How Does Mill’s Principle of Liberty Contribute to Progress?

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The concept of liberty seems to have been consistently analysed and re-structured throughout history by ambitious philosophers keen on creating a ‘better world’. John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher of the XIX century, is not an exception from this trend. With his thought-provoking work “On Liberty”, he sets a basis for what he believes will lead to the development of the human being and contribute to its progress. This gives way to his Principle of Liberty, which illustrates that only a free person, and by default also the society, has the opportunity for growth through searching the truth by questioning and debating.

It may be agreed upon that a strong barrier to any form of progress is the avoidance or omission of the truth. Mill goes even further and argues that an opinion may be wholly true, wholly false, or partially true, and all three benefit the common good. The only way to attain this truth is through discussion, as “If all mankind minus one, were of on opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This quote is a prominent example of the importance of seeking the truth through thought and expression, and is one of the factors contributing to individual liberty. The world a human being grows up in shapes his opinions, and while this is acceptable for initial formations of thought and awareness, Mill argues it is dangerous to rely only on it and not reflect on other ‘worlds’. Not only would such an attitude impair the total formation of one’s mental capabilities and capacity, it would also lead to seeing yourself as infallible. After all, if a person surrounds himself with people of the same convictions as him, then it is plausible to presume that he will believe many things as issues that are no longer doubtful. This in turn results in the line between opinion and fact getting blurred due to the inexistence of debate, causing many future errors which could have been omitted otherwise. “The suppression of opinion based on belief in infallible doctrines is dangerous”, whereas any silencing of discussion is, according to Mill, an assumption of infallibility. Treating truth as a relative concept by refusing to hear what one considers a ‘false’ opinion is “assuming that their certainty is the same things as absolute certainty”. Humans should keep their mind open to criticism of their belief and listen to a variety of views on it in order to understand it and be able to defend against it. A clash of conflicting opinions enables us to find ‘fuller’ truths. The only way we may know if a belief is true or not is to challenge it. If a doctrine “is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”. Mill seeks to point out this fundamental issue which, due to its simplicity and obviousness, is often underrated. “No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner”. Of course, a major problem in attaining the truth is that it may remain in “narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or deceptive light”. This is precisely what Mill wants to avoid. Moreover, he wants to advance the discussion to a higher level of clarity without an individual’s actions and beliefs being restricted by bonds of custom and conformity. He notes that the most venerable beliefs arise from a person’s own critical assessments and reasoning. The Principle of Liberty illustrates his argument that freedom is indispensable to originality of character as it is the means by which a person can develop as an individual. And, Mill claims, “The free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being”. This line of reasoning leads us to...
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