and requires seeing Mill in less utilitarian and more individualistic terms than he himself professed.
Keywords: Freedom of Expression, John Stuart Mill
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