Maarten Maartensz

  Philosophy - Mill - On Liberty - Chapter II
 

 

 

 


Notes to: CHAPTER II
OF THE LIBERTY OF THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION


Note on these notes

These notes are from 2006, based on notes in my paper copy of "On Liberty" that date from 1977.

The format is that I quote the text of Mill that I comment in blue, and write my own notes in black, with a "Back" at the end of every note that moves the reader back - provided he or she is on line, or has downloaded the relevant files in similar directories,or uses a CD of my site - to the beginning of the quotation the note is concerned with. (See also the TOC.)

The result is that my quotations + my notes take more space than Mill's original text, but one advantage of the procedure I use is that the reader can read my quotations + my notes independently from the text, yet be moved thence - provisos as above - with a single click.


[1] "THE time, it is to be hoped, is gone by when any defence would be necessary of the "liberty of the press" as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. "

As I write this, in the summer of 2006, it is almost 150 years ago that Mill's "On Liberty" was first published, and "THE time" Mill wrote so hopefully about still has not arrived.

Indeed, at present the governments of Europe and the United States, so far  more democracies and states of law than not, are rapidly changing - with parliamentary, judiciary and journalistic support, mostly - into states with dictatorial and authoritarian governments, where all manner of liberties are curtailed, and all manner of duties imposed on any and all civilians, supposedly "because of the dangers of Terrorism".

This is a lie, and must be a conscious lie, from the vast majority of those ministers in most states where it is propounded, even allowing for a considerable degree of incompetence and panic, for the simple and evident reasons that between 1950 and 1990 the dangers of real terrorism, what with enormous despotic states with enormous well-trained armies with atomic weapons, were far greater and more dangerous than at present, where "the enemy" consists of an obscure entity composed of a few hundreds, thousands or at most tenthousands of Mohammedan fanatics, without armies, without states, without atomic weapons, usually with little or no military training, and with only a very small part of the capacity to harm that was possessed by the Soviet Union and its satellites.

Since this is so very obvious to anyone who seriously thinks about "terrorism", as it has admittedly raised its ugly face since September 11, 2002, that one must assume that the present vast curtailments of and restrictions on many of the human and civil freedoms that have been in power for at least eighty years, including the years of the Cold War, and the Soviet threat of war and terrorism on a world scale in a few minutes, as the armies of the enemy of the West in the time of the Cold War stood at the West's  borders, armed to the teeth, I assume this undoing of many of the human and civil freedoms my parents and grandparent enjoyed unrestrictedly, happens on purpose, and happens to strengthen the interests of those who are currently in power.

Indeed, I think the situation as regards human rights so serious - with one's email read and one's phone tapped, all as a matter of course because one might be "a terrorist", and one's precise whereabouts on earth checkable by cell-phone if one carries one, and one's being forced to carry identity-papers wherever one goes, to identify oneself against unidentifiable cops or security-guards from private organizations, and while almost no civilian in Europe has the right to carry arms, even while the best obvious defense against any "terrorism" is to properly arm the population that also was allowed to vote, to drive cars, and to buy axes and chainsaws, wherewith much harm can be done, but which do not protect one effectively from armed terrorists - that I must assume that this happens either on purpose and with great and grave criminal intent or else not on purpose and because of great and liable incompetence.

With a world leader of the evident gifts of mind and heart of George Bush Jr. this is difficult to decide, but I have no difficulties to decide the issue when it is applied to some of his advisors, although I neither know the reasons why, nor the gains made or in view, even though it is also clear to me that there are many billions worth of oil in Iraqi soil.

But it is not impossible, with the sort of government and governing persons now in power in the U.S., that in fact, according to them, something like a Holy War or crusade is in progress, of the Christians against the Muslims, in which, of course, they feel they have God on their side, and perhaps in some cases His direct voice in their head, and also anything whatsoever is permitted, so they may feel, because the stakes are so high, and they are doing God's work.

In short, I live - and write this - in what the Chinese called "interesting times", where many human rights and freedoms are being destroyed on purpose, in modern Western nominally democratic states of law, supposedly "to fight terrorism", but certainly with the effect of making the small minority of politicians, bureaucrats and "safety guards", that effectively form the government, very much more powerful in the West than western governments have been since Hitler fell from power, and with the possibly unintended effect of making the state, the nation and the population ready for the worst dictatorship ever, with total state control over a person's means of communication, whereabouts and identity, and already such that any person who is merely accused of "terrorism" or of being an "illegal alien" has lost the right of habeas corpus, and may be delivered at the pleasure of the minister to the secret service of the state he originally came from.   Back.


[1a] "If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered."

Indeed, but again it must be noted that, almost 150 years after Mill wrote this, the time still has not arrived.

Note that the number of this note has a letter affixed to it to indicate that the text is that of a footnote of Mill.    Back.


[2] "Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. "

This seems to me both a little vague and a little exaggerated, but it can easily be restated in a form I find unobjectionable:

No government should have the right to prescribe or proscribe any opinion, not in law, and not in practice. Human beings - if adult and sane - should be free to make up their own minds, and should be free, possibly except in states of war or crisis, to discuss any subject and to put forward any opinion, provided the opinion does not call for violence nor makes serious threats to harm or damage a person.

Incidentally, it should be noted here, also about Mill's use of "rightfully" and "legally", that I make no proviso of the form "does not break the existing laws", since the existing laws - say, of a police state - may be quite immoral. Hence, the "rightful" or "legal" is by reference to a supposed morally correct system of laws, that may well be nowhere in existence. When I say "right" I generally mean "morally correct in my judgment".   Back.


[3] "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. "

Provided, of course, that this "one person" with that "one opinion" that differs from that of all others, merely desires to state, publish or discuss it, and is personally able to do so rationally, for there also are madmen, idiots and neurotic makers of trouble.

But I agree with Mill that anyone who is capable of making any case for any proposition whatsoever in a rational way - if the proposition is not a direct threat of violence, or a clear defamation without evidence - that he be allowed to do so, though it may be added that there is also no rational duty for any man to answer him. Even so, in principle, and with a few obvious restrictions, any case concerning anything may be made, and answered, and discussed, provided it all happens rationally and peacefully.

Furthermore, the reader should realize that all new opinions have started this way, as the new idea originated by one human being only, that indeed will not be discussed nor picked up if useful, if that individual is silenced or fears the consequences too much of speaking out and saying what he thinks.

And see the next quotation.   Back.


[4] "But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

See the previous quotation and note, and remark that what "the human race" is robbed of, in such a case, with the proviso made in my previous note, is the chance of a serious rational discussion that may lead to the uncovering of an important truth.

And indeed, with very few exceptions that all concern only cases of great emergency, it can never be wrong for rational men to have a rational discussion of any idea whatsoever.   Back.


