The Kind of Liberty We Need

Pursuing and applying truth leads to genuine freedom

Posted May 01, 2018

Rakkhi Samarasekera, CCL
Source: Rakkhi Samarasekera, CCL

Many people throw around terms like "freedom" and "liberty" to justify their views, across the political spectrum. Defenders of a woman's right to choose an abortion discuss this as a basic reproductive freedom that women possess. Many defenders of the status quo with respect to gun rights believe that the right to own a gun is a freedom given not only by the Second Amendment, but by God. And there are important discussions and concerns about freedom of speech on our university campuses, as well as freedom of the press, which our own President often appears to undervalue.

But when we think about a democratic society, where the common good is valued, and when we think about individual human flourishing, another form of liberty is crucial.  

In the classic On Liberty, 19th Century British philosopher John Stuart Mill raises several points concerning freedom of thought and speech. Mill's points are relevant to maintaining a truly free, open, and thoughtful society. They are also relevant to our personal lives, and the beliefs that we hold most dear. Mill emphasizes the value of debate and discussion. He discusses three reasons why we must engage in an ongoing debate and discussion about things that matter.

First, debate can supply the remainder of the truth. It is rare that anyone has the whole truth, and even wrong views can contain portions of truth that we lack. Free discussion and debate can uncover such truths. This is important, and should remind us that we all need a bit of humility, both intellectual and moral.

Second, discussion and debate can also help us know why we believe what we do. If we do not have such knowledge, our belief may be mere prejudice or groundless opinion. As Mill argues, people should be able to defend their beliefs from the common objections that are lodged against them. 

This would be incredibly helpful as we continue to debate the Second Amendment, the common good, and whether some stricter gun laws might be in order in the US. I've been reading and writing about this for the past few years now, and there is a great deal of misinformation on all sides of this debate. Whatever policies we choose to enact, or if we choose to maintain the status quo, those decisions ought to be based on sound empirical, moral, and legal evidence. Slogans like "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" or the belief that "Violence in our nation is at historically high levels" are false. Thinking about the evidence we do or don't have for our views is crucial. If we lack it, or have bad evidence, then we should take the time to examine whatever evidence is available to us. Then, we should believe accordingly.

Third, such discussion and debate also will help keep the truth alive; it will keep it from becoming a dead dogma. Frequent and full discussion of issues that matter encourages individuals to let the truth impact their character and conduct. Many religious communities could benefit greatly from this type of discussion and debate. Some do this very well, others fear it. The best way to deal with our doubts and questions is to bring them out into the open and discuss them. If we do this, and do it well, the truth we discover will be a dynamic force in our lives, rather than dead dogma. One hoped-for result of this is that we will develop, as Mill puts it, “real and heartfelt conviction from reason [and]…personal experience.” 

Whether we relate this to religious belief, ethics, political issues, or any other area of inquiry, Mill's point is crucial to understand and apply. We must let our beliefs not just be mere beliefs, but convictions that guide our choices and form our character. 

If we take Mill's advice to heart, the chances that we'll flourish as individuals in our respective communities will increase. The chances that we'll have a society that supports such flourishing will increase as well. We must encourage this sort of dialogue, discussion, and debate in our homes, schools, universities, communities, and the public square. We have much to gain from thoughtful, respectful, and sustained debate and discussion. It can only happen if we talk with, rather than at or over one another. Whether or not we do so is up to us.


Chapter 2, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.”