Category Archives: Free Speech

Summing Up John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for Free Speech

 

Mill says there are 4 reasons for this all of which he has really commented on already.

 

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.”

 

  1. 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.

 

Christian Ethics

Yet even after all this, John Stuart Mill has one more dragon to slay—Christian ethics. Even that, he holds, cannot be accepted as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He makes a powerful argument that it too must submit to allowing the contrary voice to be heard.

Mill knows that many in the 19th century believed ardently that Christian ethics were the supreme good and nothing could be added or detracted from them and that here was at least one bastion that was immune from needing to pay heed to Mill’s cries for hearing the other side. Mill knew that he had a major opponent to defeat, but that did not stop him. He even challenged Christian morality. He also pointed out that if his theory could  successfully show that even Christian morality could benefit from listening to another truth he would have produced a momentous  achievement.

He says right at the outset that from his point of view the proponents of the all-inclusiveness of Christian morality had missed the mark. He said, “I wonder that any one who derives his knowledge of this from the book itself, can suppose that it was announced, or intended as a complete doctrine of morals.” In other words he suggests that nowhere in the Bible does it actually say that it offers a complete moral code. Even if you believe it is Holy Scripture, nowhere does it say that you are unable to add to its truths.

To begin with he suggests that Christian morality is defined as the teachings of Jesus Christ as evidenced by the New Testament. He believes that this is the essential Christian morality.

He points out at the outset that more was always needed. He said, “To extract from it a body of ethical doctrine, has never been possible without eking it out from the Old Testament, that is from a system elaborate indeed, but in many respects barbarous, and intended only for a barbarous people.”  I disagree with Mill on this point.  The Old Testament prophets, for example, produced a magnificent ethic as I have commented on earlier. Much of it has stood the test of time.

He also pointed out that Christian morality is in many respects a reaction against pagan morality and cannot be fully appreciated without understanding parts of pagan morality. It is as a result of that reaction, says Mill,

“It’s ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; Innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil rather than energetic Pursuit of Good; in its precepts (as has been well said) “thou shalt not” predominates unduly over “thou shalt.”  In its horror of sensuality, it made an idol of asceticism, which has gradually compromised away into one of legality.  It holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell, as against the appointed and appropriate motives to a virtuous life; in this falling far below the best of the ancients, and doing what lies in it to give to human morality an essentially selfish character, by disconnecting each man’s feelings of duty from the interests of his fellow-creatures, except so far as a self-interested inducement  is offered to him for consulting them. It is essentially a doctrine of passive obedience; it inculcates submission to all authorities found established.

In other words, Mill sees Christian morality as ultimately selfish.  We do what it advocates to gain eternal life. and avoid the pain of hell. We don’t do it to help others.

Mill is really saying we can do better. Not that we must throw out all of Christian morality. He admits that much of it is good and has benefited society.  His point is merely that it is not complete.

Mill suggests that other sources could provide improvement for Christian morality that would benefit it. For example, he says that what little recognition of the idea of duty to the public actually comes from Greek and Roman sources not Christian.  They have already supplemented Christian morality in the broader sense. He adds that these sources have much to offer as well in their notions of magnanimity, high-mindedness, personal dignity, and the importance of honour. Nietzsche for example, also argued for the importance of these concepts from classical philosophy and felt that to the extent Christian morality was not compatible with them it must be changed. I think Mill is merely suggesting that such notions can supplement Christian morality.  These concepts do not arise from our religious education.

Mill I think actually mocks Christian morality when he suggests that Christian morality has “grown out of a standard of ethics in which the only worth, professedly, is that of obedience.” We do the right thing because we are commanded to do, when we should do it because it is the right thing to do.

While Mill does not criticize the maxims of Jesus Christ he does say that obviously they are not intended to be a complete code of moral conduct. He says instead,

“they contain, only a part of the truth; that many essential elements of the highest morality are among the things which are not provided for nor intended to be provided for, in the recorded deliverances of the Founder of Christianity, and which have been entirely thrown aside in the system of ethics erected on the basis of those deliverances by the Christian Church. And this being so, I think it a great error to persist in attempting to find in the Christian doctrine that complete rule for our guidance which its author intended it to sanction and enforce, but only partially to provide.”

 

Mill does not complain about this incompleteness. He merely complains about those who treat the maxims as a complete code and therefore that “the Christian system is no exception to the rule, that in an imperfect state of the human mind the interests of truth require a diversity of opinions.”