[5] "First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. "

Yes indeed, but often states and governments of all kinds try to silence a discussion, or forbid a subject or opinion to be published, not on the ground of their own "infallibility", but on the ground of its dangers to the state, the government, the civil peace, or because a sizable part of the public feels offended.

It seems to me that this is almost always unjustified, and mostly done because it is the easiest way for the authorities to forbid what they can neither control nor influence as they want, but I am willing to grant that the majority of the population in Europe and the U.S. are not what I would call rational, reasonable, well-educated and informed persons, and that this fact does at times constitute a considerable real problem for a government, also if this is - or were - capable and composed of honest men, with honorable intentions.

And there are a number of opinions - say, the desirability of: having sex with children; burning one's opponents alive; the many animalistic and subhuman properties of those one disagrees with; and racial and sexual inferiorities - which I believe a civil government in many cases may fairly forbid in at least some forms in order to keep the civil peace.

Besides, there is the problem that sometimes a society - e.g. after a lost war, or a failed revolution - may be in no fit shape to have all subjects freely discussed by all in all circumstances. (Here fit to some extent the current German and Austrian laws that forbid expressing the public opinion that Hitler did not commit the Holocaust.)   Back.


[6] "while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. "

True, but often "their own fallibility" does not enter so much as their own feelings, and the supposed rights they derive from their own feelings.

For example, there are very many believers, in very many religions, who may easily allow that their own religious convictions may not be infallible, but who are offended - or claim to be offended - when their convictions are critically discussed, denied, or ridiculed, and who find such feelings, upon which many are willing to act, even to the extent of using violence, sufficient grounds to silence their opponents, and sufficient grounds to appeal to the government or the courts that, in order to promote the social peace, the opinions (or practices) they find offensive should be forbidden or silenced.

Here also enters an important difficulty with Mill's introductory chapter, where he insisted that - in one of his formulations - "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."

For those who appeal to their own feelings of being offended as a sufficient ground to silence those they find offensive in fact argue, or might argue, that they are harmed by criticism of their opinions they find offensive, and indeed they incline easily to call the criticism of others "verbal violence", and almost as easily incline to believe that what they call "verbal violence" may be fairly, equitably and morally met, in self-protection, by their own physical violence against those they accuse of verbal violence.

Therefore, two important qualifications have to be made.

First, "harm" in the sense in which Mill uses it must be understood as being defined to mean bodily harm, or damage to one's health or property, and not in terms of mental pain, that cannot be objectively established anyway, so far, and is of quite another kind than pain due to bodily harm, or damages due to theft, poisoning, arson etc.

This is not easy to do, in a way that satisfies all and would cover all plausible cases of bodily harm or damage, but there are surely good attempts to do so in the legal traditions, and the main principle and idea is obvious, and often stated, e.g. in such terms as "sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words don't bother me".

Second, there is no such thing as "verbal violence", for it is an oxymoron, and to insist there is, either is stupid or else wilfully obscurantistic. There are, of course, verbal threats with violence, which are rightly forbidden by the law in most countries, and indeed do not form a proper part of the freedoms of speech, discussion and publication, and there are very many kinds of offensive language, that may be or feel like insults in many ways, whether they were meant to insult or not.

But the principal point is that words and ideas are not actions, in the sense that kicking, hitting and shooting are actions, and that it is very important to distinguish clearly and principially between speaking of something and doing the something spoken of.

In brief, one may discuss and consider all things, including many that are irrational, unreasonable or immoral according to some or to many, simply because to speak of things is not at all the same as to realize the things one speaks of, while speaking of them may shed light on them that cannot be otherwise had.

And all manner of things can be rationally discussed by rational persons.   Back.


[7] "for in proportion to a man's want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of "the world" in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. "

Indeed, and it should be noted that most human beings have friends and acquaintances that can be numbered in tens or hundreds, but usually no more, and often less, while in their judgements about "men" and "mankind" they effectively pronounce upon thousands of millions. In fact, at the time of writing this there are in the order of three times as many human beings alive as there are seconds in the life of a 75-year old.

In any case, therefore: ALL opinions are local, based on partial information, and normally biased by feelings, desires and values of those who have the opinion, or deny it.

Furthermore, the ONLY human endeavour in which it is systematically tried to establish the truth about something on an empirical and rational basis is science, and in considerable parts of science - notably, the so-called political, social and literary branches of science - there are, these days, no strong tendencies to discover the truth rationally and empirically, because many of the practioners of these supposed sciences - falsely, unscientifically, and irrationally, but quite possibly sincerely if stupidly - do not believe there is any non-relative truth to be established.    Back.


[8] "It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right. But when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint, because other people, in less enlightened times, have persecuted opinions now believed to be true."

This is not Mill's opinion, from the second sentence in this quotation onwards, at least, as he indicates by the bracketed phrase, but an opinion fairly attributable to e.g. the Catholics, who believed at one time, which  lasted several centuries at least, that their own sincerity of belief coupled with the strength with which they held it and the importance which they attributed to it, allowed them, in their own opinion, to persecute non-believers in the Catholic religion, and to burn them alive after torturing them for information or as punishment for believing something else than their inquisitors.   Back.


[9] "There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right."

These are two statements on each of which I have a comment.

As to the first: This is true and important, and there is a great difference between propositions which have been thoroughly, critically, rationally and empirically investigated by able men, and were not found to be false, and propositions which are merely believed, as in fact most propositions are when believed, because the believer feels pleased if the proposition were true, or feels scared if it were not, or believes it only or mostly because his friends or leaders say they believe it.

Indeed, propositions of the first kind - that have been thoroughly, critically, rationally and empirically been investigated by able men - are almost always propositions of some real science.

Mill's second statement in the above passage is also true and important, and may be restated like so: One can only give one's rational consent to propositions that state anything that goes beyond one's personal experience if they have been rationally discussed and if possible empirically investigated by able men, and have not been found to be false.

Even then one may choose to reject such propositions, and one often can do so for rational reasons, but if one chooses to agree that it is probably true, then at least one may be fairly certain that one is right to the extent that it is not probably false - provided again it was seriously discussed and investigated by able rational men who have not found it to be false, as is indeed the case with most propositions of real science, and with the propositions of no other system of human belief.   Back.


[10] "When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are? Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify. "

Indeed, and here are at least two points to comment on.

First, as to "to the inherent force of the human understanding". I agree with Mill that it is weak, both in the sense that no man is capable of knowing and understanding more than a very small fraction of what mankind as a whole - ever or those presently living - knows or has known, and also in the sense that no man is capable of tracing all possible logical consequences of the beliefs he holds, or of charting all possible rational objections to them.

