On Freedom of Expression of Opinion

This post is a break from the theme of the last few and next few posts and is a discussion of an extract from Chapter II of John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ from 1859. The extract is known as ‘On Freedom of Expression of Opinion’. I have chosen this for its importance as a topic, a topic that is always under attack, sometimes by well-meaning critique, which has failed to grasp the importance of freedom of expression of opinion, and an example of my ragbag philosopher approach.

A ragbag philosopher follows no great -ism of philosophy, but chooses the best arguments from all and any. This is not done arbitrarily (at least, not intentionally) and is probably the most common method of Western Analytic philosophers.

JS Mill is philosopher worth reading, but a great believer in long sentences and even longer paragraphs, which can span several pages. He was a liberal, a feminist, a free marketeer and a reluctant democrat, distrusting the aims of the manual labourers, ascribing to them a sense of class solidarity over justice. Not all those worth reading will have your views and you will be all the better for it.

All quotes will be encased “” and the extract is uninterrupted as follows:

“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.

We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

And not only this, but fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but encumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”

Mill starts with a preamble that is a summary of his argument. He uses rhetoric to great effect, drawing attention to the issue. Denying expression of opinion is ‘evil’, not just merely bad or wrong, and robbery, not only robbery of those who hold an opinion, but those who oppose it. Mill shows a concern for mental health, which seems very advanced for the time (and it was), but is unsurprising as he had had a nervous breakdown at an early age. His concern is clearly for humanity (as he meant by mankind).

He put forward four arguments, with the last being the strongest. As we examine, we should consider an opinion. The opinion I shall use is that ‘dwarves are inferior to elves’. I am using this opinion as it should arouse no controversy in itself (unless some hobbit objects), but other categories can be substituted easily to form (nasty) opinions.

A point to remember is that it is easier to disprove an argument or an opinion than it is to prove it. There no tools by which we can utterly provide proof; we can give good grounds. Deductive arguments will give absolute proof of a conclusion if and only if the rules of that type of argument are followed and the premises are all true, that is, they are all facts and not opinions.

The first argument is quite simple as no human being is infallible, then we could individually, or collectively, reject a fact, that is something that is true. This argument makes an appeal to the humility rather than the vanity of a person. One weakness is that a person may believe that they have a special access to the truth, perhaps through their own perspicacity or that a infallible entity has revealed the truth to them and any opposite opinion can be safely dismissed. This is to hold an opinion dogmatically.

The next argument from Mill is the partial truth argument, which makes two claims. The second is “the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth”, which is a real possibility if we accept fallibility as above and how difficult it is to prove an argument. The first, however, is more contentious. A false opinion can be just that, with no merit and although I have said to consider the example opinion above, I think we need to consider some real-life opinions, such as ‘ there is no artificial climate change’. This opinion ignores scientific data, which clearly shows that there is artificial climate change, for, although we have no tools to actually prove this absolutely, we certainly have very strong grounds, as strong as they could be. The deductive argument is sound and valid and the premises are facts as scientific data is prepared to be as objective as possible.

Mill is correct to say that “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied”, but when an opinion is proven false, it should not be considered.

The concern of the third argument, is the status of a completely true argument if it is not under (constant?) challenge. Will it “by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds” as Mill had it? Perhaps, he is suggesting this is how prejudice starts: an opinion is (held to be) true for a society and never questioned. I note that Mill says most, so does he mean that that there are those who will actively hold a true opinion? I think he means there are. He gives no reason why some should and most not, although, I assume, this would be more of a psychological issue (for Mill) and not a philosophical one and so ignored, but it does show that he was not an instinctive democrat with a contempt for the ‘most’. Perhaps, I am harshly judging Mill and he could comment on this by saying he thought most persons had been conditioned to only accept opinions and never to actively hold them. I may here be merely projecting my view, that is certainly possible to stifle human curiosity or encourage it, by training a person. A point raised is whether the opinion needs to be debated or can be held as such. Clearly for Mill it cannot as it tantamount to be prejudice. I have one further criticism, but defer this until we have examined the fourth argument.

“[F]ourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct”, that is becomes a dogma, to be followed blindly and for no good reason, as ”a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but encumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience”. If an opinion is not debated, Mill would have it, then we do not hold it as a value, but as a dogma. This is hard to argue against and I cannot see how it could be effectively argued against. My only criticism is on on the grounds of practicality; can you actively hold all your opinions? Many, probably most, will not be needed hourly, daily, weekly, etc and so not be to the forefront of your mind, so, perhaps when you do need to recall them, they could be refreshed in an active debate (if only with yourself). Some will be held as your deep values and inform your actions without recourse to debate, and become quasi-instincts and only called into doubt if the results from your actions are bad in some way. It is best to be holding your values actively, but not always possible.

I can now turn to the example opinion and ask whether this is an opinion worth bothering with; of course, it is not, it is not true in any sense worth bothering with as it concerns two fictional types of character. So the arguments above do not apply to that opinion, but Mill is not bothered with that but with the expression, but this is scarcely better as we have an expression of a statement that is not true. The arguments work with opinions held regarding reality.

Finally the arguments are against dogma and prejudice. Can these be removed? Yes they can from a reasonable person who can listen to arguments and analyse another person’s opinions, but are useless against anyone who is not a reasonable person.

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