This is precisely Mills the point that he keeps making over and over again in different ways.  Seekers of truth and justice need a diversity of opinions for all the reasons he has elucidated. We should never allow ourselves to be robbed of the benefit of the diverse opinion. All great political leaders for example understand this. President Barack Obama understood it well and frequently called for vigorous debate of proposed policies. I fear his successor is not so inclined, and prefers instead to hear his own views constantly applauded by Fox News or Breitbart. That, as Mills clearly demonstrates, is a big mistake.

We always have to be wary of those who argue against seeing a set of proposals as anything less than a partial view of the truth. “The exclusive pretention made by a part of the truth to be the whole, must and ought to be protested against.”

For example, anyone who looks fairly at moral issues will quickly see that much has been learned from secular thinkers. A wide variety of sources is immediately seen as richly beneficial to the understanding of any issues. As Mill said, “It can do no service to blink the fact, known to all who have the most ordinary acquaintance with literary history, that a large portion of the noblest and most valuable moral teaching was the work, not only of men who did not know, but of men who knew and rejected the Christian faith.”

That does not mean Christian morality is wrong. It is just that it does not tell the entire truth. We need other views to supplement it. We need diversity! We do not need pretentions to absolute and complete truth. Once again Mill puts it well,

I do not pretend that the most unlimited use of the freedom of enunciating all possible opinions would put an end to the evils of religious or philosophical sectarianism.  Every truth which men of narrow capacity are in earnest about, is sure to be asserted, inculcated,  and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world, or at all events none that could limit or qualify the first. I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion, but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents.  But it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect.  Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil; 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. And since there are few mental attributes more rare than that judicial faculty which can sit in intelligent judgment between two sides of a question, of which only one is represented by an advocate, before it, every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advocated as to be listened to.”

This is Mill’s magnificent conclusion. This is why he argues so strenuously for diversity of opinions. This is why he argues so strenuously that we do not gain by suppressing free debate and discussion. This is why freedom of thought, discussion and ultimately, expression is so vitally important. We have everything to gain from freedom of thought and discussion and everything to lose from its suppression! The “impassioned partisans” might not benefit, for they will be cemented in their opinions, but the “calmer and disinterested bystander.” And we who have decisions to make, should be these ideal calm and disinterested bystanders! We should always try—and try hard—to be the ideal impartial observer if we truly desire to find the truth.

Yet, even with that dramatic conclusion, Mill is not quite complete. He reminds that this freedom to think and discuss which he has argued for so powerfully is not only important in its own right. It is the basis of “the mental well-being of mankind (on which all other well being depends).

No monopoly on Truth

 

 

It is strongly implied from the analysis of John Stuart Mill, that whenever we are involved in a dispute we should remember it is very likely, though not certain, that there is some truth to the position of our opponent.  Most disputes between competing doctrines and opinions work exactly like that, but too often we tend to forget that. I know I have too often forgotten that. I need to see the other side of a question. I may reject most of it, but if I reject all of it, I am likely making a serious mistake. The truth is usually shared as Mill said. Looking for all of the truth on one side of a serious debate is short-circuiting the search for truth. That is why we must welcome diversity of opinion and listen to all sides. Only then will we find the whole truth and not just a partial truth. That is why free speech is so important for society. Free speech is a human right, but it is more than that. It is also a social good.

 

Mill gave one more example, which I also liked. He talked about liberals and conservatives. There is often truth on both sides, though perhaps not equally balanced. Mill said,

 

“In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away.  Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reasons and sanity. Unless opinion favorable to democracy and aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and competition, to luxury and to abstinence, to sociality and individuality, to liberty and to discipline, and all the other standing antagonisms of practical life, are expressed with equal freedom, and enforced and defended with equal talent and energy, there is not a chance of both elements getting their due; one scale is sure to go up and the other down. Truth in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of reconciling and combining opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness, and it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners. On any of the great open questions just enumerated, if either of the two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in a minority. That is the opinion which, for the time being, represents the neglected interests, the side of human well-being which is in danger of obtaining less than its share. I am aware that there is not, in this country, any intolerance of differences of opinion on most topics. They are adduced to show, by admitted and multiplied examples, the universality of the fact, that only through diversity of opinion is there, in the existing state of human intellect, a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth.  When there are persons to be found who form an exception to the apparent unanimity of the world on any subject, even if the world is in the right, it is always probable that dissentients have something worth hearing to say for themselves, and that truth would lose something by their silence.”