This is again an important reason why, for human beings such as they are, free discussion is so important: It may take many generations of free discussion by the most qualified to ascertain anything approximately true about many subjects (physics, chemistry and biology are cases in point), and it took many more generations to arrive at the possibility of scientific knowledge than have, so far, enjoyed its existence and its technological benefits.

Second, as to "on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable". Indeed, and including Mill's proviso - but then there is a problem, especially in respect of such issues and questions that are discussed "democratically", as the term is. The problem is, of course, that the vast majority feels itself usually quite willing and capable of judging whatever subject they feel strongly about, even if they are quite ignorant about it.

Accordingly, the problem is that especially in socalled democratically governed states and institutions, there is a considerable probability that most issues that the majority feels strongly about will be judged by it, with or without the benefit of relevant knowledge, and probably wrongly, irrationally and falsely - but with the support and the blessings of the democratic majority, and their leaders and tribunes.   Back.


[11] "Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance — which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state — it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience."

I agree that it is very important for human beings, as individuals, and as a species that tries to improve its chances and living conditions by finding the natural science to surrect a technology to produce what people want, to be "capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience" but this is not the main reason for the "preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct".

Indeed, it may be doubted that "human affairs" are as good as that, and one may quote Gibbon to that effect: "History is little else but the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind".

But I need not bother here with Gibbon, and for the moment I simply conclude that, whatever the qualities of the diverse human civilizations and governments, to the extent that human beings survive they must have understood some things well enough to help them survive, for they would surely have perished if all or the vast majority of their beliefs on the basis of which they make a living were false.

The main reason for such "rational opinions and rational conduct" as have existed among human beings is that these "opinions" and that "conduct" concerned matters that they did not feel strongly about, and therefore could fairly easily discuss and consider and treat in a rational way.   Back.


[12] " Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. 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 judgment, 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."

Yes indeed, and it should also be remarked that there are at least two kinds of "experience" involved here. Mill clearly is thinking of empirical investigation of some kind, in any case, and not of the "experience" of discussion or imagination, but he does not notice that there is a considerable difference between mere observation on the one hand, and careful experiment on the other.

The differences are that observation generally does not interfere with what is observed, whereas experimentation tries to bring about a controlled situation in which a theory can be tested as well as is possible. Most "experience" that is the empirical basis of the real sciences is of the experimental kind.   Back.


[13] "In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. "

Yes, but this is to some extent an idealized example or case. It applies and exists, but speaking more generally I would incline to have confidence in a person's judgement if I know him to be intelligent and rational in general, and to be well-informed and widely read in the case at hand, about which he also has no strong emotions, nor any reason to be strongly biased.    Back.


[14] "No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter — he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process."

Indeed, but with two minor qualifications.

First, one must allow that there is a considerable variety in talents of all kinds, and that some may far more quickly see the consequences, uses or conditions of certain things than others who have the same information.

And this is not only the case with subjects like mathematics, music or chess, but also with subjects like politics, where it was easily allowed by e.g. Thucydides that men like Themistocles and Pericles, whose judgements and policies made Athens of the fifth century B.C. so great, had a special facility and quickness and accuracy in their judgments of men and political affairs, that other men did not have.

Second, a person who has gone to considerable lengths to rationally understand a subject, and has heard or read many different views of it, and studied its "objections and difficulties" need not have a "judgment" that is "better" but does have a judgment that is better rationally founded than in the case where he took no cognizance of different views of it, and of its difficulties.   Back.


[15] "The most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a "devil's advocate." The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honors, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed. "

I have quoted this mostly as a good example.   Back.


[16] "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. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it."

Precisely, apart from a few cases, that concern emotions or special subjects.

For one does not need a long investigation or consideration to know that one likes a food or loves a person, even though it is true that here also more information or relevant experience might alter one's judgment, or the strength with which it is held.

And in some cases and subjects, it is easy to be certain quite soon, simply from the evidence one has: Clearly, Raphael, Dόrer and Holbein were great painters, capable in the ways of painting as very few men are, and one needs little more than some knowledge of the history of art and how more ordinary people draw to conclude this, while also in mathematics and in logic it is possible, sometimes for specialists only, but in other cases for anybody who knows the relevant principles and is not stupid, to understand that something does follow logically from assumptions made.   Back.


[17] "Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme;" not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side."

This may be rationally doubted.

First, as regards the last statement, there are madmen. Mill does not discuss them, nor the logical problems their existence brings, and I do not think these logical problems are serious, at least in most cases (for there is the issue of the abuse of psychiatry, especially in totalitarian states), but they should be mentioned.

Second, I don't really think the matters Mill calls "Strange" are strange, but I don't know whether Mill is speaking in irony here. In any case, the vast majority of men is not normally or usually concerned with or interested in the truth of any kind, but in surviving, making a living, being a social success, and in "How to make friends and influence people", as was the title of a once well-known popular American booklet of self-instruction to just that stated end.   Back.


[18] "This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions. But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself. There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility."

With this there are several difficulties.

First, as I indicated above, in [5], often the ground to restrain some discussion is not that those who try to restrain it hold themselves to be "infallible", but merely because they hold that the discussion would be  inexpedient - for them, there and then - or would cause problems, or might cause disturbances of the peace.

And they may well be right in their contentions. Whether they are also right in trying to restrain the discussion, there and then, depends on the subject and the state of society where the discussion is to take place in, but I agree with Mill that if there is an arguable case for some restraints of some discussions, this is not arguable as a matter of principle for any discussion of that subject, for in principle any subject is capable of rational discussion by rational men, but is only arguable as a matter of expedience given the present social situation, and as an exception.

Second, Mill is right that "The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion" but he has shifted the subject thereby, and sometimes it may be much easier to decide, rationally and reasonably, whether the present discussion of a certain opinion by the present parties is useful (or is likely to result in a considerable quarrel, for example) than what ought to be the opinion of a really rational and informed man on the subject, were he to consider it.

Third, while it is true that "The truth of an opinion is part of its utility", it is also true, especially in the fields of politics and religion, that many opinions are presented not because the proponent thinks the opinion is or may be true, but because he thinks that propounding it publicly is useful, for example to confuse the opposition, to shift the debate, to create mayhem, or whatever.   Back.


[19] "it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less, if put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However positive any one's persuasion may be, not only of the falsity, but of the pernicious consequences — not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of that private judgment, though backed by the public judgment of his country or his contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. "

No, the conclusion of this quotation is false, and the beginning I don't believe, not where it concerns Mill, whom I could not possibly personally know, logically speaking, but who was human, nor about myself, for whom I will state my objection.

Speaking about myself, then, I do not believe that I am equally fair and rational about "the side of my most solemn convictions" as about some question in the truth or falsity of which I have no special interest, hopes, or investments, and I also do not expect such fairness and rationaliy of any man or woman.

