Columns, Opinions

Flynn ’20: What would John Stuart Mill say?

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

When speaking on Feb. 13 at Brown, conservative journalist and author Guy Benson faced pushback from students who expressed disappointment with the decision to invite him to speak on campus. In a public statement, a collective of students opposed the event, arguing that Benson’s message was not merely misguided but actually dangerous to the community. This  concern — that certain ideas and beliefs are so pernicious that they could cause real and irreparable harm to communities — prevails on campuses throughout the country and seems to be on everyone’s mind.

But it is important to remember that concerns about specific varieties of speech, though pressing, are not at all new, and that the approaches writers have taken in the past can help us address them. In the 19th century, British utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill responded to arguments made by the religious establishment and proponents of censorship. It goes without saying that modern debates over free speech on campuses differ in nearly every way from those of Mill’s time. But Mill — one of the foremost political philosophers of Western history — makes unique contributions to modern debates over free speech, providing rigorous, intellectual justifications for the concept of free speech and its role in maintaining social welfare. Mill’s defense of the freedom of expression consists of two hypotheses as to why free speech is beneficial not just to the speaker but to society as a whole — including those who disagree with the speaker. He argues against censorship because first, “we can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is … false” and second, “if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

A central point of Mill’s philosophy is that everyone is fallible, and therefore all opinions, even those held by the majority or the authorities, are suspect. Throughout history, people have held ideas with absolute certainty only to be scorned by later generations that come to reject them. Given our fallibility, the only way to be sure that we are right is the constant re-evaluation of our ideas. As Mill writes, “the beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.” Mill assumes that one’s “errors are corrigible,” but that the only way of correcting them is discussion. Ideas, moreover, are rarely black-and-white, and two seemingly dichotomous views often each contain a portion of the truth. Far from being a mere abstraction, this concept is more than evident in the case of Benson. The day after his talk, Caroline Mulligan ’19 published a column in which she expressed agreement with Benson’s argument that a personal identity does not have to determine political views. With the disclaimer that she “does not, for the record, agree with Benson about anything else at all,” she illustrated that one can learn from people with whom one disagrees, and that a nuanced understanding of an adversary’s views can enhance one’s own understanding of complicated issues.

The next useful part of Mill’s free speech argument is that “received opinion” ­— a unanimous opinion that goes unchallenged — runs the risk of degrading into dogma, even if it were true with absolute certainty. That is, one does not fully understand one’s own position if one does not fully understand the arguments against it. The right response, therefore, to those who challenge a received opinion is to say, as Mill puts it, “let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions.” In this view, conservative speakers such as Benson are doing us a favor by challenging the received opinions of our campus. They strengthen our values by helping us define ours against theirs. Benson’s event featured a question-and-answer section, in which even students who had signed the statement participated, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial. Those students criticized him, arguing that he did not take into account historical power dynamics and systems of oppression. Such discussions compel students to articulate and think critically about their views, thereby strengthening them.

The primary problem with Mill is that he does not recognize the exceptions to free speech. He does forbid speech that serves as a “positive instigation to some mischievous act,” but by this he means nothing more than inciting an unruly mob to immediate violence. The U.S. legal system, of course, recognizes more exceptions, such as hate speech and certain types of false statements of fact. But the statement opposing Benson accuses him of espousing “hateful rhetoric which actively makes others less safe,” and asserts the “inextricable connection between Benson’s ideologies — fiscal conservatism and free market ideology — and real, tangible, state violence against marginalized communities.” It is of utmost importance to be cognizant of the ways in which a speaker’s words can have an adverse impact on members of the community. That being said, Benson’s talk does not seem to have had any such impact. To the contrary, it provided the very students who objected to it an opportunity to engage with an opposing viewpoint in a way that Mill would have considered productive.

James Flynn ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to