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).