 

 

Even if there are few contrary voices (as in the case of Rousseau versus the Enlightenment above) we ought always to pay attention and respect to the voice of the dissenter. Otherwise there is, as Mill said, “not a chance of both elements getting their due.”  The rebel is critically important, even when we least expect it. It is virtually impossible for one side to capture 100% of the truth. Let the rebel help us to find what is missing for the winning side will always benefit.

 

This approach of always making room for the rebel opinion has a lot of worth. It is only if one side is infallible that we can escape this approach. Infallibility is unlikely ever to be found. I wish it were otherwise.  But one side rarely holds the entire truth. It can always benefit from some overlooked truth from the other side.

 

In today’s market place of ideas, acknowledging that the other side might have some truth is deeply unpopular. This is particularly true in the United States where to merely acknowledge the other side might have a point is considered traitorous. Members of the group are quick to jump on anyone who even hints at compromise with the wicked other.  In many places in Canada this is also all too common.

 

Mill also wants us to understand that this approach applies to all important issues, not just religious issues, because no side ever has a monopoly on truth. II really think Mill has found a key here in these 3 important propositions that all call for permitting—no encouraging—diversity of opinion. It is the closest we can come to a royal road to the truth.

I must admit that I find this amazingly well argued. How about you?

When the opinion is partly true and partly false.

 

John Stuart Mill in his classic book, On Liberty, considered free speech from one more perspective: namely beliefs that are partly true and partly false. Here too, he said, is another situation in which diversity of opinion is advantageous. In fact this is almost always the situation for invariably any opinion is not absolutely true. First, he considered the case of an opinion that might be false. The second was the case where the opinion is actually true, but a conflict with the opposite error is needed in order to clarify the opinion or preserve or create a deep feeling about that true opinion. In this case the contrary opinion can help immeasurably. Thirdly, Mill considers the case where neither opinion contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As Mill said,

 

“But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the non-conforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part  Popular opinions, on the subject not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.   Heretical opinions, on the other hand, are generally some of these suppressed and neglected truths, bursting the bonds which kept them down, and either seeking reconciliation with the truth contained in the common opinion, or fronting it as enemies, and setting themselves up, with similar exclusiveness, as the whole truth. The latter case is hitherto the most frequent, as in the human mind one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception. Hence, even in revolutions of opinion, one part of the truth usually sets while another rises.”

 

We ought never to think in black and white. We should always think in colour or include many shades of gray. Even revolutions usually just add one partial and incomplete truth for another. Hopefully the new truth will be better adapted to the needs of the time than the opinion or doctrine that is replaced. This is the profound point that Mill made which is particularly relevant to the age of extremes in which we live.

It was the glory of English empiricism and liberalism that grew out of the great period after the Religious Wars of the 17th century that produced thinkers willing to acknowledge that truth was not always entirely confined to one side of a discussion. Nowadays, this attitude is sadly rare. Nowadays, both sides often think they have the entire truth and the other side is of the devil. We must recognize that pure truth and pure falsehood rarely find homes on opposite sides of a dispute. That’s why holy truth and pure evil can rarely be found either. We should never expect to find pure truth or pure falsehood. Life is always more complicated than that. Mill was a member of that great British tradition of empiricism and liberalism.

As John Stuart Mill said,

“Such being the partial character of prevailing opinions, even when resting on a true foundation, every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of the truth which the common opinion omits, ought to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion that truth may be blended. No sober judge of human affairs will feel bound to be indignant because those who force on our notice truths which we should otherwise have overlooked, overlook some of those which we see. Rather, we will think that so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided assertors too; such being usually the most energetic, and most likely to compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole.”

 

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were surprised that they did not have the entire truth in their minds. They were shocked because it did appear to them that all proponents of science and philosophy would ultimately agree with them. They thought they had the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but they were rudely awakened from their slumber by one lonely thinker. That thinker was Rousseau. He gave Mills an example of a thinker who opposed the gathering consensus and cut it down at the knees. Mills described this momentous event this way,

“Thus, in the eighteenth century, when nearly all the instructed, and all those of the uninstructed who were led by them, were lost in admiration of what is called civilization, and of the marvels of modern science, literature, and philosophy, and while greatly overrating the amount of unlikeness between the men of modern and those of ancient times, indulged in the belief that the whole of the difference was in their own favour; with what salutary shock did the paradoxes of Rousseau explode like bombshells in the midst, dislocating the compact mass of one-sided opinion, and forcing its elements to recombine in a better form and with additional ingredients.  Not that the current opinions were on the whole farther from the truth than Rousseau’s were; on the contrary, they were nearer to it; they contained more of the positive truth, and very less of error.  Nevertheless there lay in Rousseau’s doctrine, and has floated down the stream of opinion along with it, a considerable amount of exactly those truths which popular opinion wanted; and these are the deposit which was left behind when the flood subsided. The superior worth of simplicity of life, the enervating and demoralizing effect of the trammels and hypocrisies of artificial society, minds since Rousseau wrote; and they will in time produce their due effect, though at present needing to be asserted as much as ever, and to be asserted by deeds, for words, on this subject have nearly exhausted their power.”