What one may require, of others and of oneself, is that, at least where and when one claims to be a rational and reasonable man, one is willing to subject one's opinion to rational argument by other rational men, and to judge and use such evidence and arguments as they find or offer, in a logically or mathematically correct way.

As regards Mill's conclusion in the quoted piece, and as outlined in [5] and [18], it simply is not true that whoever desires to prevent an opinion from being heard always and necessarily "assumes infallibility".

Indeed, there may be good reasons not to discuss the issue there and then, with that audience, in those circumstances. What Mill is right about is the principle: all manner of things can be rationally discussed by rational persons, and no subject should be forbidden to rational men capable of rational discussion.   Back.


[20] "To discover to the world something which deeply concerns it, and of which it was previously ignorant; to prove to it that it had been mistaken on some vital point of temporal or spiritual interest, is as important a service as a human being can render to his fellow-creatures ... "

Yes, that is so, and is one important reason for the last part of my previous note, but even so it should be admitted that most discussions by most men of most subjects start and end with things that are not of world-shocking importance.   Back.


[21] "But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed forever, it may be thrown back for centuries. "

Yes, indeed. And see the next quotation.   Back.


[22] "Persecution has always succeeded, save where the heretics were too strong a party to be effectually persecuted."

This seems to me to be the realistic view of the issue. Also, few men are real heroes, and indeed it is unreasonable to expect that more than a few are.   Back.


[23] "It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error, of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either. "

Yes, and it should also be remarked that what men are "zealous for" is usually not true and tends to be mixed up with much religious or party feeling.

Anyway, Mill is right that "the truth shall prevail" in society only if it is protected in that society, with few exceptions.    Back.


[24] "The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it."

Indeed, but with two qualifications.

First, Mill clearly thought of natural facts, such as may be established by physics or chemistry, and that have been and will be so for a very long time in the past and in the future.

But not all facts are of this kind, and there are many facts about the doings of dictatorships, for example, that are difficult to establish when they happen, and that are also difficult to establish after the dictatorship disappeared.

Hence some truths and some people may disappear without a trace, through succesful persecution.

Second, it may also be that truths that have been perceived by a few and that might have been important to many during some stage of natural knowledge, are far less important when rediscovered at a later stage.    Back.


[25] "Penalties for opinion, or at least for its expression, still exist by law; and their enforcement is not, even in these times, so unexampled as to make it at all incredible that they may some day be revived in full force. "

Yes, and I live in an age, a country and a stage of socalled civilization where the government is trying it to make it a crime to hate or express hate, because - one can see the great intellectual depth and moral refinement of this only if one is sufficiently intelligent, to a degree that ministers of state apparently do not reach these days in my country - the modern Dutch, of whom I am unfortunate enough to be one, "hate hate" and therefore want to forbid its expression, in precisely these terms: "We hate hate and therefore no one is allowed to express hate."

This is supposed to be one of the many Dutch governmental measures "against terrorism". It seems that no member of the present Dutch government - indeed not a highly gifted lot by any standards that are not lax - is capable of recognizing an evident logical paradox when it stares them in the face.   Back.


[26] "This refusal of redress took place in virtue of the legal doctrine, that no person can be allowed to give evidence in a court of justice, who does not profess belief in a God (any god is sufficient) and in a future state; which is equivalent to declaring such persons to be outlaws, excluded from the protection of the tribunals; who may not only be robbed or assaulted with impunity ..."

The paper version of the edition of "On Liberty" that I use gives several English examples from 1857, and H.B. Acton gives the reason in a note:

"Oaths were supposed to operate according to the principles of  that theological utilitarianism common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An oath, it was supposed, bound a man because he feared that God would punish him if he broke it. Locke in his Letter concerning Toleration, had argued that religious toleration should not be extended to atheists because they could not be bound by oaths, since, not believing in God, they do not fear being punished by him." (p. 425)

This also implied that they could not go to court, because their testimony was not believed, and therefore, as Mill said, that they were without "the protection of the" law and the courts. See the next quotation and note.  Back.


[27] "The rule, besides, is suicidal, and cuts away its own foundation. Under pretence that atheists must be liars, it admits the testimony of all atheists who are willing to lie, and rejects only those who brave the obloquy of publicly confessing a detested creed rather than affirm a falsehood. "

Yes, and H.B. Acton cites an English judge Beadon in a case in 1857 as follows. The person called "Prosecutor" was a German baron who wanted to prosecute a thief:

"Mr Beadon: What is your religion? Prosecutor: I am an Atheist - a perfect Atheist. Mr Beadon: Then that is the end of the matter. Case dismissed."   Back.


[28] "What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry; and where there is the strongest permanent leaven of intolerance in the feelings of a people, which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country, it needs but little to provoke them into actively persecuting those whom they have never ceased to think proper objects of persecution."

Yes, and it may be well to add that in historical fact the majority of men have "narrow and uncultivated minds" - and, I hasten to add, this is not due to their own free choice, but to their natural gifts.   Back.


[29] "For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective"

This is probably true, but it should be added that the English prisons of Mill's time, and indeed also the English prisons of my time, were quite unpleasant institutions to be in.    Back.


[30] "Our merely social intolerance, kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain or even lose, ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder 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 a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. "

Yes, and here there are some important factual problems for persons, like Mill, who believe social policies and ends, and the beliefs of a society, should result from free, fair and honest rational discussion.

The problems are that most men are neither very rational, nor very reasonable, nor very learned, and also are rarely completely fair, forthright and honest in expressing their real opinions, because they fear the consequences of doing so.   Back.


[31] "The sort of men who can be looked for under it, are either mere conformers to commonplace, or time-servers for truth whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves."

See my previous note: My own experience is that most men are "either mere conformers to commonplace, or time-servers for truth whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers", mostly because they lack the necessary native talents to be more than conformers or followers.   Back.


[32] "Those who avoid this alternative, do so by narrowing their thoughts and interests to things which can be spoken of without venturing within the region of principles, that is, to small practical matters, which would come right of themselves, if but the minds of mankind were strengthened and enlarged, and which will never be made effectually right until then; while that which would strengthen and enlarge men's minds, free and daring speculation on the highest subjects, is abandoned."

See the previous two notes. A quotation of Swift is relevant here, that is both bitter and true: "Most men are as fit to think as they are fit to fly." (It is true that these days there are TVs and aeroplanes to help them think and fly.)   Back.


[33] "The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?"

No one "can compute" this, but one can guess, on the basis of some knowledge of the writings of the great historians, that

"The bulk of the population avoided the excess and the ebullience, looked neither forwards nor backwards, but lived instinctively according to the ancient ways of their fathers, content with those institutions which had ruled them for generations. They were only involved, as the majority of mankind will always be, in the ever-renewing drama of personal existence." (J.H. Plumb, The First Four Georges, p. 23-4)   Back.


