Full Text and Selected Passages

You can access the full text of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty here. The selected passages for this digital essay can be found here

(Re)Introduction to John Stuart Mill

Mill, Victorian England, and Disagreement

PrideJane Austen's classic novel characterizes life in Victorian England

He's baaaaack!... You read book 2 of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism earlier in this class - this is the same guy. J.S. Mill lived from 1806-1873, meaning his adult life was during the height of Victorian Era England. This is important because, though he is perhaps best known for his role in developing utilitarianism, Mill was particularly interested in the social and political problems of the Victorian Era, and in much of his work he sought a practical influence. For example, Mill wrote numerous essays about specific social problems such as slavery and the status of womenMill's book On Liberty explores the limits on the kinds of power society may legitimately exercise over individuals. In his Autobiography, Mill wrote that On Liberty was about 

“the importance, to man and society, of a large variety in types of character, and of giving full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions."

Thus, On Liberty can be roughly characterized as political philosophy. We will read excerpts from Chapter 2, "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion." This chapter also contributes to the field of philosophy called epistemology, or the study of knowledge and rationality. Mill argues that disagreement is a really good thing not just for a healthy political society, but also epistemically: it’s good because it helps us ultimately believe and appreciate the truth.  

Argument by Cases

Mill starts the chapter what with he takes to be the obvious truth that governments shouldn’t censor the press. He quickly moves on to a more radical claim: no one should try to stifle or be dismissive of disagreeing opinions, even when you find them offensive, even when you're virtually certain you're right, and even when they're in direct conflict with your way of life. He particularly has in mind protecting minority opinions from 'tyranny of the majority,' but the argument applies whenever someone disagrees with us. Mill's main thesis is that difference of opinion is a really good thing and should therefore be tolerated, encouraged, and engaged rather than avoided or ignored. 

His argument proceeds by considering three possible cases - (1) Where the common consensus or your own opinion is in reality wrong,  (2) Where we are in reality right, and (3) Where we are partly right, partly wrong. He argues that in all three cases, we are better off if we engage respectfully and tolerantly, rather than by dismissing or suppressing those who disagree

Argument By Cases 1

This is what's known as an argument by cases. In general, it works like this: Consider all scenarios that could possibly be true. Then, argue that for each of those scenarios, if it is the actual one, then your conclusion follows. No matter how things turn out, your conclusion has to be true

For example, suppose JS Mill offers to make a bet with you on the next Notre Dame game: If Notre Dame wins, Mill wins $20. If Notre Dame loses, you lose $20. Adept philosopher that you are, you would see the trap and refuse the bet using an argument by cases:

Thesis: I will lose $20.

Case 1: Notre Dame wins. Then, Mill wins $20, which means I lose $20.

Case 2: Notre Dame loses. Then, I lose $20.

In both possible cases, I would lose $20. Thus, my thesis is true no matter what happens.

Thus, if Mill's argument by cases in On Liberty is right, then when we encounter someone who disagrees with us, it really doesn't matter whether we're right - we should always engage respectfully with disagreement rather than dismissing or suppressing it.


Thought Experiment Case 1: We are Wrong

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. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.
Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. 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 be 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 largeminded 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 thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds 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 having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is 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.

Argument Case 1 Broken Down

Argument Outlined

  1. People are deeply fallible.

Given the diversity of opinion across places and times on a vast array of religious and moral questions, at the very least, we should accept that people in general are very frequently wrong. To be fallible just means there are times where one fails, or is wrong.

  1. If people are deeply fallible, then it would not be surprising if you yourself were wrong (and your interlocutor were right).

  2. If you are wrong and your interlocutor is right, you stand a better chance of coming around to the right view as well if you engage disagreement respectfully.

(C) You should engage disagreement respectfully.

Key Principle: Epistemic Relativism

Buddhist Child EditedIf you were born in Southeast Asia to a Buddhist family, would you be Buddhist?

In this last passage, Mill flirts with (something like) what contemporary epistemologists call epistemic relativism, the claim that what one ought to believe is relative to one's specific context, society, culture or individual. “The same causes” that make people Christians in England, Mill worries, would have led to their having other beliefs in other places. Mill is practically saying, “You just believe that (Christianity) because you were raised that way.” And yet Mill doesn’t seem to think this is a reason to abandon religion altogether. Why? Shouldn’t recognition of our fallibility and the influence of backgrounds and starting points on our beliefs, make us worry? 

