"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.
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
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
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.
"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."
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.
"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:
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.
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.
"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. "
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
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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
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.
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".
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.
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.
"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
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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
"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
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.
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
"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
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.
" 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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
"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
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.
"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
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.
"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 , 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
"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. "
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.
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.
Mill's conclusion in the quoted piece, and as outlined in  and , it simply
is not true that whoever desires to prevent an opinion from being heard
always and necessarily "assumes infallibility".
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.
"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
"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. "
And see the next quotation. Back.
"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
"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.
"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
with two qualifications.
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
truths and some people may disappear without a trace, through succesful
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
"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
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.
"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 ..."
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:
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)
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.
"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
What is your religion? Prosecutor: I am an Atheist - a perfect Atheist.
Mr Beadon: Then that is the end of the matter. Case
"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
"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"
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.
"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
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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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
"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 .
"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.
"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."
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".
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.
"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.
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.
"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
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.
"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".
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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
"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
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".
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.
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
this poses was seen by Mill and is indeed taken up in the next
"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
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
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.
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
"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
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.
"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
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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
experience, which is not with Christians but with leftist students (see
), 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.
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.
"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."
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: , , , , , , . Back.
"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
 and especially .
"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.
"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. "
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
"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  and its
preceding notes. Back.
"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
See , , . Back.
"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
"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.
"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
"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.
"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 , .
"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.
"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.
"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
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
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
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.
"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.
"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
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.
"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
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.
"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
And I have
selected this to announce it and extract and comment the grounds in the
following notes. Back.
"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  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.
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
"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
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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:
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.
"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.
"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 , 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.
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
"If we believe
absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."
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
"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. "
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
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
"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
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.