John Stuart Mill

Essay by [KTF]S.E.S.University, Bachelor'sA-, February 2004

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J.S. Mill's liberalism was an important and essential advance beyond the liberalism of Hobbes through his emphasis on the liberty of thought and discussion which dealt with the freedom to articulate one's opinions, the freedom to participate in intellectual, political, religious and general debates and arguments, and the freedom of the press, yet he remained essentially similar to Hobbes when he engaged the notion of the liberty of action by having attempted to distinguish the area in which an individual is free to act upon his will, opinions and thoughts.

To Mill, one could never be certain about the reality or fabrication of a certain opinion or viewpoint. Any assumption of complete certainty of the truth or falsity of an opinion was an allusion to the infallibility of man. In addition, those who assumed this, and consequently stifled an opinion, excluded all others from hearing that opinion, thereby having imposed their own version of certainty (as opposed to absolute certainty) on them.

Thus, Mill wrote ' We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still' (Mill, 1978:16).

One obvious benefit from allowing an opinion to be expressed would be if that opinion turned out to be true. Thus, the intrinsic value of that truth would be the reward of the person who allowed his own opinion to be challenged. But, more importantly, the gain would not be confined to the individuals involved in the debate; society as a whole would benefit from the exposure of a fallacy, and the elucidation of a truth.

Less obvious would be the benefits that could be obtained should the opinion be false. Firstly, Mill believed even erroneous opinions contained a portion of truth in...