JS Mill – On Liberty, Ch. 1-2

This is the reading for our June 17th meeting.  You can find all the details at our Meetup.com page.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

This essay is not about the freedom of the will, but civil liberty—the nature and limits of the power which society can wield over the individual.  In the past, liberty meant protection against government tyranny.  Since the power og government could be used against anyone, citizens had to be in a perpetual state of defence against this power.  This limitation could be carried out in two ways.  First, a set of immunities, called liberties.  Second, constitutional checks.  Constitutional checks eventually became the main defence of liberty.

Eventually, societies decided that government should not be an independent, antagonistic power; rather, government power should be a delegated power and representative of the people.  Once this sort of democracy appeared, people began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power, since the idea that the people could oppress themselves appeared to be so odd.  As Mill puts it, “The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.  There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.” (89)  His response to this is to say that phrases like “the power of the people over themselves” does not actually describe what goes on in democratic republics.  For example, the “people” who exercise the power are not the same people over whom it is exercised, and the “will of the people” means nothing more than the will of a numerical majority.

Tyranny is not only the result of government action—society can also be tyrannical, and it is this social tyranny he is most interested in.  There can be a social tyranny which is stronger than any political tyranny; despite not being violently enforced by the state, there are fewer escape routes and it can penetrate more deeply into daily life.  Hence, protection against the government is not enough.  We also need protection against public opinion.  There must be a limit to the power of collective opinion over individual independence.

We need to figure out what the limit ought to be.  People of different times and places consider their already-existing rules to be self-evident, but this is the universal illusion of custom.  People tend to rely on feelings like this, and dismiss the necessity of having reasons.  No one likes to admit that the motivating force of their judgements is their feelings, and that reasons, even when given, are usually appeals to the preferences of others.  The reasons we give are affected by a wide range of causes.  The likes and dislikes of society are mostly responsible for its rules, enforced either by law or opinion, and this generally goes unquestioned.

Through England’s peculiar political history, the weight of law is lighter, but the weight of public opinion is stronger.  Mill worried that if people come to realize this, the law could become much more invasive, especially in the absence of a principle for limiting government invasiveness.  This book wants to argue for a basic principle:

“That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.  That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” (94-95)

It does not matter if the interference will make people happy or moral.  These are reasons to persuade or reason with him, but not for compelling him.

Importantly, this only applies “to human beings in the maturity of their faculties” (95).  So this does not apply to minors, or any others that cannot prevent harm to themselves – such as “backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered in its nonage” (95).  Despotism is legitimate with such people, if the goal is their improvement:

“Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.  Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.  But as soon as mankind has attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion (a period long since reached in all nations with whom we need here concern ourselves), compulsion, either in the direct form or in that of pains and penalties for non-compliance, is no longer admissible as a means to their own good, and justifiable only for the security of others.” (95)

Society has a direct interest in preventing harm, but only an indirect interest in the good of individuals.  If an action only (directly) affects others with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation, then this is the realm of human liberty.  This is the freedom of opinion, of thought and feeling, concerning any subject from science to theology.  It is also about the freedom to plan one’s life to fit one’s own tastes and goals, as well as the freedom to unite with others.  No society which does not respect these liberties is free.

Chapter 2 – Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

This chapter is not specifically about the freedom of the press, since previous writers have defended it well.  This is about more general ways of enforcing opinion, an act which is always illegitimate: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (100).

Silencing the expression of opinion robs the human race of something important.  If the opinion is correct, they are robbed of truth, and if it is wrong, then are robbed of the opportunity for a clearer view of the truth as contrasted with error.

If the opinion is true, those who want to suppress it might claim it is false—but they are not infallible.  All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. The problem is that while everyone admits they are fallible in principle, few take steps to guide themselves against this danger. Absolute princes usually encounter nothing but deference, but average people have their opinions disputed all the time—but they still consider their opinions infallible when they are shared by “the world,” meaning the people most relevant to them such as their religious sect

It could be replied that there is no greater assumption of infallibility in forbidding an opinion than in forbidding any other action guided by judgment.  If judgment can be wrong, are we then not supposed to judge anything?  An objection that applies to all conduct cannot apply to any particular action.

There are no absolute assurances, but there are assurances that are good enough for practice, the purposes of human life.  Hence, “We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct; and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious” (102).

Mill says it assumes a lot more than that.  There is a big difference between presuming an opinion to be true because it has had the opportunity to be refuted and has not been, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.  The liberty to dispute is the condition of assuming truth; it is the only rational assurance of being right.

Experience is not the only means to test ideas.  We also require discussion, because wrong ideas eventually yield to fact and argument. He says, “Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.  The whole strength and value, then, of human judgement, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand.” (103)

Some accept the arguments for free discussion, but object them them being “pushed to an extreme”—but if an argument is not good for extreme cases, then it is not good for any case.

