Unfortunately, one can never be certain one has latched on to the truth. Despite what all the radical leftists and radical right-wingers say, there is always doubt. (Though even if there was no doubt, remember as John Stuart Mill said, even the left or right extremists who are convinced they have found the absolute truth, would benefit from vigorous challenge so that the truth can be seen in “a livelier and clearer manner”!)
To begin with, Mill asserted a fundamental principle of empiricism from which liberalism is derived: “We can never be sure the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
These are 2 of the most powerful statements in favour of freedom of speech in the western canon.
Mill considers suppression of opinion in the light of 3 possibilities:
- The opinion might be true.
- The opinion is true
- The opinion is partly true and partly false.
I will begin with the first.
#1. The Opinion might be True
Of course, if the opinion is false, which can never be known absolutely either, there is no problem about free speech, because, of course, we should be able to freely challenge the falsehood.
But Mill goes on. First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, 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. If people refuse to hear an opinion because they are certain it is wrong they assume that their certainty is absolute certainty. And the two are never the same. As Mill said, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” None of us are entitled to assume that we are infallible.
It does not matter either that the majority agrees with us. The majority are no more infallible than we are. Mill points out while all of us admit that we are fallible, few of us take precautions against our own fallibility. We also seldom admit that our opinion of which we feel certain could be one of the examples of errors of which we acknowledge we could make.
Some people are accustomed to deference. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, businessmen, clergy and political leaders are just of few of the people this in this regrettable camp. Deference is a dangerous thing. Deference leads to the erroneous assumption that the deference is not only justified, it should be absolutely given. As Mill said,
“Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to being set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer; for in proportion to a man’s want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust on the infallibility of ‘the world’ in general. And the world, to each individual means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society; the man may, be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes and parties have though, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient world of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age have held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it as certain that many opinions now general will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.”
That is why the person who is the object of “unlimited deference” is unfortunate. We gain nothing from deference. We gain everything from dissent. We are blessed if our views are challenged. We gain from the challenge. Challenges make us stronger and smarter. We benefit from challenges, as does of course society. Blessed are the rebels for they make us better, even when they are wrong!
I think that is the nub of Mill’s argument. Dissent from our views is of benefit to society and to us. The principle of utility requires that we protect it and give it free reign. That is why we have to allow jerks to speak their mind. That does not mean we have to allow them to do whatever they want. There are limits, but they deserve the right to think and discuss.
It is noteworthy Mill titled his famous second chapter of his book On Liberty, “Of thought and discussion.” That is what he argued should be free. For example, he did not argue that people should be allowed to enter a funeral of a gay soldier and hold up signs mocking him and disturbing his family and friends as some fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. have done We have the right to freely think and discuss. We have no right to disrupt meetings or gatherings and impose our will on them. They are free to say, ‘Go away.’ Mill did not really argue in favour of the proposition that one has the right to be a jerk. That was not his goal.
Mill concluded, “If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” Even Satanists have the right to speak. Conservatives must allow liberals to speak. Liberals must give the conservatives an equal chance to speak.