 

This was an outstanding example of what Mill was talking about. One side rarely has the whole truth. Mill, like me, had a lot of sympathy for the thinkers of the Enlightenment who brought reason and critical thought to the problems of the times. This was desperately needed. Mill accepts almost everything the Enlightenment thinkers stood for. So do I. But that does not mean they had the whole truth to themselves and their opponents had nothing good on their side. Rousseau was the outstanding example of exactly thought. He added truth to the other side and hence made both sides richer.

In fact, this phenomenon is extremely common. You can see it clearly in contemporary politics where each side thinks it has the whole truth, when both sides would benefit from a dose of truth from the other side, but is very reluctant to accept such a heretical possibility. Instead of that each sides tries to shut the other down.  Each should be listening to the free speech of the other. Once again, I come down on the side of heresy.

 

 

The Adversarial System

 

John Stuart Mill in his classic book On Liberty takes pains to point out that he is not saying that there must always be dissenting opinions. He does not say that a truth unanimously adopted does not at that moment stop to be a truth. Mill admits that when a doctrine does achieve near universal acceptance, that makes it more difficult. That is a serious drawback, because the necessity of explaining it to opponents or defending it against their attacks is most beneficial. But the absence of that does not end the matter. He says then teachers or others who are trying to persuade must find a substitute. They must find “some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question present to the learner’s consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for conversion.”

 

This is precisely the method adopted by the legal system. We call it the adversarial system. Both sides of a dispute are represented by competent advocates who make sure that the judge or trier of fact or law is fully apprised of all arguments in favor of a proposition or against it. That is why judges never want to proceed unless both parties to a dispute are represented by capable advocates. If they do not ensure this, the judge might make a mistake. Of course, even under the adversarial system, judges can make mistakes, but the chances are much less when that system is respected. It is a system that has stood the test of time.

 

Mill uses another example of a contrivance to substitute for full argument by both parties. This is the use of the Socratic method so loved by my insurance law professor. The system was based on a proper understanding of the classics of Greek philosophy brought forth by Plato. I remember reading some of those dialogues in my first year of university. Plato had Socrates often start a discussion by considering a commonly held opinion and then chipping away at it. Socrates referred to himself as an annoying “gadfly.” Annoying yes; but essential to the task of seeking the truth. Mill put it this way,

 

“The Socratic dialectics, so magnificently exemplified in the dialogues of Plato, were a contrivance of this description. They were essentially a negative discussion of the great questions of philosophy and life, directed with consummate skill to the purpose of convincing any one who had merely adopted the commonplace of received opinion that he did not understand the subject—that he as yet attached no definite meaning to the doctrines he professed; in order that, becoming aware of his ignorance, he might be put in the way to obtain a stable belief, resting on a clear apprehension both of the meaning of doctrines and of their evidence.”

 

Mill also mentioned how a similar approach was used by the famous “school disputations of the Middle Ages.” This technique was designed to make sure that a young student of theology understood fully his own position and in consequence the position of his opponent so that he could successfully argue for one and confute the other. Of course, as Mill realised, the Schoolmen had one fatal flaw that Mill would never countenance by his methods, the Schoolmen accepted authority rather than reason. That made them infinitely inferior to the Socratic dialogues.

 

Law courts in the common law system suffer from the same defect. In matters of law Common Law courts accede to the authority of precedent that they are not free to challenge. At least theoretically that is the case. In practice sharp judges can often reach the conclusion they want to reach. While I love the adversarial system of Common law courts, I too am opposed to dogged obeisance to authority and think this is one of the reasons that courts make so many serious mistakes. If an aeronautical engineers used this method no one would want to fly.

