This is part two of our five-part series on John Stuart Mill's essay in political philosophy, _On Liberty_. Just to remind anyone who hasn't followed all of the previous comments, the text is in the public domain and freely available on online; regularly assigned in survey courses, it is also easy to find used copies. Let me add that Mill has a highly discursive and wonderfully readable style. The essay is a pleasure to read, and anyone with an interest in political philosophy should be at least acquainted with the arguments presented therein.
I should also mention, because I don't know how this post will be formated, that it is PJ writing, not the blog owner, Eric. We're alternating summary pieces on Mill's essay. That he would so graciously invite me -- an atheist with communitarian sympathies -- to contribute to his Catholic-libertarian themed blog suggests that we're already in substantial agreement about the subject matter of this chapter of Mill's little treatise: the liberty of thought and discussion. Millsian plaudits to you, Eric!
So, to begin: The second chapter of _On Liberty_ is essentially a defense of free speech in the form of an argument for the advantages of "a free marketplace of ideas."
Human beings, Mill observes, are lulled into taking for granted the truth of a great body of opinion handed down to them and reenforced by socialization in its many, diverse forms. Much of what appears to us as unquestionably self-evident is, in fact, the result of peculiar historical contingencies, and appears quite strange and false to others outside of our cultural purview. Yet Mill has no especial interest in epistemology per se. He immediately proceeds to acknowledge that we should not -- indeed, cannot -- cease all activity, merely out of concern to avoid unfounded knowledge-claims: "If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed."
What Mill is concerned to establish are the advantages of the public scrutiny of opinions: "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." (Mill is eminently quotable, so decisive and succinct; I'll restrain myself as best I can.) There is no special mark of truth, shining forth with an irrefutable radience; yet, Mill is optimistic that open debate does more to expose the truth than conceal it. So long as we are forced to defend our beliefs with reasons, we cannot substitute our inner certainty -- the shear obviousness that so many of our beliefs have for us -- in place of actual evidence in favor of their objective (or intersubjective) validity.
As a separate, but related point, Mill goes on to add that most opinions are neither entirely true nor entirely false, and that partial truths are corrected equally well by public debate.
Another, more interesting (and perhaps contentious) set of claims, concern the *intrinsic* value of public debate. Whereas the opening claims attempt to establish public debate as the most effective *means* of arriving at the truth, Mill now turns to argue that this same debate actually contributes to the *value* of said truth. By being reminded always of competing opinions, and thus having to continually expound on the practical and epistemological merits of our own position, we maintain a more "lively apprehension" of the truth than we would otherwise be able. In fact, there is a sense in which we *do not know* the full truth of our doctrines unless we *understand why* they, rather than some alternatives, are true. Furthermore, and relatedly, to allow a truth to quietly sediment into the body of received opinion is to deprive the doctrine of "its vital effect on character and conduct"; we can no longer delight in the truth of that which we thoughtlessly take for granted.
In the interest of getting this posted more expeditiously than is my usual wont, I'll refrain from further commentary for the time being and just leave it at the summary.
I look forward to everyone's comments --