Toleration Extremism: Notes on John Stuart Mill

Toleration is the touchstone of classical liberalism, but Mill takes it too far.

In the wake of the murderous rampage by Muslim terrorists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015, many have embraced a form of extremism according to which any and all (public) expression must be tolerated.  This entry questions this extremism as we find it in John Stuart Mill.

Here are two passages from Chapter Two of John Stuart Mill's magnificent On Liberty (emphases added):

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. [. . .]  We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

[. . .]

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.

Evaluation of the First Passage

As sympathetic as I am to Mill, I am puzzled (and you ought to be too) by the last sentence of the first quoted passage.  It consists of two claims. The first is that  " We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion . . . ."   This is plainly false!  The opinion of some Holocaust deniers that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz is an opinion we can be sure is false.  We are as sure of this as we are sure of any empirical fact about the past.  Or suppose some fool denies that John F. Kennedy died by assassination or maintains that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 U. S. presidential election.  Those are  fools' opinions we  know to be wrong. There is no lack of examples.   What was Mill thinking?  "We can never be sure," he writes.  A modal auxiliary married to a negative universal quantifier!  To refute a 'can never' statement all you need is one merely possible counterexample.  I have given three actual counterexamples.  Pace Mill, we can be sure in some cases that certain opinions are wrong.

Mill's second claim is that even if we are sure that an opinion we are trying to stifle is false, stifling it would nevertheless be an evil.  Mill is here maintaining something so embarrassingly extreme that it borders on the preposterous.  Consider again an actual or possible Holocaust denier who makes some outrageously false assertion that we know (if we know anything about the past) to be false.  Suppose this individual has the means to spread his lies far and wide and suppose that his doing so is likely to incite a horde of radical Islamists to engage in an Islamist equivalent of Kristallnacht.  Would it be evil to 'stifle' the individual in question?  By no means.  Indeed it could be reasonably argued that it is morally imperative that such an individual not be permitted to broadcast his lies.

How could anyone fail to see this?  Perhaps because he harbors the notion that free expression is unconditionally worthwhile, worthwhile regardless of the content of what is being expressed, whether true or false, meaningful or meaningless, harmful or innocuous, and regardless of the context in which the opinions are expressed. Now I grant that freedom of expression, of discussion, of inquiry and the like are very high values.  That ought to go without saying.  I have utter contempt for Islamists and other totalitarians.  I'm an Enlightenment man after all, a student of Kant, an American, and a philosopher.  Argument and dialectic are the lifeblood of philosophy.  Philosophy is free and open inquiry.  But why do we value the freedom to speak, discuss, publish, and inquire? That is a question that must be  asked and answered.

I say that we value them and ought to value them mainly because we value truth and because the freedom to speak, publish, discuss, and inquire are means conducive to the acquisition of truth and the rooting out of falsehood.   We ought to accord them a high value,  a value that trumps other values, only on condition that they, on balance, lead us to truth and away from falsehood.  We value them, and ought to value them, mainly as means, not as ends in themselves.  This is consistent with holding that some public expression that is not truth-conducive has a value in itself.

So the Holocaust denier, who abuses the right to free speech to spread what we all know (if we know anything about the past) to be falsehoods, has no claim on our toleration.  For again, there is no unconditional or absolute right to free expression.  That right is limited by competing values, the value of truth being one of them.  The value of social order is another. 

Two arguments, then.

The first is that free expression, while it may have some value in itself, has a high value only as  a means to an end, where the end is the acquisition and dissemination of truth.  The second is that the value of social order far outweighs the extremely limited value of someone's spouting falsehoods about, say, the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. Those who abuse the right to free speech by spreading pernicious falsehoods have no claim on our toleration.

As I see it,  then, Mill makes two mistakes in his first passage.  He fails to see that some opinions are known to be false.  Now there may not be many such opinions, but all I need is one to refute him since he makes a universal claim.  I will of course agree with Mill that many of the doctrines that people denounce as false, and will not examine, are not known to be false.  The second mistake is to think that even if we know an opinion to be false we have no right to suppress its propagation. 

Now of course I am not claiming that all, or even most, known falsehoods are such that their propagation ought to be suppressed.  Let the Flat Earth Society propagate its falsehoods to its heart's content.  For few take them seriously, and their falsehoods, though known to be falsehoods,  are not sufficiently pernicious to warrant suppression.  Obviously, government censorship or suppression of the expression of opinions must be employed only in very serious cases.  This is because government, though it is practically necessary and does do some good, does much evil and has a tremendous capacity for unspeakable evils.  It was communist governments that murdered 100 million in the 20th century.  And when the Nazis stripped Jews of their property and sent them to the Vernichtungslager, it was legal.  (Think about that and about whether you want to persist in conflating  the legal and the moral.)

Mill's mistake, as it seems to me, is that he allows NO cases where such suppression would be justified.  And that is a position whose extremism condemns it.  Toleration extremism, to give it a name.

Evaluation of the Second Passage

Mill only digs his hole deeper in the second passage.  "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."  Surely the bolded principle is a bizarre one.  Consider respect for human life.  Respecting human life, we uphold a general prohibition against homicide.  But it is not plausibly maintained there are no exceptions to this 'general'  prohibition where the term does not mean 'exceptionless' but means 'holding in most cases.'  There are at least five classes of putative exceptions: killing in self-defense, killing in just war, capital punishment,  abortion, and suicide.   Now suppose someone were to apply Mill's principle (the one I bolded) and argues as follows: "Unless the reasons against killing humans are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case."  Would you not put such a person down as a doctrinaire fool?   He holds that if it is wrong to kill human beings 'in general,' then it is wrong to kill any human being in any circumstance whatsoever.  It would then follow that it is wrong to kill a home invader who has just murdered your wife and is about to do the same to you and your children.    The mistake here is to take an otherwise excellent principle or precept (Do not kill human beings) and remove all restrictions on its application.

There are plenty of counterexamples to Mill's bizarre principle that "unless reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case."

We conservatives are lovers of liberty  and we share common ground with our libertarian brethren, but here we must part company with them.