 

For all of these reasons Mill emphasizes that it would be eminently foolish to disregard the opportunity to hear contrary opinions when they are offered. It is so difficult to create artificial contrivances to ensure that contrary views are heard, that decision makers should never forgo genuine contrary views. They should be embraced, never constrained. Mill concludes as follows, “If there are any persons who contest a received opinion, or who will do so if the law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is someone to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions to do with much greater labour ourselves.

 

Free speech is always beneficial to the holder of opinions, whether true or false, provided the commentary is genuine and not frivolous or vexatious or totally absurd. As Mill said, such opinions should be “embraced, not constrained.’’ the contrary opinion and then deal with it.

That is why we need free speech.

The Deep Slumber of Decided Beliefs

 

John Stuart Mill argued in his book On Liberty that Christian faith had been impoverished as a result of not being sufficiently challenged in his country (England in the 19th century) Those beliefs were once firmly and genuinely held in the early days of Christianity. Then Christians had to constantly defend those beliefs from attack. Christians had to know the reasons and justifications for those beliefs. Over centuries of acceptance by rote, the beliefs have died in their minds. They are what Mill called dead beliefs.  Or dull and torpid beliefs. At one time the beliefs were vibrant, now they are mere forms.

Mill claims that because these beliefs are no longer truly held, the Christians have such difficulty in propagating their faith in foreign countries.  It is hard to convince others of a belief that is not obviously believed. If you don’t believe it, why should I? It is like a Chevrolet sales representative trying to sell a Chevrolet when the customer knows the sales representative owns a Toyota. Actions speak louder than words.

Mill describes these faux beliefs this way,

“The sayings of Christ coexist passively in their minds, producing hardly any effect beyond what is caused by mere listening to words so amiable and bland. There are many reasons, doubtless why doctrines which are the badge of a sect retain more of their vitality than those common to all recognized sects, and why more pains are taken by teachers to keep their meaning alive; but one reason certainly is, that the peculiar doctrines are more questioned, and have to be oftener defended  against open gainsayers.  Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.

 

And that is why free speech is so important to learning truth. It’s the contest for truth that is vitally important. This reasoning of course applies to all beliefs, not just religious beliefs.  All languages and belief systems are chock full of observations and directives about how adherents are to conduct themselves. People hear them and believe that they do in fact believe them. They are genuine about their claims. Yet most people only learn the meaning of them when they painfully have to implement them. That makes them real. The pain reminds the “believer” of what he or she should have known and believed.  As Mill said, “there are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home.”

For beliefs, the best way to bring the belief home is to hear it argued pro and con by people who understand it. As Mill pointed out so wisely, “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors.  Mill said that a contemporary author has well spoken of “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”

In the search for truth, slumber is an impressive and pernicious barrier.

Are Christian beliefs ineffective?

 

John Stuart Mill continued his robust defense of free speech in his book On Liberty by saying that even true beliefs benefited from challenges that free speech can bring. For example, since Christians seem to strongly believe the tenets of their religion, but they could benefit from vigorous challenge. How is that?

According to Mill, Christian beliefs, even fundamental beliefs are actually held without passion that John Stuart Mill he gave in his book On Liberty, surprised me. These were Christian beliefs which I always thought, in the middle of the 19th century, when Mill wrote, were very strongly held. Mills suggests otherwise:

“To what extent doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind may remain in it as dead beliefs, without being ever realised in the imagination, the feelings, or the understanding, is exemplified by the manner in which the majority of believers hold the doctrines of Christianity. By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects—the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of the nation, his class, or his religious profession.”

 

In other words, according to Mill, people really believe the customs they have adopted, but their professed religious beliefs not so much. Customs actually govern our actions, not our professed religious beliefs. This is really just another way of saying actions speak louder than words, and when it comes to all of these profound and important religious beliefs they are not really effective in guiding our actions, according to Mill.  They have become stale by being the products of indoctrination and not robust debate.

Mill suggests that our actions are based on local customs that we unconsciously accept and allow to override the genuine religious views that we have:

“He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom, as rules for his government; and on the other a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance.”

 

Mill goes on to list many examples of beliefs that are genuinely believed but do not actually determine how we action:

” All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-advised by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbour as themselves; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor.  They are not insincere when they believe these things.  They do believe them as , as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed.  But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct they believe these doctrines just up to the point  to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as their reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. But anyone who reminded them that the maxims require an infinity of things which they never even think of doing, would gain nothing but to be classed among those very unpopular characters who affect to be better than other people. The doctrines have no hold on ordinary believers—are not a power in their minds. They have an habitual respect for the sound of them,  but no feeling which spreads from words to the things signified, and forces the mind to take them in, and make them conform to the formula.  Whenever conduct is concerned, they look around for Mr. A and B to direct them how far to go in obeying Christ.”

