PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday April 14, 2003

[3.2] Mill's Argument for Freedoms of Thought and Speech.


Mill argues that it is morally impermissible for the majority to silence a minority, either by social constraints or legislation. He gives the following independent premises in support of this claim:


  1. "If the [minority] opinion is right, [humanity is] deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth" (ch.II ∂1 p.935; see also ch.II ∂41 p.953)
  2. If the minority opinion is wrong, humanity loses "the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error." (ch.II ∂1 p.935; see also ch.II ∂43 p.953)
  3. If the minority and majority opinions "share the truth between them,"† the minority opinion is needed to supply "the remainder of the truth." (ch.II ∂34, p.950; see also ch.II ∂42 p.953)
  4. In the absence of challenges to a given claim (i.e. in the absence of a free debate), the very meaning of a claim tends to weaken. People continue to give lip service to the claim without really taking it to heart (e.g. Christians who claim to be guided by the ethical principles of the New Testament but actually behave as if they don't really believe those principles). (ch.II ∂26 p.946; see also ch.II ∂43 p.953)
  5. If individuals are not allowed to follow their "intellect[s] to whatever conclusions [they] may lead", then people (both potentially great thinkers and potentially average thinkers) will be prevented from attaining the mental development of which they are capable. (ch.II ∂19 p.943)


Ultimately, this is a utilitarian argument -- Mill is not arguing that we have any sort of natural right to say and think what we want; rather, he seems to be arguing that humanity will ultimately be happier (in his broad sense of "happiness") if absolute freedom of thought and speech is respected.


[3.2.1.] On Premise One.


Mill's fallibilism. Underlying premise one is the idea that any specific belief anyone has about anything could potentially be false; this is the doctrine of fallibilism (Mill: "We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion." ch.II ∂2 p.935)


There is no group, not even a near majority of society, whose powers of sorting truth from falsehood are so perfect as to render them infallible (incapable of making a mistake). In other words, no group has access to certainty. Fully to understand this point, we need to recognize the following distinction between two meanings of the word "certainty":

         psychological certainty: a feeling an individual has that his or her belief cannot possibly be wrong -- "I'm certain that God exists! that these are the winning lottery numbers! etc."

         epistemic certainty: actually having a belief that cannot possibly be false, i.e. that is immune to error


When Mill says: "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" (ch.II ∂3 p.935) -- he means that those who would deny others the freedoms of thought and expression are assuming that psychological certainty guarantees epistemic certainty -- and of course, that's false. It's possible to feel certain that you're belief is true, when in fact it's false.


[3.2.2.] On Premise Five.† Mill's full statement of his fifth premise goes as follows:


The greatest harm done [by persecution of opinions] is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped and their reason cowed by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Ö No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Ö Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere an intellectually active people. (ch.II ∂20 p.943, emphases added)


Mill notes three periods in the recent history of Europe in which "an old mental despotism had been thrown off, and no new one had yet taken its place," and claims that "Every single improvement which has taken place either in the human mind or in institutions may be traced distinctly to one or other of them." (ch.II ∂20 p.944, emphasis added)


So Mill's fifth premise is this: If genuine inquiry is prevented, then people (both potentially great thinkers and potentially average thinkers) will be prevented from attaining the mental development of which they are capable.


"Genuine inquiry" is a technical term not used by Mill; it was coined by Charles Peirce as part of the following set of distinctions (Susan Haack contributed the concept of fake reasoning to those originally articulated by Peirce):


genuine inquiry vs. pseudo-inquiry: distinguished by motive.

         genuine inquiry is motivated by the desire to find the truth, no matter what that truth happens to be. [This desire is what Peirce called "the scientific attitude"]

         pseudo-inquiry ("pseudo" = false) is motivated by the desire to make a case for a claim that has already been determined in advance; there are two kinds:

         sham reasoning: making a case for a claim your commitment to which is immune to evidence or argument

         fake reasoning: making a case for a claim because you think doing so will be to your advantage; you donít really care whether the claim is true or false.


So in summary, Mill's fifth premise (using technical terminology borrowed from Peirce) is: people in general will be happier (in Mill's broad sense of "happiness") if everyone is allowed (by both the law and social constraints) to engage in genuine inquiry, i.e. to follow the evidence and their reasoning wherever they lead, even if they lead to unpopular conclusions.


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