Was Mill right to defend free speech? A comparative analysis

In ‘On Liberty’, Mill rejects the limitation of free speech, arguing that the truth can only be widely recognised “by its collision with error” (Mill 1868, p.36). However, Rousseau would argue that censorship of certain ideals would only serve to prevent the misleading of the individual, “preventing opinion from growing corrupt” (Rousseau 2008, p. 125). Furthermore, Marx largely disagreed with Rousseau’s philosophy of censorship, however he placed more emphasis on freedom of the press in securing freedom of speech than Mill. He argued that “self-examination…[was] the first condition of wisdom” (Hunt 1975, p.35) and that freedom of the press would allow the people to truly understand the world around them, therefore providing them with the ability to express truly free opinions. Overall, I would argue that Mill’s defence of free speech is the most utilitarian as it allows every individual a chance to voice their opinion, thus leading to greater opportunity for debate and a more progressive society in the long-term.

Human development

When examining these key theorists and their opinions on free speech, we must first understand the underlying reasons for their defence of free speech. Ultimately, the notion of free speech is argued to allow for human development, whether that be on an individual level or as a collective society.

Mill argues that freedom of speech is essential in order to progress ‘human interests’, including the “pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments” (Mill 1987, p.279). It is through freedom of speech that humankind can develop themselves and achieve a sense of self-actualisation through the common exchange of ideas and beliefs. Only through autonomy of thought, expressed through the medium of free speech, can humans achieve both intellectual and moral self-development, thus realising their true potential. Whilst it is important to understand Mill’s fundamental reasoning behind his support of free speech, we must also acknowledge his fears if it were to be curtailed. In any case, Mill argues that any restriction in one’s ability to express their opinion through speech would limit human self-development as it robs “the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation” (Mill 1868, p.36). In saying this, Mill displays his consideration for the future of mankind, acknowledging the plight of future generations if freedom of speech where to be limited as they would not be able to achieve self-realisation and therefore the progression of society would surely cease. Overgaauw further supports this notion, claiming that without the fierce defence of liberal free speech, a “degenerate status quo conservatism will eventually be its result”, with the limitation of free speech in any capacity simply “a symptom of a society in decline” (Overgauuw 2009, p. 25-32).

Rousseau, in stark contrast to Mill, argues in favour of the expression of the collective view.  Though Mill argues that the autonomy of individual is paramount to freedom of speech, Rousseau would respond with the view that free speech is a corrupting force. For Rousseau, majority opinion should always be universally applied within society regardless of the views expressed by the individual. This, according to Mill, constitutes a “Tyranny of the Majority” (Mill 1868, p.13), the silencing of minority opinion in favour of the “will of all” (Rousseau 2008, p.84). On an individual level, Rousseau argued that “each citizen should think only his own thoughts” (Rousseau 2008, p.21) as communication with others can only serve to benefit the interests of self-interested associations and diminish the true desires of the individual, thus limiting the individual’s ability to truly express their desires. Mill consequently argues that “mankind would be no more justified in silencing one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (Mill 1868, p.29). Overall, Rousseau’s response to Mill’s defence of free speech is very much promoting ‘majoritarian development’ as opposed to individual self-development, perhaps to the detriment of societal progression for minority groups.

Marx held human development in a similar light to Mill. Instead of viewing free speech as a gateway to self-development, Marx saw it as a means to “self-examination” (Fuchs and Mosco 2016, p.410). For Marx, the free press was an extension of free speech, serving as “the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul” (Abensour 2011, p.80).  thus allowing society to make informed decisions for themselves. Free speech subsequently transcended material struggles, instead transforming them into “intellectual struggles” (Fuchs and Mosco 2016, p.410) for which the people can view themselves in way that is similar to confession, an honest depiction of their own desires. Whilst Mill saw free speech as a means to develop oneself positively, Marx is very much of the view that free speech allows for the recognition of one’s flaws and problems both material and intellectual. Consequently, whilst Marx is not directly in contention with Mill, it is clear to see that the Marxian approach is rather more pessimistic in tone. However, Marx does submit that “self-examination is the first condition of wisdom” (Fuchs and Mosco 2016, p.410), suggesting that in the long-term free speech is very much a gateway to self-development and positive human development, similar to the views of Mill.


