Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

These excerpts from J.S. Mill’s On Liberty confirm his insight and prescience regarding “The struggle between Liberty and Authority… and silencing the expression of an opinion...” They are, indeed, relevant. They were my notes for a lecture and discussion in both Humanities classes at BU this morning.

“...There needs [to be] protection against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them (4-5).

“...Men’s [and women’s] opinions… are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, seldom their antisocial ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest (6).

“...If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of 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 (16).

“...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 (16).

“...Those who desire to suppress [opinion], 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 (17).

“...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… There is no such thing as absolute certainty… There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield fact and argument (18).

“...There is no security in the state of the public mind… (30) He who knows only his [or her] own side of the case knows little of that… (36) They have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them and consider what such persons may have to say (36-7).

“...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 (45).

“...There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth by being exaggerated into falsehood (52).

“...The gravest of [offenses] is to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion…" (53).

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1947.

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