Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Liberty and Tolerance

Liberty Bell stamp


By John Stuart Mill   

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Sutton

My occasion for re-reading On Liberty was the mention of Mill and Rawls by professor Brian Leiter in his lecture, “Why Tolerate Religion,” which he presented at Drury University.

My joint interest in philosophy and psychology began during my undergraduate years. Mill’s book On Liberty is one I kept since taking a graduate course on Political Philosophy at the University of Missouri, where my psychology professors graciously allowed me to count philosophy courses toward my doctoral requirements. Philosophers have of course contributed much to an understanding of human nature, which is why I continue to read philosophy.

As I look back at Mill’s writings, I see a man on the cusp of philosophy and science guiding thinkers toward empiricism whilst maintaining an eminently pragmatic stance. In a sense, I see him contributing hypotheses to social psychology and that subfield of current interest to me, moral psychology.

In On Liberty, Mill essentially makes a strong case for individual freedom and the importance of government toleration of a wide range of thinking and behavior so long as one individual does not harm another. One could argue that people always have freedom of thought but I take it Mill means the freedom to express those thoughts for it is in the expression of thoughts in speech and writing that we obtain feedback from others that helps us hone our thinking.1 We cannot learn from others when our thoughts are not represented in the marketplace of ideas.

Behavior may encompass speech acts but Mill seems to use the term behavior to refer to what we might call a lifestyle—patterns of observable social behavior. Mill observed that much of behavior was governed by custom and was quite irrational. In some cases, custom had the force of law with attendant punishments. And at other times, social disapprobation was strong enough to suppress ways of living. In effect, people hid their socially unacceptable ways of living for fear of death, imprisonment, or social disgrace, and accompanying isolation.

Tyranny vs. Tolerance

Revisiting the limitation on freedom for Mill and his 19th century cohort, it is easy to see the progress made in western societies in the last 150 years or so. Yet the issues on the boundaries of tolerance continue to be of current concern. Any large society has often struggled with divisions over matters of right and wrong-- acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

For centuries, religious leaders have controlled individual and societal standards of right and wrong. And religious leaders still coerce obedience by threats of death—sometimes literal—other times eternal—sometimes both. In some nations, religious rules have the power of law and in others, religious beliefs control behavior via values inculcated in the lives of the young and maintained by clergy, embarrassment-mongers, gossips, and all sorts of life-meddlers. It’s no wonder so many have rejected religion in western cultures where religious rules lack the force of law and other social structures exist to offer social support when people live in religiously unapproved ways.

The freedom from religion has taken a different tack of late. In the United Kingdom and the United States tolerance of diversity has expanded to include behaviors once considered criminal or at least socially undesirable. And of course, in the language of religion, many acts were judged to be sin; not just any old sin but sins worthy of condemnation by God. You can probably recall clergy explaining that a disease or disaster is an act of God visited on a nation as punishment for the sins of the people.

A few weeks ago I visited Bletchley Park where the famous mathematical genius Alan Turing and his colleagues broke the Nazi code, which significantly contributed to the end of World War II, undoubtedly a moral good. Despite his contributions to the war effort, Turing was found guilty of “gross indecency” based on an 1885 act—he did not hide his homosexuality. Sixty years later, in 2012 he was posthumously pardoned (BBC).

In the last few years, Christians and Muslims have experienced challenges to their freedom in the United States. Muslims of course incurred great suspicion following the September 11 attacks. Conservative Christians have taken a number of public blows as their positions on such matters as abortion and same-sex marriage are at odds with substantial portions of the electorate as well as existing laws or judicial decisions.

Importance of Tolerance

Ironically, people in societies once dominated by Christian morality, often codified in law, now find themselves restricting the freedom of Christian groups to live out their understanding of their faith in the public square. If the restrictions on religious freedom increase, I wonder if segments of the Christian population will end up like the Amish—living out their ancient traditions in quaint colonies that become tourist attractions.

Now I return to Mill’s ideas to make a case for religious tolerance. The expression of religious views is sometimes reviled as “hate speech” when the views contradict the dominant social view. Inciting riot and violence cannot be tolerated. But arguing that ideas of a society along with its rules and laws are morally wrong, offensive, or even harmful ought not to be suppressed. As Mill observes, humans rarely get things perfectly right. A society that silences dissent is on the road to tyranny even if the new found ways appear more liberating than older ways. I say let’s continue to hear religious views along with other views.

I also think Mill’s notion of behavioral experiments worthy of consideration.2 As long as people are not causing harm by their actions, some toleration of “alternate lifestyles” seems worthy as these experiments help all observers judge if such ways of living are in some way better than the ways of the majority or even those of other minority groups. Thus, I think conservative religious people ought to have the freedom to go about their lives based on their understanding of their sacred texts. Why not let them follow their traditions so long as people are free to join or leave their communities (organizations, campuses) and suffer no material harm? Is there any real harm in permitting a group of people to hire only men as clergy or restrict marriage to one man and one woman? Is there any harm in having religious schools where they are free to promote abstinence from alcohol and sex until marriage? So much will depend on how "harm" is defined and how much "harm" is tolerated.

Boundaries of Tolerance

Mill was a thoughtful statesman as well as a philosopher. He was well aware that freedom must be bounded by responsibility. As noted above, freedom of expression does not extend to inciting people to violence. Nor does freedom to live out an alternate way of life include freedom to harm others. In fact, Mill also shows how a person’s harm of self or destruction of personal property can have a harmful impact on the lives of loved ones. Moreover, before the scientific study of role models, Mill noted the ability of personal example to influence the behavior of others, which of course is also found in ancient wisdom.3 Simply put, we do not live in isolation. No woman is an eyot. No man is an island.

Cite this blog post

Sutton, G. W. (2016, December 30). On liberty and tolerance. [Web log post]. Retrieved from 

Mill’s book

Mill, J.S. (1859/1956). On Liberty (Currin V. Shields, edition). New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Old editions of On Liberty can be found as a pdf file on the web.

Read more about Christian cultures and related issues in

 A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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1. Mill’s connection of thought to speech and writing is near the end of Chapter 1.
2. Experiments in living can be found in Chapter 3.

3. Mill discusses the influence of an example in Chapter 4.