Defending a marketplace of ideas

Mill’s second chapter in On Liberty is a fairly straightforward defense of the freedom of speech and public discussion. Truth, he believes, is best served by the free discussion of all ideas without any perspective being shut down. These circumstances refute false ideas, prevent the atrophy of the defense and understanding of true ideas, and, when the truth is parceled out between different ideas, allows for the whole truth to enter public discussion. Since we cannot assume our own infallibility, we must not decide which ideas cannot be discussed.

At the end of the last post, I raised the question of how Mill proposed to prevent society (not just the government) from shutting down liberty. Other than urging people to be truly open-minded and well-mannered in their discussions, he didn’t venture too far into this territory. I’m wondering if I may have made too much of this part of the first chapter. We shall see.

Probably the most notable part of this chapter was Mill’s evaluation of Christian morality. He contended that most Christians do not take their real values from the New Testament, but rather give them lip service, and also that the New Testament was not meant to pass on a comprehensive morality. Instead, it had holes that needed to be filled by other insights. The political ideas from the Greco-Roman tradition, for example, replace the “passive obedience” that he believes the New Testament commands towards political authorities. Mill seems to have a rather simplistic interpretation of Christianity, isolating the New Testament from the Old and ignoring or denigrating the Christian theological tradition that has tried to discern a complete Christian worldview.

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10 comments

  1. Great summary. I appreciated Mill’s argument that even if an opinion is wrong, it should be permitted and confronted rather than suppressed, in order for iron to sharpen iron rather than sheltering a brittle belief, potentially including even lies.

    I don’t think you made too much of Mill’s seeming opposition to liberties of association in the last post. He still equates the harm from society with the harm from government in chapter 2:

    In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.

    At this point it occurred to me that Mill simply makes broad moral arguments from overlapping angles. He does not, for example, consider economics or countervailing liberties, such as asking for lower wages which increases employment and skill acquisition and causes employers to pay a price for irrational bigotry.

    the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma

    Mill is right that social stigma can birth legal penalties, but if strengthening social stigma is the “chief mischief”, what should be done about it? He continues to avoid proposing solutions by which we could more clearly discern his meaning.

    I had fun reading his argument on the logical contradiction of forcing an atheist to take an oath that couples affirming God’s existence with a promise not to lie:

    The rule, besides, is suicidal, and cuts away its own foundation. Under pretence that atheists must be liars, it admits the testimony of all atheists who are willing to lie, and rejects only those who brave the obloquy of publicly confessing a detested creed rather than affirm a falsehood. […] The rule, and the theory it implies, are hardly less insulting to believers than to infidels.

    Presumably, he would either advocate that no oath should be taken, or a simple oath acknowledging the punishment for lying, perhaps even invoking God conditionally rather than affirmatively, but he continues his pattern of not specifying his solution.

    Mill’s general disaffection for Christian religiousity was clear to me, but you summarized the salient points exceptionally well. My simple thoughts were that he argues a complex topic from 10,000 feet and draws broad conclusions, so I could see ways in which he was right (there are no Christian governments in the NT, only incipient structures) and other ways in which he was wrong (magnanimity and honour are not Christian virtues? Only obedience is?), but mostly, it made me consider that maybe that’s just how it was considered at the time. I wonder if Mill isn’t reacting to a strict Christian schooling which no doubt elevated obedience?

    Little by little, I’m also seeing how modern liberalism developed from Mill’s conceptions of liberty (as it did from Rousseau’s).

  2. I’m not sure that I caught your meaning here:

    At this point it occurred to me that Mill simply makes broad moral arguments from overlapping angles. He does not, for example, consider economics or countervailing liberties, such as asking for lower wages which increases employment and skill acquisition and causes employers to pay a price for irrational bigotry.

    • I meant that Mill treats society as if it were uniform and monolithic and so he doesn’t consider the economic complexities of free people interacting to form society. More generally, his arguments often include some fill-in-the-blanks. To elaborate on my prior example:

      For it is this – it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom.

      For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma.[Pg 58] It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment.

      Which opinions? Are they all equivalent? Which countries? Which punishments?

      Is Mill saying that freedom is more effective at banning particular opinions than judicial punishment? Or does he expect us to mentally cherry pick examples where it might seem that way on some diverse issues? If so, what is the significance of those cherries?

      Mill continues:

      In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.

      Yes, people may pay a price for their offensive speech (due to others refusing to associate with them), but that almost always results in negotiation of lower wages or prices or switching to different buyers or sellers or products or services, all of which are preferable to imprisonment.

      Mill erroneously treats society as uniformly as the law, and social exclusion as absolute as imprisonment, but the interaction of free people is more complex than that.

      Mill continues:

      Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favours from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought [Pg 59] of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear. There is no room for any appeal ad misericordiam in behalf of such persons.

      Who is Mill describing that is so independent of other people for their income that they can avow any opinions without fear of backlash? Presumably, only rich people who are depleting their estate rather than growing it, since otherwise they are dependent upon someone.

      Even the King or Queen, who may have been the most independently wealthy in Mill’s time (notably not from the free market), are perhaps also the most socially scrutinized and judged.

      Whose speech is more controlled by “society”, Joe Schmo or Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy?

      Wealth certainly provides a buffer, but filling in Mill’s broad blanks with actual examples seems to properly complicate and dilute his ostensively simple points.

