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Mill's 'On Liberty' and the ethics of dialogue


To: Vasco K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Mill's 'On Liberty' and the ethics of dialogue
Date: 21 December 2004 12:35

Dear Vasco,

Thank you for your email of 10 December with your fifth and final essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What light does the ethics of dialogue shed on the problems that Mill was grappling with in his essay 'On Liberty'?'

I look forward to meeting you today. Hopefully, this email will be finished before you arrive!

When Mill says, 'We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid band men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious,' he is putting a very plausible case in favour of restrictions on the liberty of thought and discussion. Surely, we don't want people to be guided by false opinions. Therefore, we must do all we can to suppress expression of those opinions!

Mill's responds to this argument by considering two cases:

The first case is where it turns out that we were wrong in thinking that our opinion was true and the other opinion false. Consider the possibility that you may be the one who holds the false opinion. Surely, if there is the slightest possibility that we may be wrong we want to know about it. That is why open discussion of opinions contrary to our own is beneficial to us.

The second case, is where the other opinions are in fact, as we believe them to be, false. Mill argues that society as a whole gains and does not lose from the open and free debate. If the opinions are indeed false, then we shall gain a more secure grasp of the truth by learning how to refute them.

Mill's argument underlines his contention that we should have greater freedom of thought and discussion than our freedom of action. The only place where Mill is willing to put restrictions on freedom of speech is the case where someone is using speech to deliberately incite an angry mob to violence.

While I broadly applaud Mill's stand against paternalism and intolerance and in favour of freedom of thought and action, there are problems which have recently become very apparent in an increasingly multi-cultural society. That is why I feel that the ethics of dialogue presents a superior alternative to Mill's philosophy.

I take your point about ethics and politics. We must strive, in politics, 'for the achievable with the material in hand'. Or, as someone once remarked, 'Politics is the art of the possible.' Ethics comes in when we have a choice between alternatives, and where we have the power to bring about the two different outcomes. Perhaps this is over-simplistic, because there can be occasions where ethics tells us to take a road which is extremely risky and perilous. The revolution may succeed, in which case we will establish our ethical goals. But if it fails then things will be worse than before. On what possible basis can such a decision - such a risk - be assessed? Surely, if our action has little chance of success then it is irrelevant that we are morally 'in the right'. The probable result of our action will be worse, by our own moral standards. But how, in practice, can such a judgement be made?

Mill's concern is both political and ethical. Given that we have the means to bring about a society where liberty is restricted 'for the greater good' and also the means to bring about a society where liberty itself - human individuality in all its varieties - is seen as the greatest of all goods, which option should we choose?

You and I agree with Mill's choice of liberty over conformity. The problem is that, while rejecting what he terms the 'tyranny of the majority', Mill is still prepared to allow a situation - indeed, he actively encourages such a situation - where the 'strongest' opinion wins, hands down. Religious beliefs, political ideals, customs, traditions must all be cast into the fiery cauldron of public debate.

In reality, all that can survive such a process is Mill's own theory of the 'greatest happiness for the greatest number'.

The ethics of dialogue promotes a different kind of 'tolerance' than Mill's narrow 'tolerance of an opinion for the sake of argument'. Mill's argument for liberty makes no allowance for tact. To be tactful in a situation where values and cultures collide is to allow the other to be as they are, without trying to change them, through argument and debate, into something 'better'.

It requires political courage to pursue such a course, when we see examples which we perceive as intolerable cases of intolerance. Just yesterday in the news, a play by a Sikh woman which cast a critical eye on the Sikh community was banned by a city council because it caused 'offence' to Sikhs - who had been protesting loudly against the play being performed. One government minister argued that in a free society one should be allowed to 'offend' people, that this kind of 'offence' should not be covered by laws designed to prohibit racial and religious hatred.

What I liked about her argument was that she wasn't taking a stand on Mill's 'freedom of thought and opinion'. She wasn't arguing that maybe the Sikh community holds the wrong view and the author of the play holds the right view. Rather, her case was that causing offence to cherished values and received views is an integral part of free artistic expression. Yet it could be argued that in being prepared to tolerate such offence, the lady minister was assuming values that are not universally shared, telling Sikhs, Muslims and other groups who are 'too easily offended', 'You should be more like us!'

All the best,