Epistemic relativists say no. Of course we all form beliefs that are influenced by our starting points or frameworks. We can still be rational because what being rational means is just forming beliefs according to your own best lights. What’s rational for me might be different than what’s rational for you, just as rational beliefs in different times and cultures will vary. But according to the relativist this is not cause for concern. It’s just the way rationality works.

We’ll come back to epistemic relativism in class. Although Mill is definitely interested in the idea, he doesn’t actually put it to use in his main argument. Rather, he just insists on our fallibility.

Objection: Relative Certainty

You might think that just because a lot of people’s beliefs in past ages about, say, the natural world have proved false, we are less prone to error now. People used to think that water was one of four elements of the universe, but now we know that water is H2O. You might think there’s no way we’ll turn out to be wrong about that. And if someone disagrees and claims that water isn’t H2O – well, they’re just wrong.

1. Are there particular kinds of questions where we are more or less fallible, and do we still have to respectfully engage with disagreement if we aren’t very likely to be wrong? Mill answers this question in the passages below: 

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.

NewtonballsIs it possible that Newton's Laws of Motion are wrong?

If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.

Mill thinks that only through being open to challenge can we ever have some certainty a belief is true. That's why experiments are replicated and revised constantly in science, and nothing is ever considered proven beyond doubt - not even the Newton's Laws of Motion!

2. Aren’t some people more reliable than others? Why should more reliable people take the disagreement of less reliable people seriously? Mill answers this question too: 

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

The only way anyone can acquire good, reliable judgment is through this never-ending, meticulous process of weighing all sides of an argument and always remaining open to criticism from the other side. 

Objection: Usefulness

MaxresdefaultDo we even have to leave beliefs that are central to our way of life open to disagreement and criticism?

OK, Mill may have convinced you to stay open to disagreement and tolerate diversity even when you're really sure you're right, but what about those beliefs that are so central to who you are or who are community is that we feel we can't live without them - for example, belief in the Christian God, or belief in the rights to life and liberty? Must we leave even these open to disagreement? Mill has an answer, and it might not be the one you'd hoped for: 

In the present age—which has been described as ‘destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism’,—in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments, to act on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions. But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself. There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful: and can you prevent such men from urging that plea, when they are charged with culpability for denying some doctrine which they are told is useful, but which they believe to be false? Those who are on the side of received opinions, never fail to take all possible advantage of this plea; you do not find them handling the question of utility as if it could be completely abstracted from that of truth: on the contrary, it is, above all, because their doctrine is ‘the truth’, that the knowledge or the belief of it is held to be so indispensable. There can be no fair discussion of the question of usefulness, when an argument so vital may be employed on one side, but not on the other. And in point of fact, when law or public feeling do not permit the truth of an opinion to be disputed, they are just as little tolerant of a denial of its usefulness. The utmost they allow is an extenuation of its absolute necessity or of the positive guilt of rejecting it.

You might have thought that by pointing to usefulness rather than truth you had avoided the assumption of infallibility Mill discussed earlier. But Mill says even the usefulness of an opinion is a matter of opinion. You might think belief in God is necessary for a good life, but others may not. Or consider the belief that vaccines are good for public health. This belief is useful only if it is true. One cannot be separated from the other. Thus, even our most fundamental beliefs must remain open to doubt, to disagreement, and to other ways of life. 

