John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill (1806–73) is one of the most important liberal thinkers of all time. His vision of liberalism is strongly linked to utilitarianism. His most famous work is On Liberty. In On Liberty, Mill described how freedom was now endangered by the newly empowered majority, even as absolute monarchy had faded away. Mill was concerned about both legal encroachment on freedom, which could occur via tyranny of majority rule, as well as what he called “the moral coercion of public opinion”.
Mill’s liberalism was based on a utilitarian philosophy. Indeed, he stated that he was willing to “forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility”. Mill’s liberalism was therefore conditional on his observation that a liberal society would provide the best quality of life for individuals in a civilized society. Mill clearly had a different justification for his liberalism, compared with the Moral Libertarian justification. Mill based his whole argument for liberty (as well as his whole morality) on utilitarianism, while Moral Libertarianism makes no such argument at all. Indeed, given the Moral Libertarian philosophical commitment to an objective morality based on the objective truth, it may be incompatible with utilitarian calculations at least some of the time.
One thing Moral Libertarianism and Mill’s thinking have in common is a strong regard for the objective truth. This, of course, underlies a strong support for free speech in both cases. Moral Libertarianism argues that liberalism is the most moral ideology, because it never leads to the wrong suppressing the right. Mill makes similar arguments in his justification for free speech, but this point does not feature as strongly in his moral worldview. This appears to be because, the justification for being committed to the truth is based on a fundamental belief that truth equals morality in Moral Libertarianism, whereas it is based on utilitarian grounds in Mill’s philosophy.
Mill strongly supported free speech, on the grounds that it is needed for discovering the truth. He argued that to suppress speech one believes is false is to assume infallibility in one’s beliefs. This is an error, because humans are not capable of infallibility in knowledge. Notice that this is quite similar to the core Moral Libertarian argument for Equal Moral Agency for every individual, except that in Moral Libertarianism, it extends to moral actions as well as speech. Mill further argued that there is value in even the assertion of false beliefs, because they may still lead to a better understanding and defense of the truth. Furthermore, he acknowledged that the truth is often complex and many-sided, and it is often the case that the whole truth can only be seen by reconciling and combining different claims. This view of the truth arguably lends justification to the Moral Libertarian belief that free debate brings justice, often argued against the position of those aligned with Marcusean critical theory or Foucauldian postmodernism, who often see claims to truth as being fundamentally rooted in dynamics of power and oppression.
Like many early liberals, Mill was a big proponent of empiricism and science. He believed that knowledge can only come about by empirical observation and reasoning. Using his logical reasoning, he came to the conclusion that the promotion of happiness is the proper test to judge all human conduct as morally good or bad, and therefore the principle of utility, or utilitarian efficiency, was his core moral principle. Under this view, an act should be wrong simply if it would be overall more utilitarian to punish an individual for the act. Some have argued that this could lead to moral relativism, that is, a morality that varies by culture. Finally, Mill strongly supported the trend towards increasing equality for all individuals in Western societies during his time. He was an early supporter of equality for women, in voting, education, occupation and marriage. Consistent with his overall beliefs, he justified his views on the argument that the changes would lead to the improvement of society, and the increased happiness of oppressed groups.
Examining the difference between Moral Libertarianism and Mill’s liberalism in more detail, we can see that Moral Libertarianism bases its morality on there being an absolute objective truth and hence absolute right and wrong, and everything is geared towards making sure that the wrong does not suppress the right. Morality in this worldview is thus not allowing the wrong to suppress the right. On the other hand, Mill believed that morality should be based on utilitarianism, which could mean that, despite his belief in objective truth, when it comes to moral standards, there can indeed be culturally-based variations. This is consistent with his view that liberalism is only suited to ‘civilized’ socities, something that Moral Libertarians would not accept.
Still, the Moral Libertarian view on various matters, including free speech, and civil and political rights, clearly overlap with Mill’s. Thus, Moral Libertarianism and Mill’s utilitarian version of liberalism can be said to have arrived at often similar positions despite starting out from different fundamental moral outlooks.