A Conversation with John Stuart Mill

If you haven’t read J.S. Mill’s classic work, I highly recommend it for 1 main reason: it is a keen and succulent defense of individual rights. The book changed my life, in a very painful and liberating way, because it forced me to be extra critical of the rules and customs that society imposes — which is uncomfortable not only for my friends, but for my conscience. I’ll go through one of my favorite excerpts below, with commentary interspersed.

Disclaimer: This is really just an excuse for you to read one of my favorite books. Victorian prose can be exacting and meticulous, though brisk and subtle, and Mill proceeds very logically and methodically. It is no Jane Austen in style, but it is in truth.

Taken from Chapter 2: “On Liberty of Thought and Discussion”

“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.”

Really? No matter how offensive or ignorant the opinion is? Wow, this is an unbelievably high standard for entertaining the opinions of others. No one believes this would work out in practice, but it’s worth noting in theory, because if you were that ONE person who differed from the rest of the world, then it would matter immensely to you, and you would want the world to listen, no matter how ‘crazy’ you were. For what is a ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ person but one who disagrees too greatly with the rest of the species? Life is a basketball court; an insane person is just someone who steps out of bounds too often, or ignores the out-of-bounds marker completely.

Let’s see how Mill justifies this ridiculously high standard.

“Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. 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.”

Ah! Brilliant! Silencing anyone’s opinion isn’t necessarily bad because of insulting that person, but rather, it is “robbing the human race”. It’s hindering the thought process of “those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it”. To silence the opinion of anyone arrests the progress of everyone. (This takes on a whole new meaning, of course, with the advent of trolling, on websites and in real life.)

“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.”

The latent assumption here is that we know the difference between right and wrong in whatever is being discussed. And if we don’t know the difference, will we admit it to ourselves — and to others? Rarely do we admit to themselves privately, and are often too proud to admit to others. But if we do admit it to everyone, how do we proceed from here? So many places we can go astray here.

“… We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

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.”

We only suppress what we believe to be wrong or too uncomfortable, but that assumes our opinion, and the motives from which it arose, are both flawless. How can we be so arrogant as to decide what everyone else should believe about a certain topic, and also decide their reasons for believing it? And then we get mad if they don’t believe what we want them to. We blame them for failing to understand or agree with us, as if it was their fault for not agreeing entirely with what we think is ‘knowledge’ and ‘evidence’. “If only they could see MY point of view! If they could see it, they would be sure to agree!” Often when people talk of ‘changing the world’, they really want to make the world over in their own image.

“Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: 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.”

“Absolute prince” is just another way of saying “asshole”. But those more ‘happily situated’, i.e. the rest of us, we who believe with utmost confidence only those opinions we share with others, or to those whom we ‘habitually defer’: family, co-workers, managers, law enforcers, spouses/partners, etc

We lack confidence in our own judgement, so we trust ‘the world’. I love how he puts ‘the world’ in quotes, because ‘the world’ is different for every person, as he lists the many micro-worlds we are a part of: religion, culture, political party, socioeconomic class, gender, age group, sexual orientation, “race”. All of us are a part of many small cults. Wow, we have made life is so complicated, so intricately organized without even realizing it. — I rarely get out of my own little micro-worlds every day, and somehow feel, that coming from such a limited and narrow perspective, I can get the truth of the human perspective in general. Ridiculous!

He goes on to describe our oblivion to these implications:

“Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin.”

We know, but rarely experience, how different other “micro-worlds” are from our own, not just in the past societies, but societies right now — and “mere accident” has decided which of these worlds we are set into: our native country, native language, religion, sex, height, weight. Yes, height is a world too. Taller people see the world differently than shorter, as they are treated differently by others. Something as arbitrary as height, imagine that! How much more arbitrary, then, are the rest of these worlds that we feel make up our character? Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance comes to mind here in creating a just society: ‘If you were to enter society at a random position without knowing what advantages that position would give you, where would you choose to go and why?’

But the last sentence is my favorite:

“Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that 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.”

How could we are better than our ancestors simply because we are the most recent version? and how are our descendants possibly better than us for the same reason? We assume both all the time.  This is arrogant because many things we take as truth now may be thoroughly debunked in the future. Every age (and person) is furthest from recognizing its own follies and successes. You could say the same about every politician.

A present success may be a future folly, as a past folly, if practiced today, can be a present success. Progress is not linear. Time does not heal all, but only what it is allowed to, and in some cases, worsens things that are swept under the rug or misinterpreted.


Filed under Philosophy

4 responses to “A Conversation with John Stuart Mill

  1. Eric Wishmaker

    Great post man. I’m not a huge fan of that style of prose, but the extra time it’d take to make sense of what he is actually saying would effectively force brain churning, a net positive. So maybe my dislike was birthed out of laziness and a desire for the satisfaction of rapidly understanding what authors are trying to convey.

    You are one of the only people for whom language like ‘this book changed my life!’ has verifiable, factual (and behavioral) underpinnings. You referenced a few in this post, but here’s my biggest thought:

    Before I read this , I dismissed the opportunity in Rome as ‘Darius doing Darius’. But there’s so much more to it. Now I see the trip as more of you actively venturing out of your micro world(s) into other micro worlds to literally earn yourself a richer grasp on the human experience. Perhaps not your motivation at all, but I can absolutely see the parallels between many of those passages and what the future holds for you. And that’s what I respect the most. Peace brotha

    • Darius Liddell

      Thanks 🙂 Yes, the prose is hard to get down with. I had a hard time, but yes, the concentration and stamina needed to get through the prose do pay off in the end. I actually think the average attention span of our age group, or of anyone who spends excessive time on the internet (no matter what they are doing on it), is very low because the internet is all about instant gratification. Titles that are pure click-bait, and every article/op-ed has to be so to-the-point and well-written and “grab the reader”… and if you get bored with anything just close the tab and the rest of the internet is one click away. (The Internet is a great tool if we use it wisely; so many great FREE essays/documentaries/articles/knowledge/music…. it’s all there) We have to have everything we *need* on our phones and we need it *now*. Almost every app, on phone or laptop, is a mere convenience at this point — which somewhat obscures the fact that technology *in general* is a luxury.