[34] "No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think."

A real thinker has to face the logical consequences of his views, and find their logical foundations, but Mill's second quoted sentence may, at least, be doubted, for if thinking for oneself leads to error, then truth does not gain, even if those who do believe the truth do not think for themselves.   Back.


[35] "There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people. "

Mill gives the Roman Catholic theologians as an example of the first. He may well be right, but it should be remarked that "intellectually active people", as men are and have been, on average, have always and everywhere been in a minority. This is also to a considerable extent not a matter of choice, for it is the same with mathematical, musical or any other talent: great or considerable capacity is rare. Further see [33].   Back.


[36] "Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed; where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable."

This is true regardless of the native abilities with which men are born on average: Where there is no room for discussion, there will be no discussion, and without discussion there will not be a "generally high scale of mental activity", except in a few rare individual cases, who will then find it difficult or impossible to make their ideas known.   Back.


[37] "Of such we have had an example in the condition of Europe during the times immediately following the Reformation; another, though limited to the Continent and to a more cultivated class, in the speculative movement of the latter half of the eighteenth century; and a third, of still briefer duration, in the intellectual fermentation of Germany during the Goethian and Fichtean period. These periods differed widely in the particular opinions which they developed; but were alike in this, that during all three the yoke of authority was broken. In each, an old mental despotism had been thrown off, and no new one had yet taken its place. The impulse given at these three periods has made Europe what it now is."

Indeed, and this seems to me a good explanation in principle of one main reason why there have been some periods in which art, science and civilization suddenly blossomed prodigiously: "an old mental despotism had been thrown off, and no new one had yet taken its place".

Mill's examples also seem apt. The only thing to add, in a general way, seems to be that in such periods and such places it also happened that several men of genius or very high gifts of various kinds were born, and were allowed to live and work.   Back.


[38] "However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth."

Yes, that is true - but it is also true that, first, in some cases, at least, such as 2+2=4, this probably will do little harm while greatly diminishing fruitless discussions, and, more importantly, second, that every society seems to be based on a number of dogmas that cannot be well discussed on a wide scale without bringing the society in danger.

Examples of such dogmas are religious beliefs of many kinds; political ideologies; and beliefs about the rules and importance of law. The moment that a majority or a great part of a society starts to doubt seriously that its government can be trusted and starts to believe sincerely that much is wrong with its religious, political or judicial foundations, the society is in great danger of collapsing.     Back.


[39] "If the cultivation of the understanding consists in one thing more than in another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one's own opinions. Whatever people believe, on subjects on which it is of the first importance to believe rightly, they ought to be able to defend against at least the common objections. "

Yes, but a problem Mill does not discuss here is that in fact in all major religions children are learned "the grounds" of the religious opinions in which they are educated, by cathechism, and usually with consequences for the rest of their lifes.

It seems to me that this is a morally wrong practice, and that children should not be forced to believe religious principles, nor to learn them, on the ground that these principles have no rational foundation, and are probably false, and that the matter these principles concern, which may be broadly defined as: the causes of the existence of natural reality, and the problem how men should live, should be left to the free consideration of their adult years, with their minds unbent, unfettered, and indeed undestroyed by early religious teachings they did not and could not have the knowledge to defend themselves against when young.   Back.


[40] "The peculiarity of the evidence of mathematical truths is, that all the argument is on one side. There are no objections, and no answers to objections. But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons. "

It is true that mathematical truths have another foundation than empirical truths, but it is not true that, before their discovery and proof, "all the argument is on one side".

However, the subject is technical, and I will leave it, and only refer the interested reader to G. Polya's "How to solve it" and I. Lakatos's "Proofs and Refutations", incidentally both books written much later than Mill wrote.   Back.


[41] "The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary's case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. "

Yes, this is very good advice for all questions for which one has - or should try to give oneself! - the leisure to seriously consider.

Incidentally by "The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity" Mill does mean Cicero, and by the "greatest" he means undoubtedly, since Cicero claimed it was so, and knew and heard the man, Gaius Iulius Ceasar. Ceasar's life starts Suetonius's "The twelve Ceasars", which is well worth reading, for many reasons. There is a good translation in Penguin Classics.   Back.


[42] "Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. "

This is also true, but it should be added that in general anyone who has access to a good university library thereby has access to written arguments by able men on the several sides of most questions.

Also, here is a related piece of advice, especially to young men and women who are interested in improving their minds: In proportion to your own intelligence, you should read widely in the classics.

There are at least two reasons for this, apart from the thirst for knowledge: Books have become classics because they are, by general consent, better than other books about the same subject, so they often are more interesting and better written than most other books, and also classics, even when not easy to read, have the property of having had a wide influence on many human minds, so that knowing some or all of their contents should explain a lot about the contents of other books they inspired.

Finally, the best library dedicated to just this purpose known to me is the Everyman's Library, that was started by Ernest Rhys in the beginning of the 20th Century, that comprises a little over a 1000 classics from all fields of human knowledge and literature, in usually very good editions. The paper version I use of "On Liberty" is also part of it.   Back.


[43] "Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess."

This seems to me to be also very true, rather bitter, and quite problematic to the position Mill defends, namely that ""Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition (..) they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess".

In consequence, they are, in spite of their own usual opinion to the contrary, effectively conformists, followers, and imitators, who generally do not know much more about the very opinions - political or religious, usually - closest to their hearts and minds than can be learned from one or a few popular thin books.

I discovered this for myself in the late 1960-ies student revolts, when it became rapidly clear to me that almost all of the would-be intelligent and well-educated student radicals, including their leaders, had actually very little knowledge of the very classics they claimed themselves to be inspired by, namely the texts of Marx and Marcuse, and usually had no knowledge whatsoever from their intellectual opponents, like Hayek or Popper, or indeed Mill.

It should be noted also that most of those "Ninety-nine in a hundred" also were in no position to see this themselves, precisely because they did not have the requisite knowledge, not even of the classics they believed in, and professed to practice.

In brief, then: "Ninety-nine in a hundred" effectively has and indeed protects and maintains prejudices in the cases of their most sincere and deepest beliefs. They either are not interested in knowing the real truth and the real foundations of their own beliefs, or they are not capable of doing so, and often there is a mix, because it is difficult to clarify the foundations of any serious subject.

The problem this poses was seen by Mill and is indeed taken up in the next quotation.   Back.


[44] "If, however, the mischievous operation of the absence of free discussion, when the received opinions are true, were confined to leaving men ignorant of the grounds of those opinions, it might be thought that this, if an intellectual, is no moral evil, and does not affect the worth of the opinions, regarded in their influence on the character. The fact, however, is, that not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself. The words which convey it, cease to suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally employed to communicate. Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost. The great chapter in human history which this fact occupies and fills, cannot be too earnestly studied and meditated on."

