Category Archives: Truth Seeking

The Big Ideas


The Brothers Karamazov is often called a book of ideas.  In some respect that is an apt description.

In the novel The Brothers Karamazov Dostoevsky asks big questions.  Does God exist?  If not, can we do whatever we want? And Ivan asks Alyosha the question that is so vital to him, does Alyosha love life more than the meaning of life? Alyosha’s answer is surprising but clear. “love should come before logic…Only then will man be able to understand the meaning of life.” So he tells his brother he should “bring back to life those dead of yours.” He was referring to the great thinkers and artists. And that brings him back to civilization and the eternal verities. The big questions, the big ideas that drive Ivan.

Ivan loves life and loves ideas. He is passionate about both, though usually we see only his love of ideas. Ideas excite him. Ideas drive his life. He doesn’t just want to chase  wine, women and song, but the big ideas, what he calls “the eternal verities.”

Ivan realizes that his younger brother Alyosha, is also driven by ideas, the spiritual ideas, for he too is on a religious quest. That is why he went to the monastery. That is why he has made Elder Zosima his mentor.  He wants to find the spiritual path. As Ivan says, “we callow youths, we have first of all to settle the eternal verities.” Usually, it is often thought, the big ideas must be settled by wise old men, but Ivan disagrees.

What are these big ideas?  He tells Alyosha

those eternal verities such as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And those who do not believe in God will bring in socialism, anarchy, and the reorganization of society according to a new scheme…But it really boils down to the same damned thing—they’re all the same old questions, they’re just approached from a different angle. And there are many, many extremely original boys who spend their whole time nowadays debating these eternal questions.”


And Alyosha admits to Ivan that these are the most important problems, especially for Russians. But Ivan says what really surprises him is not that they say if God does not exist, they would have to invent God, which is what Voltaire said, but rather that such an idea would have ever occurred to “a vicious wild animal like man. For that concept is so holy, so touching, and so wise that it does man too much honour. For my part I’ve long since stopped worrying about who invented whom—-God  man or man God.” There’s a big question for you.

There is a lot to be passionate about in these ideas. And the Karmazov brothers, are passionate about those ideas and that makes for fascinating reading. And a fascinating life.


The Stupid Decade Continued


Jonathan Haidt makes the astounding claim that starting in the mid 2010s people, particularly young people, but really a lot more than that, starting getting stupid! It’s not just the kids.

Haidt, like me, is a fan of John Stuart Mill who pointed out that if a person only knows his or her own side of a dispute, he knows little of that.  I have blogged earlier about Mill’s arguments on this point.

[If you look under tags  under John Stuart Mill you can find links to these posts] ]

In other words, to really understand a position one must look at it from different perspectives. We need to have opposite cases pushing against each other. That is what used to be done in universities, at least, according to Haidt, until around 2013 or 2014 when universities became places where ideologies were homogenized, and questions about sacred positions became hazardous to professors’ career paths.  It became difficult for professors and their students to challenge conventional wisdom. This was particularly true for a few sacred issues like race, gender, transgender and others. If a professor or even students, suggested there might be a case to be made for views that challenged the conventional wisdom, the challenger would feel the full wrath of social media warriors. And as Haidt said, “when critics go silent, the group gets stupid.”


Haidt admits that we have had polarized views in the past, but the new element is that social media supercharges the tendency to require ideological conformity. That of course amplifies polarization and intellectual tribalism.  The “other side” gets ignored. We need critics to make us smarter. If we don’t have them, we get stupider. We need opposing views or we get stupid. As Haidt said,


 “What’s new is these new dynamics brought to us by social media and especially Twitter, that we’re not shooting the other side so much anymore, we’re shooting the moderates on our own side. And so, what happened in the early to mid-2010s is the moderates on the left and right begin to go silent and the extremes get super empowered.


Haidt points out that as result on the right the Republican Party went off the rails and on the left, it was not so much the Democratic Party that went off the rails, but the supporters of the left who dominate major cultural and educational institutions, universities, media, museums etc. According to Haidt, “Both sides started shooting their moderates…Moderates on the left and right begin go silent and the extremes get super empowered. Metaphorically of course, I must add.


We must remember that polarization has many causes, but social media sure seems to be one of them. Anything that helps to silence our critics helps to make us stupid.  And that according to Haidt is how the west declined—by getting stupid.


A Hit List or a reading list


Azar Nafisi is a professor of literature now living in America, who originally taught literature in Iran.  In fact she taught American novels including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  She taught this amazing book, whose theme is freedom, to Iranians students in Tehran. Eventually Nafisi left Iran for freedom in America. She loves literature and the works of the imagination as I do. She is just much more eloquent than I am.  She said,

“The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves a nation. Works of the imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.”


She learned this, she says. She taught in the midst of a totalitarian society. In the novel Huck had an awful choice to make. He could choose to follow what he called his “conscience.” By that he really meant conventional morality. This is what he had been taught by his family, and his society around him. These were the authorities. If he followed them, he would bring the slave Jim back to his “rightful owner’ the good Christian Miss Watson. Or he could choose to follow what he had learned in his life with Jim—i.e. that Jim was the best of all the people he knew and he was his true friend and he should help him to freedom so Jim could reunite with his family. Huck chose to do what he thought was the wrong thing, the thing that would lead him to hell, but would save his friend. Could anyone ever have a better friend? He literally risked it all to save his friend.

The poet Joseph Brodsky, like Azar Nafisi, had been brought up in a totalitarian society. He in Russia; she in Iran. Both came to appreciate the revolutionary power of the imagination and works of the imagination. Not that they are a panacea. After all, Brodsky pointed out, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were all literate people who read lots of books. Brodsky said, the problem is “their hit lists were longer than their reading lists.