 

Mill argues that Christians have these sincere beliefs but actually they do not change how they act. When it comes to acting, people look around to see what their peers are doing and then act accordingly.  That has a marked impact on what they do.  Professed beliefs are weak in comparison.

Yet according to Mill the early Christians were deeply affected in their conduct by religious beliefs that now people claim to believe, and actually do believe though weakly without life and those beliefs do not affect how we actually live.

As Mill said,

“Now we may be well assured that the case was not thus, but far otherwise, with the early Christians. Had it been thus, Christianity never would have expanded from an obscure sect of the despised Hebrews into the religion of the Roman empire. When their enemies said, “See how those Christians love one another” (a remark not likely to be made by anybody now) they assuredly had a much livelier feeling of the meaning of their creed than they have had since.

 

 

These doctrines that Mill selects are not mere ancillary aspects of Christianity. They included core beliefs. For example, that Christians should love others like themselves. What is more fundamental than that? Yet Mill concludes Christians claim to believe these fundamental doctrines but these claims have no substance. The beliefs are weakly held. Often, or should we say usually, they do not lead to action.  People like to hear themselves mouth these words. But they don’t really mean it when Christians say they mean them. There are of course, many more beliefs that Mill could have selected for similar treatment. And importantly, Mill says that the reason these beliefs are endorsed formally but not existentially is that Christians have not had to defend them against others. Christians don’t remember why these beliefs are important? Christians don’t remember the reason for the maxims.  Their beliefs are no longer real. Their beliefs have become empty husks no matter how often professed.

 I would invite my Christian friends to say why Mill is wrong. Or is he right?

Inherited Beliefs

 

John Stuart Mill talks about beliefs that have been “inherited” rather than “adopted.” I think he means something similar to what I said when I said beliefs were more alive and vivid after they have been defended in debate. These are beliefs that are the product of indoctrination.  Mill suggests that when a doctrine is inherited

 

“conversion from one of these doctrines to another, being now an exceptional fact, occupies little place in the thoughts of their professors. Instead of being, as at first, constantly on alert either to defend themselves against the world, or to bring the world over to them, they have subsided into acquiescence, and neither listen, when they can help it, to arguments against their creed, nor trouble to dissentients (if there be such) with arguments in its favour. From this time may usually be dated the decline of the living power of the doctrine.”

 

If you never have to defend a doctrine it dies dormant inside of you. Debate and discussion, not indoctrination, are keys to keeping a belief alive. The worst thing that can happen to a creed is to have it accepted as gospel truth. That is a death sentence!

Mill returned to the fact that early on in the establishment of a creed no teachers have trouble teaching that creed. Learners find it easy to learn.  As Mill wrote,

“We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers a lively apprehension of the truth of which they nominally recognize, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire a real mastery over the conduct. No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is still fighting for its existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines; and in that period of every creed’s existence, not a few persons may be found, who have realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced the full effect on the character which belief in that creed ought to produce in a mind thoroughly imbued with it.  But when it has come to be an hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively—when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the question which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience, until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being.  Then are seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the majority, in which the creed remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting it and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant.

From Mill’s perspective it is much better to have a creed in its infancy where is remains a lively belief instead of a dying leaf of a belief. Then Mill gives an astonishing list of beliefs which he believes have been inherited for such a long period of time, that they are no longer lively beliefs at all, but rather dead beliefs.

And one of the examples of such dead beliefs might surprise you. I will deal with them in my next post.

Debate adds life

 

Coke used to claim that ‘Coke adds Life.”  I would suggest, based on my reading of John Stuart Mill htat debate adds life. Mill makes another important point in his classic book On Liberty, to illustrate the truth of this position. He points out

“it is illustrated in the experience of almost all ethical doctrines and religious creeds. They are all full of meaning and vitality to those who originate them, and to the direct disciples of the originators. Their meaning continues to be felt in undiminished strength, and is perhaps brought out into even fuller consciousness, so long as the struggle lasts to give the doctrine or creed an ascendancy over other creeds.

After that they die.