      Reading something like JS Mill, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Austen, or any other complex novel/essay that is not written in “clear, plain, ordinary language” is the type of reading that is gradual, meditative, and time-consuming — but very much worth it in the end. — Patience is a lost virtue.

      Yeah, my view of Italy, or traveling in general, is definitely about that. Broadening my perspective is selfish in a way, because it’s all about me, but it also helps me to better appreciate the world that I live in, and all the different ways of life here. I approach it the same way I approach my reading/writing/music — very much educationally. That’s why I’ve been listening to so many ‘different’ types of music lately, like the Ravi Shankar ‘In London’ album I played yesterday.

      And, good point, about evidence that a book did indeed change my life. It is easy to read, and be inspired by, many books/people/films. I’ve found that if you don’t act on the inspiration while it’s there, it’ll vanish, and you’re right back where you started. Being inspired is useless without courage. People are inspired all the time, to do all sorts of things.

      The whole self-help industry is just a echo chamber of motivational speaking and trite quotes. Inspirational quotes are overused because exceedingly few ever pay attention to them.

  2. Elements of Mill’s work and your analysis remind me of free speech arguments Glenn Greenwald made a couple years ago in response to the Chick-Fil-A controversy (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/26/rahm_emanuels_free_speech_attack/). After Dan Cathy (Chick-Fil-A’s CEO) made intensely anti-gay comments, a number of politicians suggested blocking the chain from opening new restaurants. Though Greenwald, himself a gay man, understood the sentiments expressed by Cathy’s opposition, he wrote that any action taken against Chick-Fil-A would violate the principle of free speech and was hence wrong.

    As I commented on Greenwald’s article at the time, I don’t necessarily disagree with his argument as it pertains to regulation of Chick-Fil-A and the Constitution. I argued then and still believe now, however, that free speech is not an end but a means to an end: protecting less powerful people from marginalization and exploitation by more powerful people. Because Mill’s and Greenwald’s arguments justify a Nazi intimidation march in Skokie, Illinois (https://www.aclu.org/free-speech/aclu-history-taking-stand-free-speech-skokie), they are flawed arguments. They assume that free speech is a goal in and of itself when it is in reality an oft-problematic proxy for a much more important ethical principle. In fact, I’d argue that Mill’s “harm principle” requires more of a focus on protection of the powerless than on protection of free speech.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Darius Liddell

      I read the Salon article, Ben. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with free speech: people should say whatever they want without fear of punishment by the government, but simultaneously, a white reactionary and a black radical have very different perspectives on equality in society.

      At first, I agreed with Greenwald, that just because the CEO is against gay marriage, doesn’t justify Rahm Emanuel barring him from establishing his restaurant in the city, because “Chick-Fil-A’s values are not Chicago’s values.” Of course, it’s not that simple: Chicago is simply trying to portray a certain progressive, politically correct image, and CFA would screw that up. Do I think Rahm Emanuel has the right to do that as the mayor of Chicago? No. Would Emanuel’s opinion change if the CEO happened to offend a different value that Emanuel believes is central to Chicago’s image, but the city is indifferent to the stance he takes on this? Are Rahm [and his cohorts] only taking this stance because it’s politically convenient?

      It’s sticky, because I really don’t think the government should meddle with that stuff: you should let the people decide by voting with their dollars. If Chicago residents really feel as strongly as Chicago political elites claim they do, then won’t they just boycott the restaurant themselves?

      In the end, I more agree with you than with GG. Free speech only works if all people are treated with equal rights to begin with. After all, political correctness is just an attempt to compensate for unequal treatment, if only on a rhetorical basis. “Don’t say anything offensive about a societally disadvantaged group, regardless of whether you are part of that group or not.” And, of course, “offensive” is defined by the most vocal majority, the lobbyists, or certain political figures/parties.

      Yet, I can see where the top commenter on the Salon piece is coming from:

      “Imagine a CEO that stated that Blacks or Jews or Catholics do not deserve equal rights. Imagine that said CEO gave money to hate groups dedicated to making life miserable for other, more “acceptable” minorities. Could a community say THAT is unwelcome?? If so, some of us feel that gay people deserve the same consideration. I realize this is a close call as to what is the correct thing to do, but it’s also not a trivial issue for to those of us committed to equal rights.”

      It’s hard to say whether I would care enough to want the CEO to lose business and others to lose eating chicken sandwiches, because the CEO is an unabashed bigot. Well, now, I find out he is donating to nonprofit groups that freely oppose racial equality. Obviously, he shouldn’t be donating in the first place, but more importantly, why does a group such as this exist in the first place? Should groups like this be allowed to exist? It’d certainly be hard to stamp them out, but is it advisable? Old habits die hard.

      If he just said anti-black stuff, I’m almost like “Oh well, another racist, what gives?”, but he using his wealth to uplift and propagate racist organizations, that’s a much bigger offense.

      I agree that free speech should be slanted towards the disadvantaged, but it needs to be clearly defined who the disadvantaged are in these cases AND for everyone to agree on these disadvantages. Impossible, but ideal.

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