Mill – On Liberty – Chapter 2b

In the previous reading Mill argued that freedom of thought and expression is good for us because many of the things we hold to be true are not true. In this reading he continues in this line of reasoning, arguing that even when the opinion we hold is true, the truth is sharpened by debate with our opponents. Secondly, he argues that when what we hold to be true is only partially true and partially false. Reasoned discourse is the best tool we have to identify what beliefs we hold are false, and what part of our opponents beliefs are true.

When we hold true beliefs without the sharpening of the truth through reasoned discourse the truth becomes dead dogma. Mill says this is what has happened within Christianity. The early church understood exactly why they were believers, but today their beliefs are inherited without challenge. Christians today do not live out their beliefs to their fullest. Today’s Christians live their lives as a combination of ethical maxims pulled from the Bible, used when convenient, relying on everyday practical judgments the rest of the time. They accept on authority from the Christian community to what extent they should follow Christ, and how much to follow local customs.

In order to avoid your belief from becoming a dead dogma one should be able to articulate one’s opponents arguments better than one’s opponent can. One should listen to the arguments of one’s opponents from the mouth of one’s opponents. One is not learning as much as one can if one does not treat one’s opponent as charitable as possible.

We have something to learn from almost every debate, especially since usually no one is entirely right. Usually both sides have a part of the truth. This is typically the case of the party system, where there is usually a party of stability, and a party of progress. The truth is somewhere in between.

Christian morality has much that it can learn from other moralities. It was never intended to be a comprehensive morality. In the New Testament it was presupposed that it was a modification of, and dependent upon, the Old Testament morality, which was derived from an ancient, barbaric society. It also depended upon Greek and Roman practices. Modern Christian morality has also incorporated the rejection of paganism of the early Catholic Church, which valued asceticism, innocence, and abstinence, rather than nobility and energetic pursuit of the good. According to Mill, any values of magnanimity, high mindedness, personal dignity, or a sense of honor comes from the Greeks and Romans. Mill goes out of his way to repeat that what he is calling Christian morality is not the same morality of the early church. These examples show that Christians can and is better when it learns from other religions and cultures.

Mill supplies the example of Rousseau of how having mostly wrong thinkers around helps everyone else find out the ways in which they are wrong. Rousseau was a thinker who offered many criticisms of the optimism of the Enlightenment. Rousseau brought an explosion, including the French Revolution. After Rousseau many people’s beliefs were adjusted.

Mill does recognize that there is no way to enforce freedom of thought and expression, especially by the law. Even in the best cases people will get offended by their opponents so all laws and enforcement would be considered unjust. The best we can do is encourage each other and remind ourselves about the values of freedom of expression and freedom of thought.


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