An Interview with John Stuart Mill
Thanks to KnowledgeNews for permission to republish this page. Of course,
the copyright on John Stuart Mill's On Liberty has long since run out,
but the clever "interview style" used by KnowledgeNews to present Mill's ideas
is original. The copyright for this page, then, is held by KnowledgeNews.
The contents were presented in two parts, sent to KnowledgeNews subscribers
on September 27, 2006, and September 28, 2006.
Part one: On Free Speech
Used with permission
Copyright © 2006 Every Learner, Inc. All rights reserved.
The recent protests against the pope in the Muslim world raise fundamental
questions about freedom of expression — for the pope, for the protesters,
and for everyone else who wants to add their two cents. What should be the
limits of free speech, if any? What value does free speech provide?
These are hard questions — too hard for us to address alone. So, for
expert insight, we decided to interview John Stuart Mill. His 1859 essay On
Liberty includes a classic defense of free speech. Yes, we know that John
Stuart Mill died in 1873. But Mill still speaks through his book!
Mr. Mill, you've gone on record as saying that:
"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
What's so wrong with making one guy everyone's sure is wrong shut
JSM: "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
But everyone is sure the guy is wrong.
JSM: "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a
JSM: "Those who desire to suppress it of course deny its truth; but they are
not infallible.... 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."
But, even if they aren't infallible, how can more than 6 billion people
alive today all be wrong?
JSM: "Ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held
many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and
it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future
ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present."
OK, say we grant there's no absolute certainty for mere mortals like us.
Still, we can't just sit around, can we, paralyzed by our imperfect knowledge?
To get things done, we have to assume the truth of widely held opinions and act
accordingly. It doesn't seem like it's assuming any more to muzzle the one dog
whose contrary opinion upsets the pack.
JSM: "It is assuming very much more. 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."
Even when things have been proven to the highest possible human
JSM: "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."
What about people's religious beliefs? Should people be condemned for
"assuming infallibility" simply because they feel sure of such things?
JSM: "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."
Thank you, Mr. Mill. That's all we have time for today.
Tune in tomorrow for more of our interview with John Stuart Mill, when
we'll explore his next bold claim: that even if we could be absolutely certain
that an opinion was false, "stifling it would be an evil still."
September 27, 2006
Part two: More Grist from Mill
Used with permission
Copyright © 2006 Every Learner, Inc. All rights reserved.
Welcome back to our two-part interview with English philosopher — and famed
free speech proponent — John Stuart Mill. Mr. Mill died in 1873, but we've taken
the liberty of quoting extensively from his classic 1859 essay On Liberty.
Yesterday, Mill defended free speech by arguing that we can never be sure our
own opinions are true, so we should give opposing views a chance. Today, we turn
to another bold claim: that even if we knew with absolute certainty that an
opinion was false, we should still give it a hearing.
Mr. Mill, why should I listen to someone even when I'm absolutely sure
that the knucklehead is wrong and I'm right?
JSM: "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."
What do you mean "dead dogma"?
JSM: "Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this
condition.... Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything
they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those
who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to
say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the
doctrine which they themselves profess."
And that makes it "dead"? Just because I won't discuss it?
JSM: "Not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of
discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself.... 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."
But if it's true all the same, who cares?
JSM: "This is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational
being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition
the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth."
"We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping
up in the minds of believers a lively apprehension of the truth which they
nominally recognize, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire a real
mastery over the conduct.... When it has come to be a hereditary creed, and to
be received passively, not actively ... there is a progressive tendency to
forget all of the belief except the formularies ... until it almost ceases to
connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being."
So I have to "fully, frequently, and fearlessly" discuss it, even if it
seems like a big waste of time?
JSM: "So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and
human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is
indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which
the most skillful devil's advocate can conjure up."
Got any more reasons?
JSM: "We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received
opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that, the
received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to
a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. But there is a commoner case
than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true
and the other false, share the truth between them."
So you really do have to hear all sides of the argument, eh?
JSM: "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."
Mr. Mill, thank you for your time and your thoughts. For more of John
Stuart Mill's ideas about free speech, check out On Liberty, available in
September 28, 2006