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Judges without hearing the other side July 14, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Reason.
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Freedom of expression (which some people who should know better seem to be confused about) is the subject of the second chapter of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill presents several different arguments against stifling the expression of opinion; the first being that

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…

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.

A possible objection to this argument might acknowledge human fallibility, but claim that since we have no choice but to let our best judgement guide our actions, in some cases we may legitimately deem it necessary to “forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.” Mill rejects this equivalence, however:

There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

Mill points out that all human accomplishment and progress can only be attributed to our ability to correct our mistakes — such that “wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument.” But in order for this process to work, we must always encourage discussion, on all subjects:

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.

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.

People should be eccentric June 17, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Evolution, Freedom.
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John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was published in 1859, the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, and there are parallels to be found between Mill’s vision of human individuality (and its role in society) and the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin taught us that there is no inherent purpose in nature, no predetermined goal that life is aimed towards; and Mill rebels against the notion that all people ought to be pursuing a single, predetermined ideal:

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.

Mill considers conformity the chief danger which threatens human nature:

In our times… the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow…

According to some religious worldviews, Mill notes, this is actually the desirable condition: “man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them.” But Mill argues that the betterment of humanity is achieved when every individual pursues his own goals in his own way:

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them.

Natural selection produces designs of amazing skill and beauty by the accumulation of many small improvements; but every mutation first appears in a single organism. If the mutation is beneficial, it will survive and proliferate. The same is true of human innovation: it always starts with some individual, who does something different from those who came before. Most new ideas may be failures, but unless we encourage people to try new things, the good ideas will never be found. Just like natural selection, healthy societies require diversity and heterogeneity — the lack of which leads to stagnation:

There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life… without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.

Pluralism is a necessary condition for the emergence of positive change, and that’s why it’s so important to preserve the freedom of individual thought and action, and even to encourage idiosyncrasy — despite the fact that most people’s idiosyncrasies might seem to have no value:

In this age the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric… the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

The education of John Stuart Mill January 12, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
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John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806. In his autobiography, Mill describes his rigorous home-schooling by his father, who began teaching him Greek when he was three years old. By the time he was eight he had already read the first six dialogues of Plato (among many other classics), and began learning Latin. His father deliberately shielded him from association with other children his age — apart from his younger siblings, whom he was responsible for tutoring. By the age of fourteen he had a broad knowledge of history, mathematics, logic, poetry, and more — but his severe upbringing would take an emotional toll later in life: Mill suffered a nervous breakdown when he was twenty. Looking back later, while critical of certain aspects of his father’s methods, Mill saw much value in them as well:

There was one cardinal point in this training … which, more than anything else, was the cause of whatever good it effected. Most boys or youths who have had much knowledge drilled into them, have their mental capacities not strengthened, but over-laid by it. They are crammed with mere facts, and with the opinions or phrases of other people, and these are accepted as a substitute for the power to form opinions of their own: and thus the sons of eminent fathers, who have spared no pains in their education, so often grow up mere parroters of what they have learnt, incapable of using their minds except in the furrows traced for them. Mine, however, was not an education of cram. My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory. He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step of the teaching, but, if possible, precede it. Anything which could be found out by thinking I never was told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself. As far as I can trust my remembrance, I acquitted myself very lamely in this department; my recollection of such matters is almost wholly of failures, hardly ever of success. It is true the failures were often in things in which success in so early a stage of my progress, was almost impossible.


A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.

Despite Mill’s precociousness, his father never allowed him to become arrogant:

in my fourteenth year, on the eve of leaving my father’s house for a long absence, he told me that I should find, as I got acquainted with new people, that I had been taught many things which youths of my age did not commonly know; and that many persons would be disposed to talk to me of this, and to compliment me upon it. What other things he said on this topic I remember very imperfectly; but he wound up by saying, that whatever I knew more than others, could not be ascribed to any merit in me, but to the very unusual advantage which had fallen to my lot, of having a father who was able to teach me, and willing to give the necessary trouble and time; that it was no matter of praise to me, if I knew more than those who had not had a similar advantage, but the deepest disgrace to me if I did not.

Mill was raised in a secular household — his father rejected religion for moral reasons: “He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.” Furthermore,

he regarded [religion] with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies, — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind, — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful.

Still, Mill’s father thought it imprudent to make his disbelief public. Mill himself disagreed:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come, when it is the duty of all who being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, to make their dissent known; at least, if they are among those whose station or reputation, gives their opinion a chance of being attended to. Such an avowal would put an end, at once and for ever, to the vulgar prejudice, that what is called, very improperly, unbelief, is connected with any bad qualities either of mind or heart. The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments — of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue — are complete sceptics in religion; many of them refraining from avowal, less from personal considerations, than from a conscientious, though now in my opinion a most mistaken apprehension, lest by speaking out what would tend to weaken existing beliefs, and by consequence (as they suppose) existing restraints, they should do harm instead of good.