      • OK, I understand what you are saying better now, and your point about Dan Cathy was very good. People in the public eye are more scrutinized. I imagine that this was the same as in Mill’s day.

        I wonder if Mill’s description of society might have more accurate in his day because it was a more cultural cohesive society. Cultural cohesion can easily be overstated, of course, but there may be something to it. Our society’s religious and sexual mores are more contested and there are more people with access to more opinions than in mid-19th century England. I’m thinking that braving public condemnation was harder in some ways at that time, although again, one could ask Chick fil-A about what happens when you violate certain orthodoxies today.

      • That’s a fair point that cultural cohesion was greater back then (well, at least within sub-cultures, since what’s acceptable for the vulgar or common man may be different from high society), but if culture were so effective, laws wouldn’t be necessary to fill in the gaps.

        Mill sees social stigma as the ultimate evil which gives rise to discriminatory laws, but those laws are actually evidence of the inconsistency and breakdown of social stigma. It reminded me of economic arguments made by people like Walter E. Williams who shows that being able to pay lower wages often outweighs social stigma, which in turn reveals the discriminatory nature of the minimum wage.

      • I think that you’re mostly right about the laws patching the holes in cultural cohesion, although can’t laws express cultural cohesion to some degree? American colonists set down laws influenced to a great degree by their European past, not needing a descent into chaos before outlawing murder and theft. Cultural cohesion can never be 100% effective.

        Walter Williams made a provocative point, although I think that telling someone who is discriminated against to work for less money is not as comforting as he thinks it is. It may create a discrimination cost for the employer, but it does for the employee too as he/she works for less. I realize that the alternative may not be working, but Williams seems to ignore the non-monetary side of work and reward.

      • “Cultural cohesion can never be 100% effective.” I think you and I agree, but in the section I quoted, Mill seemed to be arguing that culture is more effective than law at banning opinions. The only case in which Mill is right is when law is not enforced (which is itself a problem), but he doesn’t mention that caveat and instead leaves us with an erroneous impression.

        In other words, I think Mill is implicitly comparing a law which is not often enforced, against a social stigma which is maximally enforced. It reminds me of Mill saying that despotism is not so bad, depending on the despot, and whether he permits Individuality, etc. Well, fine, but is that really representative of despotism?

        Working for less is never more comforting than working for more, but having the freedom to offer to work for less is comforting when the alternative is not working at all.

        By “non-monetary side of work and reward” are you only referring to unjust discrimination or do you have other factors in mind?

        Even with our current laws and social stigmas aligned against certain discriminations, Williams’ notes that less skills warrant a lower wage, and if that lower wage is outlawed, then their employment will decline along with its associated skill development.

        Unjust discrimination is also hard to isolate objectively, which leads people to look at the statistics and reason backwards to conclude that the differences must be due to subtle individual racism or systemic racism, rather than cultural, personal, or skill incompatibilities.

        And to the extent that it may be a skill issue, their answer is to increasingly shift the burden of education off of the willing employers (for jobs they actually want done) and onto the public, in order to teach skills that may or may not be in demand in the future, leading to over-skilled workers for menial jobs, amongst other mismatches.

        Their ultimate answer to the minimum wage must be to compel universal employment, which may have some benefits, but isn’t it remarkable how well the free market inherently balances our concerns over time, while forceful intercession at one point can spiral into requiring more and more points of control, ultimately commandeering the entire system in order to fix the side-effects?

      • By the non-monetary side of work and reward, I meant the feeling of dignity that goes with work and reward. I wonder about the psychological cost of working for less just because of discrimination.

        But that may be more of an abstract concern. I think that the rest of your post is a really solid analysis of the real world, particularly “Unjust discrimination is also hard to isolate objectively, which leads people to look at the statistics and reason backwards to conclude that the differences must be due to subtle individual racism or systemic racism, rather than cultural, personal, or skill incompatibilities.” The only thing that I would point out is that the cultural incompatibilities can sometimes be traced to systemic discrimination, which has a pretty nasty half-life in a society. But we still have to remain clear-eyed on making policies, I think that you and the Williams post that you linked did that.

        You’re also very right about shifting the cost of education from businesses to the public. It’s really remarkable how that works when you think about it. At some point, I believe some businesses will decide that they can do it better themselves, and I think that would be a good thing.

      • I see, thanks for explaining. It’s fine to consider the psychological costs, but there’s a psychological cost to any rejection or perceived devaluation. In fact, the psychological effects are identical to when you believe you are being unjustly discriminated against and you are actually wrong. Maybe that’s what you meant by it being too abstract or subjective.

        The only thing that I would point out is that the cultural incompatibilities can sometimes be traced to systemic discrimination, which has a pretty nasty half-life in a society. But we still have to remain clear-eyed on making policies, I think that you and the Williams post that you linked did that.

        Thanks and I agree with your point. What’s interesting is that policies that prohibit discrimination discourages cultural compatibility, while the free market naturally encourages it, all without having to adjudicate discrimination on an individual basis.

  3. I think that you make a good point that he was probably reacting to the Christianity of his day, or perhaps personal experience. I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if Christianity had been sentimentalized by a lot of people in this time, perhaps as a religion for middle class women. Also, I wonder if the shrunk-down Christianity that he portrays here is a result of his Enlightenment training, where biblical history might be portrayed something like this: the barbarous Jews wrote the Old Testament, filled with immorality and ridiculous miracles, and then Jesus came along with some very wise teachings, got turned into the Son of God by the church, and here we are today.

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