Indeed, but the consequence is - and I believe this to be true - that so far, through all of human history, the vast majority has held their most sincere beliefs uncritically and at least not very rationally, and often quite irrationally, and therefore effectively has lived and thought and acted on the basis of prejudices of all kinds concerning many things, and as a conformist.

It should be also noted, in fairness, that much of this is unavoidable, and for three distinct reasons.

First, most men are born with no real talents whatsoever, and the few who are born with some talent are born with one or at most two out of several hundreds at least. (This applies also to the greatest geniuses. What makes a man like Leonardo so extra-ordinary is that he excelled in several fields - but even he did not work in many fields many of his contemporaries excelled in.)

Second, those who have been born with some talents, say sufficient intelligence to do well in university in a real science, often do not have the leisure to seriously investigate their political, religious or moral convictions.

Third, those who have the talents and the leisure, and indeed also those who don't, may very well find themselves in social situations in which it is difficult or impossible to discuss the things they desire to discuss.    Back.


[45] "It is illustrated in the experience of almost all ethical doctrines and religious creeds. They are all full of meaning and vitality to those who originate them, and to the direct disciples of the originators. Their meaning continues to be felt in undiminished strength, and is perhaps brought out into even fuller consciousness, so long as the struggle lasts to give the doctrine or creed an ascendency over other creeds. At last it either prevails, and becomes the general opinion, or its progress stops; it keeps possession of the ground it has gained, but ceases to spread further. When either of these results has become apparent, controversy on the subject flags, and gradually dies away. The doctrine has taken its place, if not as a received opinion, as one of the admitted sects or divisions of opinion: those who hold it have generally inherited, not adopted it; and conversion from one of these doctrines to another, being now an exceptional fact, occupies little place in the thoughts of their professors. Instead of being, as at first, constantly on the alert either to defend themselves against the world, or to bring the world over to them, they have subsided into acquiescence, and neither listen, when they can help it, to arguments against their creed, nor trouble dissentients (if there be such) with arguments in its favor. From this time may usually be dated the decline in the living power of the doctrine. "

Yes, but this seems a fairly natural course also. And as I said in the previous note, most men have lived, for various reasons, as conformists and on the basis of prejudice.

The problem for Mill's position in "On Liberty", which he will discuss in a later chapter, is that in fact Mill's recommendations can hold, in the society in which he lived, and also in the society in which I live, some 150 years later, for a rather small minority of men, namely a part, and probably not the greatest part, of those who are both intelligent and well-educated.    Back.


[46] "But when it has come to be an hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively — when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies"

Yes, but this may also be useful, for at least three reasons.

First, most are not capable of anything better, as discussed in the previous quotations and notes.

Second, in many cases, such as the law, morals, and elementary history, science and mathematics, rote learning is necessary and also is better than no learning at all, however uncritically the learning is held.

Third, a society is organized on the basis of the predictability of most of the behavior of most of its members most of the time, and is accordingly in need of shared values and shared beliefs, of some kind, however acquired, and however held.   Back.


[47] "Then are seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the majority, in which the creed remains as it were outside the mind, encrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant."

True, and as I indicated before: Most men live and like to live quiet easy lives of conformity, wealth and leisure, and do not like, nor are they able, to stand out as original thinkers.   Back.


[48] "To what an extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realized in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. "

And that way is well described - as the founder of the faith already noticed about his contemporaries - by conformism and hypocrisy.

The problem is that, much as Mill or I may dislike this, it accords quite well with both the gifts and the interests of average men and women. Besides, apart from natural lack of intelligence, both conformism and hypocrisy may often be excused to a considerable extent by the fact that average men and women desire to appear as the majority opinion dictates, and are afraid of the penalties, if not by law than by ordinary morality and custom, there are in store for those who do not conform and do not lie with the majority.    Back.


[49] "These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance."

In my experience, which is not with Christians but with leftist students (see [43]), it is quite correct that "These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing (..). Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one (..) in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws."

Others, such as Jung Chan in "Wild Swans", that concerns Maoist China, have reported similarly about other classes of men.

The general problem is that the vast majority of men is not interested in the truth of their opinions, but only in the social consequences of their professing them, and in the chances they have of living a pleasant life.   Back.


[50] "All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbor as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But any one who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people."

This is abstracted as a useful list of what "All Christians believe" "just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them."

Most men are hypocrites and conformists about their fundamental beliefs, and indeed also for what are mostly good practical reasons. See: [43], [44], [45], [46], [47], [48], [49].   Back.


[51] "The same thing holds true, generally speaking, of all traditional doctrines — those of prudence and knowledge of life, as well as of morals or religion. All languages and literatures are full of general observations on life, both as to what it is, and how to conduct oneself in it; observations which everybody knows, which everybody repeats, or hears with acquiescence, which are received as truisms, yet of which most people first truly learn the meaning, when experience, generally of a painful kind, has made it a reality to them. "

Indeed, and see [50] and especially [44].   Back.


[52] "there are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized, until personal experience has brought it home."

Yes, and put otherwise: There is a great difference between many truths when understood on a verbal level and when lived through.    Back.


[53] "The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors. "

Something can be said for this, yet it is also true that often it is at least practically sensible to be satisfied with what seems to work, and invest energy only in what does not seem to work. Ars levis, vita brevis.   Back.


[54] "The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous. But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial. The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. "

Yes, but see the admittedly rather melancholic [49] and its preceding notes.   Back.


[55] "A person who derives all his instruction from teachers or books, even if he escape the besetting temptation of contenting himself with cram, is under no compulsion to hear both sides; accordingly it is far from a frequent accomplishment, even among thinkers, to know both sides; and the weakest part of what everybody says in defence of his opinion, is what he intends as a reply to antagonists. It is the fashion of the present time to disparage negative logic — that which points out weaknesses in theory or errors in practice, without establishing positive truths. Such negative criticism would indeed be poor enough as an ultimate result; but as a means to attaining any positive knowledge or conviction worthy the name, it cannot be valued too highly; and until people are again systematically trained to it, there will be few great thinkers, and a low general average of intellect, in any but the mathematical and physical departments of speculation. On any other subject no one's opinions deserve the name of knowledge, except so far as he has either had forced upon him by others, or gone through of himself, the same mental process which would have been required of him in carrying on an active controversy with opponents. That, therefore, which when absent, it is so indispensable, but so difficult, to create, how worse than absurd is it to forego, when spontaneously offering itself! If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if law or opinion will let them, 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, to do with much greater labor for ourselves."

See [43], [44], [49].   Back.


[56] "Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited. Heretical opinions, on the other hand, are generally some of these suppressed and neglected truths, bursting the bonds which kept them down, and either seeking reconciliation with the truth contained in the common opinion, or fronting it as enemies, and setting themselves up, with similar exclusiveness, as the whole truth. The latter case is hitherto the most frequent, as, in the human mind, one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception."

