Chapter 2

The Liberty Of Thought And Discussion

by John Stuart Mill Icon

The liberty of the press is one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government.

The law of England today on press freedom is as servile as it was in the time of the Tudors. But there is little danger of its being used against political discussion except during insurrection. The governments in constitutional countries do not often attempt to control public expression.

Let us suppose that the government is entirely at one with the people, but stifles the freedom of the press.

Such a power is illegitimate. A government that silences the opinion of one man silences the opinion of mankind.

The freedom of opinion might injure many. But the peculiar evil of silencing an opinion is like robbing the human race, both the present and future generations. If the opinion is right, the government is deprived of exchanging error for truth. If it is wrong, they lose the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

  1. The opinion which tries to suppress by authority might be true

Those suppress it will deny its truth. But those suppressors are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging.

Everyone knows himself to be fallible, but few think it necessary to guard against their own fallibility.

Absolute princes usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects.

To each person, “the world” is the part of it which he comes in contact with.

In his own world, each person is correct against the dissentient worlds of other people. This is even if:

  • these numerous worlds were decided by chance
  • the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in China

Ages are no more infallible than individuals. Every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd. For example, many general opinions of today will be rejected by future ages, just as we now reject the general opinions of the past.

People object to the infallability of modern general opinion by saying that everyone makes mistakes, but it doesn’t mean that we should not have any general opinion. It is therefore the duty of governments and individuals to form the truest opinions they can.

I answer that there is a huge 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. On no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are?

Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify.

Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct?

If there really is this preponderance—which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state—it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone.

There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument= but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. 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[Pg 38] 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 cognisant 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.


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