At the end of the day, while there is no doubt about his father’s critical contribution to Mill’s accomplishments, Mill did fault him for a lack of tenderness — preventing them from being as close as they could have been. Nonetheless, Mill thought that some measure of severity is necessary for a good education:

I do not believe that boys can be induced to apply themselves with vigour, and what is so much more difficult, perseverance, to dry and irksome studies, by the sole force of persuasion and soft words. Much must be done, and much must be learnt, by children, for which rigid discipline, and known liability to punishment, are indispensable as means. It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the young are required to learn, easy and interesting to them. But when this principle is pushed to the length of not requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed. I rejoice in the decline of the old brutal and tyrannical system of teaching, which, however, did succeed in enforcing habits of application; but the new, as it seems to me, is training up a race of men who will be incapable of doing anything which is disagreeable to them. I do not, then, believe that fear, as an element in education, can be dispensed with; but I am sure that it ought not to be the main element; and when it predominates so much as to preclude love and confidence on the part of the child to those who should be the unreservedly trusted advisers of after years, and perhaps to seal up the fountains of frank and spontaneous communicativeness in the child’s nature, it is an evil for which a large abatement must be made from the benefits, moral and intellectual, which may flow from any other part of the education.

He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.

The only freedom which deserves the name December 29, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom, Politics.

In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill exposes an “all but universal illusion” caused by “the magical influence of custom:” even though societal norms and rules of conduct vary wildly between different ages and countries, the people of any given time and place always believe their own norms and rules to be self-evident and self-justifying. The root of the problem is people mistaking their strong feelings for good reasons:

The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary. The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person’s mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people’s liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that.

This way of thinking invariably leads to a “tyranny of the majority,” even under democratic government. How should this be avoided?

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Though many people today would (hopefully) agree with the above in principle, in practice it remains easy to fall into the trap of attempting to force others into doing what you think is good for them, or to prevent them from doing what you think is bad for them. One good example is marijuana use; another is pornography. In an interview with author and pornographic actress Nina Hartley, she is asked how she responds to feminists who criticize pornography as “an industry that subjects women to men’s desires.” Hartley says:

In essence… feminism means that I have choice in my life — autonomy. It’s hard to imagine now, but fifty years ago a woman couldn’t get birth control if she was single, and even married women needed their husband’s permission to get it. Back-alley abortions killed or maimed thousands of women each year. It was nearly impossible to bring abuse charges against a husband or wife. Younger people don’t realize how bad it was, or how recent. Feminists of the 1960s and ’70s really busted the door wide open and we’re still sorting it all out. We take for granted now that spousal abuse is a crime but it wasn’t like that then. Women also fought hard for the right to be sexual on our own terms (having sex before marriage, not becoming mothers if we didn’t want to), and really made a lot of headway in raising consciousness surrounding rape, which is now taken seriously. A woman’s sexual history can no longer be used against her in court when she faces her attacker.

In a nutshell: my body, my rules. Other women don’t get to tell me what’s “right” for me, just as no imam, rabbi, priest or minister gets to tell me what to do with my body. You don’t know better than I do what I need, so don’t presume to.

But surely, no woman would ever choose to be a pornographic actress of her own free will! Surely?

Whether or not we agree with or approve of them, the choices made by young women are theirs. If we’re to grant autonomy to people over the age of eighteen, then that means accepting their choices as valid, even if we’d never do such a thing. This includes being able to join the army and get shot or maimed, or become a miner or construction worker. Those are deadly jobs (no one has died from making porn in the thirty-seven years it’s been legal) and no one thinks to tell a young adult, “Don’t do that job, it’s dangerous.” Or if we do tell them, we accept that, being young people, they may disregard our advice.  If we accept that a young woman can consent to have an abortion or become a parent, then it stands to reason that we must accept that she can consent to make pornography. . . .

The widespread notion that legal porn production is a sink hole of abuse and coercion that takes advantage of poor, innocent women, is the biggest smack leveled against the business. It’s almost entirely a function or projection of people’s fears and discomfort about women, gender relations, sex, sexuality and the graphic depiction of sexual acts. The idea that a woman could choose, on purpose, to perform in pornographic videos for her own reasons still goes deeply against the notion that women are somehow victims of male sexuality, that they’re delicate flowers who need the protection of a good man, or the law.

The only protection that the law needs to provide us is protection from others — not from ourselves. Mill famously put it this way:

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.