Mill says there are 4 reasons for this all of which he has really commented on already.
- We must remember that it is because we are fallible that we should consider contrary opinions. This would not be necessary if we were infallible. We must always remember, what Mill says: “if an 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.”
- Even though the silenced opinion is wrong it often contains a portion of the truth (no matter how small) we should consider and weigh it in the balance. This can only help our conception of the truth. As Mill says, “though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.” That is why we must always respect and even encourage dissent and must never constrain it. Only with dissent can we supplement a partial truth.
- However, even if an opinion is true, or even in some rare cases the whole truth, we must still respect dissent. Without dissent and opposition truths wither on the vine and become pale imitations of their former selves. Even truth needs opposition; not just error. Again, as Mill points out, “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 the those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”
- Finally, Mill says, unless truths are challenged from time to time, their very meaning is forgotten. As he says, “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 cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”
After that summary of his position Mill also considers a possible qualification on the unencumbered right to free thought and discussion for which he has so eloquently argued. He considers whether freedom of thought and discussion can be constrained if it is not temperate or in good taste. The problem that Mill sees with this position is that it is exactly those whose opinions being attacked that are most likely to be offended by the debate. They are the ones who are most likely to see an opponent as intemperate. In fact, the more effective the counter argument the more likely it is that the dissent will be experienced as intemperate or offensive. As Mill said, “experience testifies that this offense 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.”
All of this goes to show that offense is a poor grounds for restraining the freedom to think and discuss. In a free and democratic society we must be willing to permit freedom of expression and discussion and this sometimes means that we will be offended by what others say.
The problem with complaints about intemperate comments, says Mill, is that invariably this complaint is only levied against those who challenge the prevailing opinion. “Against the unprevailing view 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. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions… In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of prevailing opinion does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them.”
This does not mean that one has the right to give offense. It just means that those who try to give offense are invariably on the side of the establishment. Dissenters cannot afford to give offense. This of course is the vituperation that should most often be challenged. It is when the powerful and influential are offensive that the most harm is engaged. That is why one need not worry about offensive attacks on religion. They will only rarely happen. As Mill said, “there would be much more need to discourage attacks on infidelity than on religion.” You can only be a jerk if you are in the minority, and then of course, you can’t afford to be one as it will help to defeat your own cause. Therefore, Mill does not advocate restraining either.
There are many good reasons to permit free speech and few good reasons to curtail it. Later I will talk about some restraints.
In essence: if you are looking for truth you had better respect free speech.