On Liberty (4B19)

Date: 07/11/2022

Good morning Principal, teachers and fellow schoolmates. When we talk about our rights as a member of this civilised society, the first thing that comes into our mind will probably be the freedom of speech. It’s the thing that enables us to share our opinions freely, which is particularly important in the democratic world we live in. However, freedom to the absolute is not a good thing at all. So, there are rules for everything. We are not allowed to use racial slurs or harm morality on the internet, for example. But what is the real principle behind these rules? Why are we allowed to say something, but not others?


Well, the book I am going to share today may give you some insights. It is called “On Liberty”, with the author being British philosopher John Stuart Mill. The book mainly discusses the principle behind liberty, which decides what we can talk about. In general, only one rule is derived: the harm principle. Basically, it suggests that:


That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”


The only time when the government can limit the freedom of expression, is when it harms other people. It’s a very solid point, isn’t it? You can’t hurt others on the internet, simple as that. It is generally agreed that something is bad when it hurts others.


Here is an example from the book. There was a farm where the owner treated his slaves very poorly. One day, the leader of the slaves decided organise a revolution against the owner. When the slaves marched towards the owner’s house, the leader said, ‘This guy in front of you has tortured us for years. Let’s burn down his house and kill him!’


In this case, the leader violates the principle as his words would incite the hatred of the slaves towards the farm owner, which probably would result in harming or killing him. Seems like the rule is fair, right? As long as you don’t hurt others, you can speak whatever you like. Pretty free in my opinion.

However, when we read books about philosophy, we always try to think deeper. The rule does seem alright on paper. However, as smart students, we can always find something bad inside a seemingly good idea. As you may have already been thinking, what is ‘harm’ exactly? Is it a kind of physical damage, or hurting others psychologically also counts? What about fake news? It is hard for us to make a conclusion here.


Maybe the rule isn’t that clear at all. The reality is complicated, and a rule like this is not able to solve all the problems we have. In fact, the book was written in 1859, in the archaic Victorian period of Britain. There was no internet back then, and hardly any fake news at all. Situation changes as time changes, and sometimes the rules that worked do not work anymore.


So you may think, this sharing is kinda useless as I just disproves the value of this theory in today’s world. Actually, we do not find the truth in reading books like these. We think about it, and make our own conclusions. That’s how we develop our own values, and I think that’s one of the biggest functions of philosophy. Yes, it is vague and usually hard to understand, yet it is the foundation of the rights you have today. Freedom, democracy, human rights, education… All these came from some over the top ideas by the greatest minds in history. Therefore, I encourage you to read this book, not just understanding the theory, but to think and develop your own ideas. In that way, we can make use of our ability to think — which separates us from other animals.


Thank you.


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