I will give another example that obviously does not come from Mill. It has often been remarked with interest that the Christian religion is much more vibrant in the United States than all or most other western countries. Why is that?  Some have felt that the reason for this remarkable achievement is the counter intuitive fact that in the United States religion has been kept separate from the state and the state has not been allowed to establish a religion. As a result, the US has robust religious freedom. As a result of this freedom of religion, each sect has to be constantly aware that there are competitive belief systems out there. No creed can take for granted that authority will support it. It must convince adherents to stick with it and must convince others to join if it wants to grow adherents. No sect can rely on official support. That is exactly what religious groups needs—convincing.  Anything less will be a dead creed. As a result each religious group must remain vibrant or it will lose out to competitive religious groups.

It is interesting that religious groups often forget this fact when they lobby governments to support their religious positions. For example, many Christian groups are keenly disappointed when they are not allowed to have public schools adopt and encourage their particular viewpoints. In the United States, reading the Bible in school has been prohibited. The amazing thing is that the United States without an established church has the most vibrant churches.

Establishing a church or a church doctrine has the opposite effect of making it less real and less meaningful, because no one is required to consider alternatives or debate its merits.

In Europe, for example, where churches have become identified with the state, the religions have become less vibrant. The absence of free discussion and debate leads to religious views become encrusted over and ultimately dead. Religious groups should be the ones to resist their own establishment as official religions.

That is why received opinions tend to be dead opinions. We all know that intuitively. We remember best what we have actively worked hard to learn. If someone tells us something it tends to stick.  I remember when I was a law student. I wanted professors to spoon feed me. The last thing I wanted was for the Professor to ask me a question and defend it. That was hard and scary. Being spoon fed ideas and principles was much easier.

Law school was taught on the basis of the case system. In other words we considered actual law cases where judges had made decisions and then we tried to extract principles from those cases that we applied to new situations.

 

I had one Professor in First year Tort law who was a brilliant and engaging lecturer. I loved his class. He summarized each case we had to know to such an extent that we did not even have to read any cases. In fact, he gave us the principle of each case and I dutifully wrote them down. He even told us we did not have to read a single case!  That made it very easy. Then at the end of the school year, to prepare for the exam,  I wrote crib notes reducing each case to one principle. I memorized about a 1,000 case names with a legal principles reduced to one or at most 2 lines. I was amazed at how well I could memorize. In fact I got an A in that class and was extremely pleased with myself as a result. I should not have been so pleased. I had not really learned much.

In my second year of Law School I took a course in insurance law. We had no choice. It was a compulsory course. I would not have selected the course because the Professor had a reputation for using the Socratic method. He asked us questions about actual cases that he assigned for us to read. In fact if we did not read a case he threw us out of the class because we were then not in a position to discuss it, for we knew nothing about it. That was humiliating and we did not want that to happen. So we dutifully read each assigned case.

Then in class the Professor of Insurance law never or rarely lectured us. Instead he asked us questions about the cases. I was constantly in fear for this approach, because I liked to sit with my head down writing notes, not wanting to be asked questions. After all having to answer questions would make me think. I did not want to think. I wanted to be told. This professor did not allow that. We had to read, we had to discuss whether we liked it or not. We had to think!

I was frequently surprised at how the Professor managed to find things in cases, which I had diligently read but failed to notice. He was brilliant. He found nuances to the legal principles that I could never find. He was a fantastic professor as I eventually realized after my fears subsided and I got used to what I had to do.

Eventually I realized I was enjoying the course and learning a lot. I loved the course. The Professor became my favorite Professor. Not only that but I was amazed at how much I learned in that class. I do not remember how well I did in that course. It did not matter for I had learned so much.

I was even more amazed, many years later how much knowledge I had retained from that class, even though I never practiced in the area of insurance law. The knowledge that was hard earned stuck with me for decades. The principles of tort law, which I had learned so well by rote memorization soon disappeared into the ether. I soon forgot them all. I did not really learn them because I had not engaged in the subject. Sitting back and learning by rote is a poor way to learn, even when the professor is very good and engaging. The principles I had memorized were not really meaningful. They were not alive inside me as the principles of insurance law were. As soon as the exam was over I started to forget what I had learned by memorization.

I think it is the same with principles of religion or ethics. The hard won principles which we must defend mean the most. The easy answers are dead and soon forgotten.

Many years later I became a part time teacher of law at the same University. I realized that I did not want to lecture students. I realized they would not really be engaged if I did that. So I became the type of Professor I had hated in Law School. I used as best I could the Socratic method that my Insurance law professor had used. I wanted my students to become engaged and learn something that would stick in their minds. I wanted them to debate and consider alternatives. I did not want to them to memorize even my ideas and my theories. I hope I did that. I drilled them with questions and made them defend their positions.

