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Mill vs. Burke: Freedom of Speech

November 17, 2010

The power of an opinion is quite strong.  Should the government or any group of peoples be allowed to force an individual to suppress his viewpoints? According to Mill, this is not an ideal situation as it prevents individuals from “posterity as well as the existing generation.”  What exactly does this mean, and how does this hurt the human race?  What is important to note, is that in a system of government where a few individuals set the standards for everyone else, it is inevitable that certain members of the mass will not have their interests represented.  Mill explains, that individuals assert their own “rightness” and that anything countering their views may be taken as an offense.  This confidence that people assert, however, is detrimental as it suppresses others from asserting their own opinions.

It is important to note, that when Mill defines liberty, he does not necessarily believe that all opinions are equally legitimate.  Rather, he is asserting that a certain opinion has the potential to be valid and thus it should be heard, as it may be able to better society in some certain way.

Mill backs up this notion by stating beliefs, which are not currently popular, which were once seen as illegitimate; for example, notions relation to religion.  He discusses the crucifixion of Christ, which he knew would be relatable for his readers at the time: British-Catholic citizens.

Mill Asserts that Liberty, for an individual, is achieved when he has control “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”  Mill also asserts a principal known as the “harm principal” that discusses the notion that an individual can do whatever he likes as long as it does not harm anyone else.  Despite the fact that many societies which practice a sense of “liberalism” hold this as an ideology, this may not necessarily be true.

It is interesting to contrast these viewpoints of Mill, to those of Burke.  Burke is strongly in favor of tradition and conservatism.  He is largely set on having a stable society, and in order to achieve this stable society, challenging views should not be made by the public.  In Burke’s work entitled, Reflections on the Revolution in France, he writes:

The dislike I feel to revolutions, the signals for which have so often been given from pulpits; the spirit of change that is gone abroad; the total contempt which prevails with you, and may come to prevail with us, of all ancient institutions when set in opposition to a present sense of convenience or to the bent of a present inclination: all these considerations make it not unadvisable, in my opinion, to call back our attention to the true principles of our own domestic laws; that you, my French friend, should begin to know, and that we should continue to cherish them.

This seems to sum up a majority of his opinion.  Burke’s strong discontent with the efforts of the French Revolution stem back to his necessity for stability among the governemental rulings in a society.

One Comment
  1. Melissa Glassman permalink
    November 18, 2010 7:57 PM

    I agree very much with your interpretation of Burke Vs. Mill. When you stated that Burke ” was largely set on having a stable society” and therefore relied on tradition, I felt a strong opposition to Burke’s claims. Having enjoyed our lecture discussing Mill on Wednesday I can’t help but disagree even more with Burke’s beliefs and ideas that a stable society is only stable because no new opinions or views present themselves. Mill makes a strong claim, as you mentioned within your post as well, that although he stresses the importance of individuals making their opinions heard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right; however, they do aid in further distinguishing the “right” opinions from the “wrong” ones. I believe Mill was a great thinker and truly valued opinion which makes me extremely interested on the affect people’s opinions have on others.

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