In regards to censorship, Mill follows the belief in the ‘Good Reasons Argument’ whereby “censorship is only justified if there is a good reason to censor. But there is none” (Funk 1984, p. 453). In this respect, Mill employs a very utilitarian view in regards to censorship, arguing that censorship is unjustified because we are not infallible and error is always possible, thus the opinions of all must be considered to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number (Mill 1868, p.79-80). Therefore, to impose censorship on even the most radical opinions can never be regarded as a justified act. To censor one’s opinion could lead to social stagnation and the promotion of majoritarian views at the expense of the minority. Mill used English religious domination in India as a key example of this, begging the question “Who, after this imbecile display, can indulge the illusion that religious persecution has passed away, never to return?” (Mill 1868, p.90). Mill is clearly opposing the superiority of one’s culture over another, arguing that all have the right to expression and subsequently the right to free speech. Despite this, Mill makes a poor assumption in arguing that the repression of ideas and free speech is inherently bad. On the contrary, he does not consider the usage of limited censorship in some cases (e.g. Nazi ideology) whereby ideas are inherently repressive in themselves. However, despite this criticism, Mill’s overwhelming argument against censorship largely defends the rights of minority groups and protects his key belief in social advancement and a comprehensively inclusive society.

Rousseau, in relation to censorship, believed that censorship should be utilised in order to prevent the masses from being misled. It is, in Rousseau’s view, censorship which “upholds morality by preventing opinion from growing corrupt” (Rousseau 2008, p. 125). For example, Rousseau condemned the “terrible art” of printing in Europe and argued that sovereigns of Europe would soon be required to rid it for its corrupting influences (Scott 2006, p. 207). At the same time, he praised the Roman institution of censor for the same reason he supported an exclusive civil religion; it kept intellectuals in line with societal standards, it limited the corrupting power of entertainment and it halted criticism of key institutions like religion (Scott 2006, p.207). On a more individualistic level, Rousseau argued that “Each citizen should think only his own thoughts” as communication with others with no checks can only serve to corrupt independent thought (Rousseau 2008, p.21). Robespierre, a strong advocate of Rousseau, supported this notion of censorship for the ‘greater good’. In regards to the French Revolution, Robespierre stated that “the revolutionary interest might require the repression of a conspiracy founded on the liberty of the press” (Hayashi 2014, p.250), therefore cementing the notion that freedom of expression can be limited if it were to go against the societal values for which Rousseau held dear. When compared to Mill, it is evident that Rousseau understands the potential application of censorship in protecting the status quo of society in terms of key institutions and the morality of society. However, Rousseau’s view on a single civil religion contrasts heavily with that of Mill who would argue that religious censorship and the domination of one ideological viewpoint can only serve to undermine societal interests. Again, in the case of English colonialism in India, Mill was clear in his opposition of English attempts “to force English ideas down the throat of the natives” (Mill 1972, p.385) as it only served to undermine local freedom of expression and consequently freedom of speech as it related to religious affiliation.

Of the three theorists this essay discusses, it is perhaps Marx who is the greatest proponent of a free press as a means to provide free speech to the masses and to open up debate over the merits and drawbacks of widespread censorship. This is evident with Marx during 1842 whereby he describes the actions of the Prussian state in censoring the media as shaping “not only the behaviour of individual citizens, but even the behaviour of the public mind” (Fuchs and Mosco 2016, p.189). This is what Marx described as the ‘dominant ideology’ theory (Castle 2004, p.4). In essence, Marx argued that the masses, most notably the proletariat, can be convinced of what is ‘right’ to allow for greater acceptance of bourgeois ideals. This in turn limits their ability to achieve genuine self-actualisation and consequently their right to free speech is infringed. This is what Lukes’ characterised as the ‘third dimension’ of power (Lukes 2005, p.25-29), the ability to curtail genuine freedom of speech by changing the fundamental beliefs of society inadvertently.  Subsequently, Marxists have justified the censorship of bourgeois counter-revolutionaries as they oppose the utilitarian interests of the majority proletariat society and thus seek to limit genuine freedom of anti-establishment viewpoints. This is evident in the USSR whereby many proletarian writers argued that the “destruction of all kinds and shades of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois literature had become necessary” (Eimermacher 1972, p.278-279). Mill would criticise this view, stating that “the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number, and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power” (Mill 1868, p.68). Regardless of the size and views of the minority, their opinions are just as valid as the majority. Consequently, Mill would argue that regardless of the intent of the bourgeoisie, it is not for the proletariat to decide their ultimate fate or their right to censor their opinions.

