The Risk of Bad Ideas in the Marketplace
John Stuart Mill compares ideas to products in a marketplace, saying that good ideas are bought, and bad ideas are not. I would have to question if bad ideas are really not bought. Think about other bad goods that are sold, such as cigarettes. People still purchase cigarettes even though they know that cigarettes are bad for their health. Likewise, illegal drugs are sold even though people know that they are breaking laws.
Relating this back to the concept of ideas, people will “buy” others’ ideas if the ideas do not affect them personally. For example, in a typical high school bully scene, a group of bullies will follow what a lead bully does and laugh along with him or her, as long as the group members are not experiencing the bullying themselves. This was evident in Dr. Zimbardo’s famous prison case as well. Although participants in a psychological prison study knew they were acting, they conformed to their roles and were cruel and abusive to those around them. While the participants knew that what they were doing was wrong, they continued to hurt each other. In other words, the participants “bought” the bad idea and went along with it, which is the opposite of what Mill said would happen. Check out the video below for an overview of Dr. Zimbardo’s prison case and how good people can be convinced to do bad things:
This video and the various examples mentioned above make me think that Mill was wrong by saying that bad ideas will not be bought in the marketplace.
While I am absolutely a fan of the freedom of speech, I think that Mill’s concept of the freedom of speech could potentially be harmful to other people. I understand that a multitude of opinions (both good and bad) create better informed opinions, but when an opinion is so harmful to a person that he or she feels excluded from the marketplace of opinions and ideas, I feel that there should be limits. What Mill proposes as solution, the “Harm Principle,” is a bit too vague. According to Wikipedia, Joel’s Feinberg’s “Offence Principle” seems more effective as punishments for harmful speech are based on a variety of factors, meaning that speech is more likely to be regulated. For information about freedom of speech and its limits, visit: