Nuggets of Wisdom

Monday, October 1, 2012

John Stuart Mill on Free Speech


An excerpt from "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion"
from "On Liberty" (1869) by John Stuart Mill

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

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About the author (from Wikipedia):

John Stuart Mill, FRSE (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873) was a British philosopher, political economist and civil servant. He was an influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy. He has been called "the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century". Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of utilitarianism, an ethical theory developed by Jeremy Bentham. Hoping to remedy the problems found in an inductive approach to science, such as confirmation bias, he clearly set forth the premises of falsification as the key component in the scientific method. Mill was also a Member of Parliament and an important figure in liberal political philosophy.

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About the selection (from Wikipedia):

On Liberty is a philosophical work by British philosopher John Stuart Mill, originally intended as a short essay. Mill's marriage to his wife Harriet greatly influenced the concepts in On Liberty, which was largely finished prior to her death, and published in 1859 shortly after she died. The work applies Mill's ethical system of utilitarianism to society and the state. Mill attempts to establish standards for the relationship between authority and liberty. He emphasizes the importance of individuality which he conceived as a prerequisite to the higher pleasures—the summum bonum of Utilitarianism. Furthermore, Mill criticized the errors of past attempts to defend individuality where, for example, democratic ideals resulted in the "tyranny of the majority". Among the standards established in this work are Mill's three basic liberties of individuals, his three legitimate objections to government intervention, and his two maxims regarding the relationship of the individual to society "which together form the entire doctrine of [Mill's] Essay."

On Liberty was a greatly influential and well received work though it did not go without criticism. Some attacked it for its apparent discontinuity with Utilitarianism, while others criticized its vagueness. The ideas presented in On Liberty have remained the basis of much liberal political thought. It has remained in print continuously since its initial publication. To this day, a copy of On Liberty is passed to the president of the British Liberal Democrats as a symbol of office.

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Not Listening picture from What Sam Saw Today.