Who is ultimately correct?

When assessing who is ultimately correct, we must first establish a criterion for which to base our judgement on.  Across this essay’s secondary reading, a common theme of establishing the widest level of utilitarianism through societal development has arose. Overgaauw suggested that limited free speech would stagnate society, thus limiting the possibility for human development through a lack of exchanged viewpoints. Robespierre suggested that in order to defend the principles of free speech and wider liberal ideas, censorship may be a necessity. Furthermore, Castle argued that the replacement of the dominant ideology of bourgeois capitalism would be necessary to establish a more utilitarian society for the majority proletariat. Therefore, I will assess each theorist based on their desire to provide the greatest level of utilitarian values to the greatest number.

Firstly, Rousseau seeks to uphold societal values through the censorship of perceived ‘radical ideas’. As well as this, Rousseau believed that through the pursuit of achieving the desires of the ‘general will’, that being the best action for the greatest number, the free speech and thus exchange of ideas of the individual would not be a necessity. It can be argued that the Rousseauian approach to free speech is poor in achieving utilitarian values. The ‘general will’, as stated by Chuter, has “no room for opposition or even agnosticism” (Chuter 1996, p.32) and is therefore detrimental and harmful to minority groups. Therefore, the extent to which Rousseau’s views on free speech are utilitarian is limited.

Secondly, when analysing Marxist interpretations on free speech, one could argue that it is utilitarian in that it seeks to permit the majority proletarian society the right to understand the chains they are bound in. However, to limit the ability of even the bourgeoise to free speech is wholly un-utilitarian as it limits perhaps the greatest critique which could derive from bourgeoise figureheads. Whilst Marxists seek equality of outcome, to limit any one individual’s access to free speech would be hypocritical and diminish the Marxist approach to free speech entirely.

It is to this end that it can be argued that Mill is the most utilitarian theorist in regards to free speech and therefore is ultimately correct in his theory on free speech. Of all the theorists analysed, it is only Mill that suggests access to free speech for all, whether they be of moderate or radical opinion. Whilst it is true that some may be discouraged to speak their mind for fear of retaliation, it is the fact that Mill supports the opportunity for all to access free speech that makes his argument utilitarian. It is this comprehensive support for free speech that allows for self-actualisation and societal development, thus ultimately improving the lives of the individual. Subsequently, it is Mill who is ultimately correct in his evaluation of the merits of free speech when compared to Rousseau and Marx.


Abensour, M. (2011). Democracy Against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Movement. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity.

Castle, A. (2004). A century of philantropy [sic]. 2nd ed. Honolulu: Hawaiian Historical Society.

Chuter, D. (1996). Humanity’s Soldier: France and International Security, 1919-2001. 1st ed. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn, p.32.

Eimermacher, K. (1972). Dokumente zur sowjetischen Literaturpolitik 1917-1932. 1st ed. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Fuchs, C. and Mosco, V. (2016). Marx and the political economy of the media. 1st ed. Boston: Haymarket Books.

Funk, Nanette. “Mill and Censorship.” History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, 1984, pp. 453–463. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27743702.

Hayashi, S. (2014). The freedom of peaceful action: On the Origins of Individual Rights. 1st ed. Lanham, Md. [u.a.]: Lexington Books, p.250.

Hunt, R. (1975). The political ideas of Marx and Engels. London [etc.]: Macmillan.

Lukes, S. (2005). Power: A Radical View. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mill, J. (1987). Utilitarianism. 2nd ed. London: Penguin. [first pub. 1863].

Mill, J. (1868). On Liberty. 1st ed. Boston: Ticknor and fields.

Mill, J. (1972). Considerations on Representative Government, in Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Considerations on Representative Government. 1st ed. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd.

Overgaauw, Daniël. The Paradoxes of Liberty: the Freedom of Speech (Re-)Considered. Amsterdam Law Forum, [S.l.], v. 2, n. 1, p. 25-32, dec. 2009. ISSN 1876-8156. Available at: <http://amsterdamlawforum.org/article/view/104/186&gt;. Date accessed: 7th Dec. 2017.

 Rousseau, J. and Cole, G. (2008). The Social Contract. 1st ed. New York: Cosimo Classics.

Scott, J. (2006). Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 1st ed. London: Taylor & Francis.

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