Some argue that there are some beliefs which are so important for survival that it is the government’s duty to uphold those beliefs.  In these cases, something less than infallibility needs to be assumed in order to bind public opinion.  This changes the matter from the truth of an opinion to its usefulness, which ends up skipping over the truth of the opinion entirely.  It in fact pushes the question of truth back a step, into the question of the truth of the claim of usefulness.  In reality, the truth of an opinion is part of its utility.

We can consider a concrete case: belief in God and immortality.  Here, the case against freedom of opinion is at its strongest.  But again, the topic is changed.  It is not about feeling sure of a doctrine which makes one assume infallibility—it is the effect is has on others.  One can believe an opinion to be absolutely true without assuming infallibility. It is when it is forced on others that infallibility appears, and this is when “those dreadful mistakes which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity” appear.  He reminds us that Socrates and Jesus were condemned as blasphemers.

Another theory says truth can be persecuted because persecution does not do it any harm.  This does not necessarily mean it is harmful to new truths, but it is certainly harmful to those who argue for them.  Discovering and propagating a new truth is a major service to humanity, and their martyrdom is a terrible mistake.

It is also not true that truth always triumphs over persecution; there are many examples of this in history.  It may not always be suppressed forever, but it can certainly be held back for centuries.  For example, there were at least 20 potential Reformers before Luther.  

He says that in British society, their “merely social intolerance” does not kill anyone for heretical opinions, but it does force people to hide them.  Heresy rarely breaks out, but it does exist “in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or deceptive light” (111).  This keeps the peace in the intellectual world, but the price for this sacrifice is “the entire moral courage of the human mind” (111).  We lose the experience of fearless debate.

The biggest problem is not the harm done to heretical minds, but the harm done to those who are not heretics: their reason is cowed by fear of heresy.  Promising intellects combined with timid characters are lost from public discussion.  No one can be a great thinker without following their thoughts, wherever they lead, and truth gains more from fearless study than from the acceptance of public opinion, even when correct.

Consider the possibility of a truth not being disputed; it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth” (114).  Some claim that it is good enough to believe a true thing, even if one cannot defend this truth against objections.  The problem is that when objections do appear, the same truth that was held without argument can be discarded without argument.

In math, there is never much to be said for the incorrect side because the truth can be established.  In every other subject, there are competing interpretations of the facts, so we have to understand the other side.  If we do not understand the other side, or cannot refute it, then the rational thing to do is suspend judgment.

If we have to defend our ideas, then we have to know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.  If we never reckon with key difficulties, then we never come across the parts of the truth which solve those difficulties.  Our conclusions might be true, but we would never actually know.

Even when we take genuine truth entirely on authority, absent discussion, then we end up losing the reasons for the truth, and even the meaning of the truth. It becomes something memorized by rote.  Ethical and religious ideas had greater power and force for their authors and their direct disciples.  That power continues to be felt “so long as the struggle lasts to give the doctrine or creed an ascendency over other creeds” (118).  When it finally wins, controversy dies and it stops being a matter for thinking or even feeling.  Mill quotes another author describing this as “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”

All this might entail that an “absence of unanimity” is a necessary condition of true knowledge, that some people *have* to be wrong so the rest of us can be right.  Mill definitely does not think this.  As we progress, the number of undisputed doctrines will rise.  The consolidation of opinion is inevitable.  Part of the solution to this will have to fall to teachers, who Mill seems to think will have to act as devil’s advocates.  Other possibilities include Socratic dialogues or the Medieval disputations, which are intended to make sure someone understands their opinion and the opposed opinion.

There is one more point that makes diversity of opinion valuable, at least until a currently unimaginable level of intellectual development.  So far, he has discussed the possibility of true and false opinions, but there is something more common than either: conflicting doctrines, which both have a share in the truth.

Popular opinion usually has some truth to it, while heretical opinions usually have some repressed truth in them.  To some degree, this is necessary for any political structure:

“Unless opinions favourable to democracy and aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and to competition, to luxury and to abstinence, to sociality and to individuality, to liberty and discipline, and all the other standing antagonisms of practical life, are expressed with equal freedom, and enforced and defended with talent and energy, there is no chance of both elements obtaining their due; one scale is sure to go up, and the other down.” (123)

It might be claimed that some truths are more than half-truths, and Mill thinks an example of this might be Christian morality. However, we still need to figure out what Christian morality is; the Gospels take a pre-existing morality for granted, and explicate only particulars.  Our readings of Christian morality are themselves half-truths.  We can even look to “pagan” nations for truths unexpressed in purely Christian morality.  For example, the Koran says “A ruler who appoints any man to an office, when there is in his dominions another man better qualified for it, sins against God and against the State.”

The final point is his description of what he calls “the real morality of public conversation.”  This entails taking seriously each opinion as it is presented, without prejudice, and ignoring none of the possible arguments for or against the opinion.


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