Thought Experiment Case 2: We are Right

Let us now pass to the second division of the argument, and dismissing the Supposition that any of the received opinions may be false, let us assume them to be true, and examine into the worth of the manner in which they are likely to be held, when their truth is not freely and openly canvassed. However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.
There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility—assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument—this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.
If the intellect and judgment of mankind ought to be cultivated, a thing which Protestants at least do not deny, on what can these faculties be more appropriately exercised by any one, than on the things which concern him so much that it is considered necessary for him to hold opinions on them? If the cultivation of the understanding consists in one thing more than in another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one's own opinions. Whatever people believe, on subjects on which it is of the first importance to believe rightly, they ought to be able to defend against at least the common objections. But, some one may say, ‘Let them be taught the grounds of their opinions. It does not follow that opinions must be merely parroted because they are never heard controverted. Persons who learn geometry do not simply commit the theorems to memory, but understand and learn likewise the demonstrations; and it would be absurd to say that they remain ignorant of the grounds of geometrical truths, because they never hear any one deny, and attempt to disprove them.’ Undoubtedly: and such teaching suffices on a subject like mathematics, where there is nothing at all to be said on the wrong side of the question. The peculiarity of the evidence of mathematical truths is, that all the argument is on one side. There are no objections, and no answers to objections. But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons. Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion. But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favor some opinion different from it. The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary's case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But 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 suspension of 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. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the 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 truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavored to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral 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…
If, however, the mischievous operation of the absence of free discussion, when the received opinions are true, were confined to leaving men ignorant of the grounds of those opinions, it might be thought that this, if an intellectual, is no moral evil, and does not affect the worth of the opinions, regarded in their influence on the character. 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 remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost. The great chapter in human history which this fact occupies and fills, cannot be too earnestly studied and meditated on. 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 ascendency over other creeds. At last it either prevails, and becomes the general opinion, or its progress stops; it keeps possession of the ground it has gained, but ceases to spread further. When either of these results has become apparent, controversy on the subject flags, and gradually dies away. The doctrine has taken its place, if not as a received opinion, as one of the admitted sects or divisions of opinion: those who hold it have generally inherited, not adopted it; and 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 the 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 dissentients (if there be such) with arguments in its favor. From this time may usually be dated the decline in the living power of the doctrine. 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 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 realized 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 questions 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 realizing 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, encrusting 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.


Argument Case 2 Broken Down

Argument Outlined

Mill has already argued that reasoned disagreement is necessary for the correction of errors and the discovery of the truth. Now he is making a subtly different argument. Even where we already know the truth (and hence don’t need to have our errors corrected), we need to engage with disagreement in order to appreciate and really know what we believe to be true. It is only through engaging with real people who believe and defend alternate views that we can really know our own. We might try to formalize the argument as follows:

  1. Really knowing something requires being able to give reasons for it and answer objections.
  2. The only way to become skillful in giving reasons for our views and answering objections is to encounter and take seriously real people who earnestly object to our views.​​​​

    (C) You should engage disagreement respectfully.


Example: The Lord's Prayer

220px Rylands Nicene Creed Papyrus

Some Christians recite creeds of the faith, such as the Nicene Creed, every week. These creeds state some foundational beliefs of the Christian faith. But if we say the creeds for long enough without encountering any challenge to their truth, will we still appreciate them? Or might they become rote, a kind of dead dogma?

Here's a translated part of the creed (Catholic version), making claims about Jesus. 

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

These claims are, well, rather complex and strange. What does the claim "Light from Light" mean, and what does it add to the claim "God from God"? What are Christians (specifically Catholics) saying they believe when they say Jesus is "consubstantial" with the Father? These are tricky questions. And yet, it can get pretty easy after years of saying these things to just let the words roll off your tongue without reflection. 

Thought Experiment Case 3: We are Partly Right

It still remains to speak of one of the principal causes which make diversity of opinion advantageous, and will continue
to do so until mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance. We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that, the received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. 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 nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part.

Popular opinions, on subjects 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. Even progress, which ought to superadd, for the most part only substitutes one partial and incomplete truth for another; improvement consisting chiefly in this, that the new fragment of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time, than that which it displaces. Such being the partial character of prevailing opinions, even when resting on a true foundation; every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of 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, he will think that so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided asserters too; such being usually the most energetic, and the most likely to compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole.

Unless opinions favorable to democracy and to aristocracy, to property and to equality, to co-operation and to competition, to luxury and to abstinence, to sociality and individuality, to liberty and 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 no chance of both elements obtaining 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 the reconciling and combining of 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 of these 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.

