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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 mankind."

What's so wrong with making one guy everyone's sure is wrong shut up?

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 truth."

But everyone is sure the guy is wrong.

JSM: "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion."


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 standard?

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."

Steve Sampson
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 bookstores now.

Steve Sampson
September 28, 2006

URL: //www.usconstitution.net/onliberty.html