That is why totalitarian states, and authoritarian leaders are so quick to attack books and the liberal arts. They know that these works are dangerous to the authoritarians.  Both, whether, from the left or the right, want to remove them at all costs. As Nafisi said, “They know the dangers of genuine free inquiry.” Some of these authoritarians even in the west, have tried to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Why? They are doing it for the same reason the dictators did—i.e. to control the readers. They don’t want the readers to think.


Mark Twain and Spiritual Slavery


Mark Twain had a deep aversion to slavery.  That was an unusual attitude at the time. In fact most people in the south of  the United States, and elsewhere for that matter, including many people in Canada, felt slavery was natural. That was just how things worked.  But Twain did not always feel that way. Like Huck Finn he grew into hatred of slavery, because he grew up with it and thought it was normal and therefore right. Only later in life did he realize that slavey was a sin and must be resisted.

Late in his life Twain said this:

“In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery.  I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind—and then the texts were read aloud to us the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.”

This reminds me of an argument I had once had with a young lawyer. I don’t remember what we were arguing about, but it was an ethical argument about whether or not a particular action or activity was wrong. His ultimate position was that he had been brought up to believe that so he believed it. He was a slave to his parent’s opinions. He was not free.

Frankly, I was stunned that an educated person who had spent 7 years in a university could hold that was an answer to my argument. But really, he was just clearly enunciating a position held by many people in society. They implicitly believe what their parents believed and do not question the authority of the parent to control their beliefs even deep into maturity. This is what I call spiritual slavery.  When we are growing up we naturally believe what our parents tell us, but I believe when we are mature we have a duty to question what we have been  told us, even if we continue to respect the parents.  What Friedrich Nietzsche said about teachers and students is equally applicable to parents and children: “One repays a teacher badly by remaining always a pupil.” Would you want your children to believe as you believe just because you taught them to believe it? I think not. We want our children eventually to think for themselves. Perhaps even to teach us where we went wrong!

I would even hold this position if I were God. I would not want people to believe me only because I said something was true.  I would not give them a Holy book with prescriptions that must be followed. I would want them to think for themselves. Again, I would want them to teach me if I was wrong. I want people—all people—to be spiritually free!

Later in his life Twain realized what he had been taught by his elders was wrong. Slavery was wicked.  As Azar Nafisi said, “his childhood memories left such a mark on him that slavery became to his mind a universal symbol of man’s cruelty, stupidity, and depravity.” This is what I now think about racism. It too has been inculcated in us since the days of our youth by a system of systemic racism that we have not recognized, because we were like fish who don’t see the water in which they swim. At one time slavery was  like that. It is not like that anymore. But racism is still like that. And we must resist it.

If we are not free to think for ourselves we are not free.



Guilt Free Zone



We non-indigenous people are not responsible for what sins were committed by whites that arrived in “the New World.”  It was never a new world, these people were not ancestors to very many of us, and there is nothing we could do to stop what they did long before our time on earth. Therefore, when it comes to the sins of white settlers of North America as far as I am concerned, we live in a guilt free zone. My ancestors, for whom I am not responsible either, were not even in North America at the time. They were deep in Russia (now Ukraine).


One of the worst things non-indigenous settlers they did in North America was to establish Indian Residential Schools. What made them think they had the right to take children away from their parents, put them into schools often far away from home, separate them from their families, teach them that their parents were savages, rob them of their culture, language and social networks?  What gave them the right was a seriously misguided ideology of white supremacy. They thought they were better than indigenous people. That was despicable, but we here today are not responsible for that.


However, we should denounce, clearly and unequivocally the ideology of white supremacy which those people left behind. That ideology is morally corrupt and we must make it clear that we dissent from it. Furthermore, we should not accept the advantages bestowed on us by virtue of the colour of our skin. We have not earned those benefits and must make clear that we do not want those unearned advantages.  Since we have not earned them, we should not take them, at least not at the expense of anyone else. That is just plain unfair. To accept such benefits would be to facilitate injustice.


But I believe it is also our duty first to confront the truth. As Nietzsche said, “The worth of a person is measured is by how much truth that person can bear.” We must not shy away from the truth. In fact, we must search out the truth, even if we suspect it might be uncomfortable.  This is something American conservatives fail to understand. They want their offspring not to learn truths that might make them feel uncomfortable.  Those are precisely the truths we ought to seek out. And we do that because we know, as Nietzsche said, such knowledge will make us stronger and better. We search those truths out to make ourselves better people. Like John F. Kennedy said about going to the moon: ‘We do it because it’s hard.’  Only the best people can do what is hard.

Even though I went to 12 years of local education followed by 7 years of university education after that, I never once heard about Indian Residential Schools during that time. Someone, “protected me” from that knowledge. They did not do me a favour by that. They did me a disservice.

I think though I had vague knowledge that white people had treated indigenous people badly. Why else were they largely relegated to Indian reservations or poor parts of big cities while whites were enjoying the fruits of the land? I think anyone who did not realize why was deliberately avoiding an uncomfortable truth. I think we knew—deep down perhaps—that Indigenous people had been treated unfairly.

But now we all know better. The truth, thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come out. Those who don’t know that truth are being deliberately obtuse.  Those people don’t want to know the truth because they think they can’t bear it. They think knowledge of the truth might rob us of the enjoyment of unjust advantages which we don’t deserve.

We can be better than this. We don’t need to feel guilty about what happened 150 years ago by people we don’t know and are not responsible for. However, we must feel guilt, if we continue to benefit from injustices visited on injustice people by being advantaged while others suffer disadvantages. We must do all that we can reasonably do to do fully restore fairness and justice. Only then will be able to enjoy the guilt free sleep of the just. Until then the unjust advantages we had bestowed on us by an unfair system will be worn heavily by us. They will haunt us.

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.