Argument Case 3 Broken Down

Argument Outlined

In this passage, Mill considers the final case, and the one he believes is most common: that both sides of the issue are partly right, partly wrong. Here is the argument outlined: 

  1. When your view is only partially true, you can make progress by being swayed by either those with (purely) true opinion or those with a complementary partial grasp of truth. (where a complementary partial grasp is had by anyone who grasps a part of the truth you do not.)
  2. It is often the case that your views are only partially true.
  3. It is in general the case that people's views are (only) partially true.
  4. (From 2, 3) It will often be the case, when encountering disagreement, that each of you have complementary partial grasps on the truth.
  5. (C) You should engage disagreement respectfully.


The Blind Men and The Elephant

Elephant Assumption

There is an Indian folk tale that gets at what Mill is talking about here. In it, six blind men who have never encountered an elephant before are led to examine the animal by touching it. They each touch a different part of the elephant, and consequently each comes up with a completely different idea of what the elephant is like. Only through dialogue with each other do they realize the whole truth of what an elephant is really like.

This is what Mill is arguing in this passage: We all have experiences and backgrounds that lead us to see part of the truth, but not all of it. Sometimes, even a whole community or nation sees only that part of the truth, to the point where it seems like it is the whole truth. But there is always another part of the elephant, of the world, that you haven't explored, and you need to engage with people with different experiences and backgrounds to discover this unseen part, to get to the whole truth. 

What Now?

Doing the Best We Can

So what now? Should we just never act on our own opinions because they might be wrong? Should we never take sides on an issue because both sides are usually partially right? Mill has an answer to these worries: 

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...

Recent psychology research confirms this: often, when confronted with the opposing viewpoint, people get defensive and actually become more sure of the truth of their side than before. Compare this to our application essay and Nguyen’s thoughts on echo chambers.

...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...

Who do you think Mill has in mind here? Do such people really exist?

...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.


Contemporary Connections

Climate Justice Now

Mill’s arguments here might make us a little uncomfortable. After all, respectfully engaging disagreement seems all well and good when what we’re disagreeing about is something abstract or trivial. But there are cases that seem so settled, where the public seems to have an urgent interest in disregarding disagreement.
Should we make plans quickly to address man-made climate change? Should we implement affirmative action policies? Should parents vaccinate their children? Many people think so, and they think we should disregard the opinions of those who disagree. After all, they might say, there are questions that we can settle with a high degree of reliability that are of enormous practical import. 
It seems that Mill, however, would caution them. Fighting climate change is only important if there really is climate change. And that is precisely what some people deny. 
Big Question: what kind of respectful engagement with disagreement might Mill recommend in these cases? Would this involve suspending judgment? Suspending the enactment of policies? Or might it merely involve giving people the right to be heard, and using their voice as an opportunity to clarify our own convictions?

The Goal of Progress

At this point, you might be asking yourself "Is progress even possible in Mill's world?" Can't society ever just agree on something and build off of it with new questions, or are we forever stuck debating the first questions we come to?

But what! (it may be asked) Is the absence of unanimity an indispensable condition of true knowledge? Is it necessary that some part of mankind should persist in error, to enable any to realize the truth? Does a belief cease to be real and vital as soon as it is generally received—and is a proposition never thoroughly understood and felt unless some doubt of it remains? As soon as mankind have unanimously accepted a truth, does the truth perish within them? The highest aim and best result of improved intelligence, it has hitherto been thought, is to unite mankind more and more in the acknowledgment of all important truths: and does the intelligence only last as long as it has not achieved its object? Do the fruits of conquest perish by the very completeness of the victory?
I affirm no such thing. As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested. The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous. But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial. The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. Where this advantage can no longer be had, I confess I should like to see the teachers of mankind endeavoring to provide a substitute for it; some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner's consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion.

Here, Mill wraps up his argument for why diversity of opinion is a good thing by comparing its goodness to the goodness of progress. He says progress outweighs the good of disagreement, but not by much! Diversity of opinion is so important, he says, because it helps us find the truth AND hold onto and appreciate it. We lose that when we progress, and that's a huge loss - so huge he says teachers should try to introduce disagreement into the classroom as much as possible as a substitute for genuine disagreement. 


This digital essay was prepared by Professor Laura Callahan and GGL Fellow Sam Kennedy.