 

Indoctrination is not the best way to teach and is not the best way to learn. Indoctrination leads to the death of doctrine, as odd as that sounds. I know many parents who think they must do that, and provided it is done from a very young age, can lead to doctrines becoming so unconsciously accepted that they are never challenged and so long as person does not think about them, they might be held on to. But that is not a good way to bring such doctrines to life. That is a good way to create beliefs that are paper thin and blow away in the first gentle breeze of challenge or discussion.

 

Eventually I realized I was enjoying the course and learning a lot. I loved the course. The Professor became my favourite Professor. Not only that but I was amazed at how much I learned in that class. I do not remember how well I did in that course. It did not matter for I had learned so much.

 

I was even more amazed, many years later how much knowledge I had retained from that class, even though I never practiced in the area of insurance law. The knowledge that was hard earned stuck with me for decades. The principles of tort law, which I had learned so well by rote memorization soon disappeared into the ether. I soon forgot them all. I did not really learn them because I had not engaged in the subject. Sitting back and learning by rote is a poor way to learn, even when the professor is very good and engaging. The principles I had memorized were not really meaningful. They were not alive inside me as the principles of insurance law were. As soon as the exam was over I started to forget what I had learned by memorization.

 

I think it is the same with principles of religion or ethics. The hard won principles which we must defend mean the most. The easy answers are dead and soon forgotten.

 

Many years later I became a part time teacher of law at the same University. I realized that I did not want to lecture students. I realized they would not really be engaged if I did that. So I became the type of Professor I had hated in Law School. I used as best I could the Socratic method that my Insurance law professor had used. I wanted my students to become engaged and learn something that would stick in their minds. I wanted them to debate and consider alternatives. I did not want to them to memorize even my ideas and my theories. I hope I did that. I drilled them with questions and made them defend their positions.

 

Indoctrination is not the best way to teach and is not the best way to learn. Indoctrination leads to the death of doctrine, as odd as that sounds. I know many parents who think they must do that, and provided it is done from a very young age, can lead to doctrines becoming so unconsciously accepted that they are never challenged and so long as person does not think about them, they might be held on to. But that is not a good way to bring such doctrines to life. That is a good way to create beliefs that are paper thin and blow away in the first gentle breeze of challenge or discussion.

 

I have looked at truths from both sides now

 

Mill wanted truths to be tested and defended against argument so the truth was lived. In such circumstances the truth is alive and vivid. Then, and only then, truth can avoid being a dead truth.

That is why Mill says, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”

To me it is like learning how to use a computer. It is not enough to be told how to use it. We have to use it to learn how to use it. Then the truth of how to use a computer becomes real.

So it is with reason.  A person might have been taught the reasons for an opinion, and those reasons might even be good reasons, but that is not good enough. If a person does not know what the reasons in favour of the opposite proposition are he really has no grounds to prefer either opinion. As Mill says,

“if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be to suspend judgment and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments or bring them into real contact with his own mind.”

 

Neither authority nor desire is good grounds for a belief.  The only thing that works is vigorous open debate on both sides of a question with both sides able to argue their case fully and freely. We must experience fully the weight of the belief on the other side. We must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form. Nothing else will do. “He must feel the whole force of difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of the truth which meets and removes that difficulty.” Unless one fully throws oneself into the position of the other we can never truly know what we profess to believe. We must see the arguments on both sides in the strongest light.

As a result of such reasoning, Mill makes a surprising and profound argument. He says, “So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of morals 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 skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up.”

Mill makes another suggestion.  He says, “mankind ought to have a rational assurance that all objections have been satisfactorily answered; and how are they to be answered if that which requires to be answered is not spoken? Or how can the answer be known to be satisfactory, if the objectors have no opportunity of showing that it is unsatisfactory.”

So free discussion is essential to understanding fully the opinion held. Its absence is harmful to the worth of the opinion. It is not enough that we hold true opinions, the process by which we gained those opinions is of critical importance.  Mill put it this way,

The fact, however, is, that not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself. The words which convey it cease to suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally employed to communicate.  Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remains only a few phrases retained by rote, or if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning retained, the finer essence being lost.

If you want a vivid belief, and which indoctrinator does not want that, free discussion is an absolute prerequisite. Without it there is but a husk of a belief—again—a paltry thing. That is why absolute free discussion is so vital. Free speech brings life.

Like Joni Mitchell sort of said, “you must look at truth from both sides now.” Otherwise, it’s only truth’s illusions you will recall.