28 May 2009

Wise Words: Mill's On Liberty

This year marks the 150th anniversary of John Stuart Mill's powerful essay On Liberty. Some works do not hold up well after so long a duration; this one does. It is brilliantly argued, and it contains none of the elementary mistakes that people so often attribute to it. It may ultimately still be flawed, as many believe--though, truly, what work of human hands is not flawed?--but if so it errs in sophisticated and compelling ways, with an argument whose depth and freshness (even one hundred and fifty years later) are often underappreciated.

Rereading the essay in preparation for a conference, I was struck by two things in particular: Mill's penetrating insights into human psychology, and a moral injunction the essay makes. I have resolved to write more extensively about both these aspects of the essay in another venue, but I thought I would post a few choice examples of each here.

First, what I call his "moral injunction," beginning in particular with the word "unless" in this passage:
The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase. (from chap. 1, "Introductory")
In responding to the fourth objection (by my count) to his claim that there should be liberty of thought and discussion, Mill extends the injunction by arguing:
Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain, or even lose, ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the general principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public, to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters, and logical, consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world. The sort of men who can be looked for under it, are either mere conformers to commonplace, or time-servers for truth, whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves. Those who avoid this alternative, do so by narrowing their thoughts and interest to things which can be spoken of without venturing within the region of principles, that is, to small practical matters, which would come right of themselves, if but the minds of mankind were strengthened and enlarged, and which will never be made effectually right until then: while that which would strengthen and enlarge men’s minds, free and daring speculation on the highest subjects, is abandoned. (from chap. 2, "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion"; italics supplied)
My heart aches as I read that passage. There are several other passages that supply parts of the argument grounding a moral injunction, but here is one more that applies particularly, I believe, to members of the academy:
So essential is this discipline [of subjecting prevailing views to the criticism of those holding opposing views] 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 skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up. (also from chap. 2)
This is one important reason to ensure a wide range of thought within academia. But it is also a personal injunction: if you find yourself in a community of people who share a single view of "moral and human subjects," you do them--and yourself--a favor if you take up the cudgels of the opposite side and begin agitation. What you yourself believe is irrelevant. Mill argues, and I agree, that everyone is better off for the exercise, the more genuinely pursued the better. Applying this principle does not always win one friends, as I can personally attest; but, as Mill rightly claims, the price of an artificially pacific consensus is paid in human vigor and dignity and is thus too dear.

As for insights into human psychology, consider these two passages:
The great writers to whom the world owes what religious liberty it possesses, have mostly asserted freedom of conscience as an indefeasible right, and denied absolutely that a human being is accountable to others for his religious belief. Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale. (from chap. 1)
With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. (from chap. 2)
How many of us can attest to the truth of these observations from our own personal experience? Mill anticipated the objection that thought and discussion should be limited to what is "civil" and does not give offense, and his presentation of the objection as well as his response both could have been written today:
[I]f the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.
When you hear someone claiming that another person's position, argument, claim, or proposition is "offensive" and therefore should be punished or silenced, consider these passages.

If I were to draw up a list of, say, ten books that all undergraduate students--and faculty--should be required to read, On Liberty would certainly be among them. Today more than ever.


Anonymous said...

What would the other 9 books be?

Jim Otteson said...

Good question. Here's a start, in no particular order: Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's King Lear, Smith's Wealth of Nations, Sophocles's Antigone, Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Thucydides's Peloponnesian War, Plato's Republic, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

What would your suggestions be?