Yes, and while it is true that "Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth" it seems better to say that popular opinions as a rule are mixtures of truth and falsehood based on prejudice.

Also, Mill is somewhat optimistic about what he calls "Heretical opinions", for these are not so much "suppressed and neglected truths" as suppressed or neglected opinions.

And it is true that "in the human mind, one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception" and also true that even those who are many-sided and most able cannot know thoroughly more than a small part of a single field, and cannot know, however hard they work, and however prodigious their memories, and however clear their minds, more than a very small part of all that is or has been known.   Back.


[57] "Hence, even in revolutions of opinion, one part of the truth usually sets while another rises. Even progress, which ought to superadd, for the most part only substitutes one partial and incomplete truth for another; improvement consisting chiefly in this, that the new fragment of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time, than that which it displaces. "

There are, it seems to me, quite different standards and motives at work in science and outside it, for which reason the phrase "revolutions of opinion" is somewhat misleading.

Also, to speak of "the truth" even when qualified by "one part of" seems to me somewhat misleading in cases where the revolution of opinion is e.g. the changes wrought by the Reformation, or the French Revolution, or Napoleon's coup, or the Russian Revolution, or Hitler's rise to power, etcetera.

That is: It seems to me not very wise to speak of "the truth" when what one is speaking of is the ideology or practical creed of a political party or religion. My reason is that this usually contains little truth, especially in those parts that are popular or that motivate the believers, and indeed "the truth" is rarely or never what political and religious organizations are actively and factually interested in and working for, whatever their propaganda claims, for they usually work to give their own organizations and their leaders the greatest possible social power, in order to realize their own ends (which invariably, as the reader will know, is The Truth and The Good Of The People, in the propaganda of the organization).    Back.  


[58] "Such being the partial character of prevailing opinions, even when resting on a true foundation; every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of truth which the common opinion omits, ought to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion that truth may be blended. No sober judge of human affairs will feel bound to be indignant because those who force on our notice truths which we should otherwise have overlooked, overlook some of those which we see. Rather, he will think that so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided asserters too; such being usually the most energetic, and the most likely to compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole."

Yes, and a slightly less sympathetic but at least equally true view of the matter is that all socially prevailing opinions are maintained and have been introduced on the basis of propaganda, prejudice and partiality, and that given what men are and have been like on average, it cannot be otherwise.   Back.


[59] "In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity."

It is true, and at least mildly interesting, and informative about human characters and emotions, that political and moral opinions have for a long time, and at least since the 18th Century, been divided along similar lines and have fallen apart in a similar prism of political opinions, that can be charted from left to right.   Back.


[60] "Unless opinions favorable to democracy and to aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and to competition, to luxury and to abstinence, to sociality and individuality, to liberty and discipline, and all the other standing antagonisms of practical life, are expressed with equal freedom, and enforced and defended with equal talent and energy, there is no chance of both elements obtaining their due; one scale is sure to go up, and the other down. Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners. "

Or to put the same point somewhat differently:

Because no one man and no one party has the capacity and the knowledge to have all the right ideas, make all the correct distinctions, and think of all the good plans; because in fact most men hold most of their opinions on  grounds of prejudice; and because in many questions it has taken many generations to come to something like a fair and adequate judgment that is in the interest of most and not palpably false in some important respects, it is very desirable that all opinions have the right to be always discussed by all men in almost all circumtances, because otherwise, men being what they are, it is probable that the truth will not come out, and instead superstition will reign, to the detriment of all, since the consequence of false beliefs that are acted on is nearly always harm for some and benefit for none or few.

See also [21], [22].    Back.


[61] "the universality of the fact, that only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth. "

Precisely - and therefore also it is "only through diversity of opinion" and ample free discussions that there is "a chance of fair play to all " men whose opinions are involved.   Back.


[62] "What is called Christian, but should rather be termed theological, morality, was not the work of Christ or the Apostles, but is of much later origin, having been gradually built up by the Catholic Church of the first five centuries, and though not implicitly adopted by moderns and Protestants, has been much less modified by them than might have been expected."

This is also true, and what Mill does not mention is that once again in the Middle Ages and the Reformation much of what naive believers now hold to have been the teachings of Jesus were conceived by theological monks or their reforming opponents.   Back.


[63] "Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; Innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) "thou shalt not" predominates unduly over "thou shalt." In its horror of sensuality, it made an idol of asceticism, which has been gradually compromised away into one of legality. It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life: in this falling far below the best of the ancients, and doing what lies in it to give to human morality an essentially selfish character, by disconnecting each man's feelings of duty from the interests of his fellow-creatures, except so far as a self-interested inducement is offered to him for consulting them. It is essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established; who indeed are not to be actively obeyed when they command what religion forbids, but who are not to be resisted, far less rebelled against, for any amount of wrong to ourselves. "

This seems to me - who is and always was an atheist, but who has read the basic Christian texts including those of Christian theologians - an adequate and fair summary of the practice of "Christian morality".

And what Mill seems to me to be quite right about is "It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life: in this falling far below the best of the ancients, and doing what lies in it to give to human morality an essentially selfish character": A sincere and good Christian does good in the sincere hope that it will be restituted "seventy times seventy", as the Bible says, in heaven, as a personal reward.

Also, it seems to me that all major religions mostly inculcate "a doctrine of passive obedience", in part at least because this best fits the needs, desires and capacities of most religious believers, and of most of the religious leaders.   Back.


[64] "It is in the Koran, not the New Testament, that we read the maxim — "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." "

This seems a very sensible principle to me, though it lacks a proviso about the "better qualified" man, namely that he is willing to have the office - as he may well not be, for a mathematical or musical genius may much rather, and much more profitably for posterity, write mathematics or music than execute the political tasks of some ministerial office, that could have been done almost as well by any other able man, who is no genius.   Back.


[65] "I believe that the sayings of Christ are all, that I can see any evidence of their having been intended to be; that they are irreconcilable with nothing which a comprehensive morality requires; that everything which is excellent in ethics may be brought within them, with no greater violence to their language than has been done to it by all who have attempted to deduce from them any practical system of conduct whatever. But it is quite consistent with this, to believe that they contain and were meant to contain, only a part of the truth; that many essential elements of the highest morality are among the things which are not provided for, nor intended to be provided for, in the recorded deliverances of the Founder of Christianity, and which have been entirely thrown aside in the system of ethics erected on the basis of those deliverances by the Christian Church. "

I doubt Mill would have written the same if he had thought a little more here  about Jesus' views on women and their roles and rights, as given in the Book of Matthew, and I myself do not think that it is true of "the sayings of Christ" that "everything which is excellent in ethics may be brought within them".

Dutch readers might consult here Multatuli's Idee 183 (and my comments), which deals with the Book of Matthew and the rights of women. They will also find there the King James version of most of the relevant parts of Matthew.    Back.


[66] "I do not pretend that the most unlimited use of the freedom of enunciating all possible opinions would put an end to the evils of religious or philosophical sectarianism. Every truth which men of narrow capacity are in earnest about, is sure to be asserted, inculcated, and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world, or at all events none that could limit or qualify the first. I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion, but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents. But it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. "

Yes, and as there are many "men of narrow capacity" there is a strong "tendency of all opinions to become sectarian", and it may be quite true that usually non-sectarians have most rational gain by discussions between sectarians.

Also, it should be remarked that, while there are in every sect, whether political or religious, men who are, perhaps, "of narrow capacity" but who are also mostly sincere about what they preach, the realistic estimate of most leaders of religions and politics is that they are usually not sincere but manipulative, and that they tend to be driven by a mixture of motives in which personal power or private gain are usually uppermost, whatever the ideals they preach and base their power on.   Back.


[67] "We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate. "

And I have selected this to announce it and extract and comment the grounds in the following notes.   Back.


[68] "First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility."

In [5] I remarked that often states and governments of all kinds try to silence a discussion, or forbid a subject or opinion to be published, not on the ground of their own "infallibility", but on the ground of its dangers to the state, the government, the civil peace, or because a sizable part of the public feels offended.

There are more relevant problems with the non-silencing of all opinions in all circumstances listed in that note.

In brief, the conclusion is that, especially because of the existence of many "men of narrow capacity" in any society, a government may have good reasons to forbid the uttering of some opinions at some times, provided that the main reason for this is to keep the civil peace, and the measure is temporary, and for a specific case or purpose, and for a limited time.

And more particularly, while I think that governments may have good cause to forbid certain public demonstrations including the opinions they want to further, they never, or almost never, can have a good cause to forbid public discussion in writing, provided the discussion is mostly on rational grounds (and does not consist merely of abuse of the opponents and their motives, mothers and masculinity, or the like).   Back.


[69] "Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied."

This I am willing to take and argue in a more general sense: Very rare cases excepted, "it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that (..) the truth" will be found by human minds, and history also shows that in all cases of important truths, whether scientific, practical, moral or legal, it has taken many generations to find those truths, to secure them, and to properly qualify them.

For example, it took the best minds from 400 B.C. to 1600 A.D. to finally find and articulate the hypothetico-deductive method and the central importance of mathematics in the book of nature.    Back.


[70] "Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds."

This is true, but as Mill also remarked, sometimes this does not matter much or is even to be desired, and anyway the majority of mankind is far less interested in "the truth", or in finding or establishing or defending it, than they are interested in leading a tolerable or pleasant life.    Back.


[71] "And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience."

This is something which I do not feel strongly about, since in general terms it seems to me that if an ideology or religion ceases to attract real and honest believers it deserves to disappear, apart from the libraries, where it should stay as memento of tendencies of thought and feeling that once moved men. And I am the more convinced of this because I am not at all convinced that there is much of "the truth" in most ideologies and most religions, and especially not in those parts of them that most move men.  

Also, having reached Mill's last summary point it is well to quote to remarks of H.B. Acton about this chapter, from his note 23 on p. 426, that were  certainly written before 1975, since Acton died in 1974:

"The argument of this chapter needs to be adapted to the new means of communication, especially radio and television, which have come to use since Mill's day. Some control over them is necessary, or else 'the air' would be so crowded that none could be heard or seen.
(..)
Furthermore, radio and television are predominantly means of entertainment, and there is the danger that the presentation of news will become a matter of entertainment. There might then be a danger of a government by clowns."

Part of the reason to quote this is, of course, the arrival of yet a newer and more powerful means of communication, the internet. I merely remark this here, and don't deal with the problems it poses, apart from saying that the principles of this chapter that concern freedom of discussion still fully apply to the new situation, apart from new problems and difficulties it may pose.

H.B. Acton is right, in my opinion, that "radio and television are predominantly means of entertainment" and indeed since he wrote there has arisen the so-called infotainment, a combination of information and entertainment, that was already coming up in his time, e.g. with such programs as British breakfast TV.

I do not rate the "danger of a government by clowns" high in a literal sense, but then H.B. Acton very probably did not have the literal sense in mind, and rather thought of populists and so-called "media-personalities", and in that sense he was quite right.    Back.


[72] "Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion. But all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible on adequate grounds conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable; and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct. "

Indeed - and where men speak or discuss in public there will be posturing, deceit and deception, both intentional and accidental. None of this can be avoided, even if it may be deplored, and it must also be admitted that an able and gifted speaker, whatever his motives or honesty, may at least make a subject more interesting than it is in the hands of less able, less gifted sincere speaker, who may bore an audience to tears, and thoroughly poision a subject for it.   Back.


[73] "The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interest in seeing justice done them"

This is true, but it should be remarked that there are bad men, and one should be allowed to say that such and such a political leader, a religious foreman, or a public person is bad, provided one has evidence.

And again, as I said in [6], the principal point that Mill does not treat sufficiently, is that words and ideas are not actions, in the sense that kicking, hitting and shooting are actions, and that it is very important to distinguish clearly and principially between speaking of something and doing the something spoken of.

One important reason for the thesis that in principle anyone may discuss and consider all things, including many that are irrational, unreasonable or immoral according to some or to many, is precisely that to speak of things is not at all the same as to realize the things one speaks of, while speaking of them may uncover much of their conditions or their contexts that would remain obscure without discussion.

There is one more important reason to insist on the fundamenal human importance of free discussion:

"If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."
        Voltaire

And normally the only one way to effectively find that some teaching or policy does consist, wholly or partially, in absurdities, that when acted upon lead to atrocities, is to have the teaching or policy freely discussed.   Back.


[74] "In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. "

There is something to be said for this, and in general teachers of rhetorics teach the same, and speak much of the captatio benevolentiae of the audience, but Mill's times differ from my own, and it may well be the case that sometimes immoderate language, or satire, or vituperation, are more effective than a moderate, clear and valid argument.

And it may be that Martin Luther King's speech "I have a dream" was low in rational content and argumentation, but it was most effective as a speech.   Back.


[75] "opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candor, or malignity, bigotry or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves, but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own; and giving merited honor to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favor. This is the real morality of public discussion"

If this is "the real morality of public discussion" it is also quite rare, and indeed cannot be fairly and realistically expected outside science and some special occasions, because most discussions, especially concerning political, religious or moral topics, take place in a context of strong interests, party-feelings, and propaganda, and also often lies and deceptions of many of the parties that are involved in the discussion.    Back.