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Philosophical considerations on the practice of dissent


To: Corinne M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical considerations on the practice of dissent
Date: 27th January 2010 13:59

Dear Corinne,

Thank you for your email of 18 January, with the revised version of the first in the series of your projected four essays, 'A Philosophical Consideration of the Practice of Dissent' for the Associate Award.

First, I want to say that I am beginning to see the point about talk of 'opposition' in contrast to 'debate', and also the significance of the idea of 'meaning attribution' and the contrasting perspectives from which one evaluates a given position, depending on the meaning that one attributes to it.

I'm not absolutely certain, but I think I was the one who first mentioned Mill's 'harm principle'. A reader might get the impression from what you write that Mill's harm principle applies to the 'liberty of thought and discussion'. This is emphatically not the case.

Mill states clearly that 'no-one expects actions to be as free as opinions' (or words to that effect). Mill does not regard potential for harm as a legitimate ground for silencing the expression of opinions, except in the case where the intention is clearly to, e.g., incite a riot. He argues this point on the basis of the dilemma: either that the dissenting opinion is true and therefore we have something to learn, or that the dissenting opinion is false, in which case we will have strengthened our reasons for the beliefs that we hold by subjecting them to the fiery cauldron of debate.

What is very clear is that present day democratic societies fall far short of Mill's vision of free discussion and debate. Is this a defect, or do we see something that Mill missed?

And what then of your assertion that, 'Mill's aim never extended to the more ambitious goal of maximization of society's enjoyment of the benefits of dissent'?

The harm analysis in respect of actions, is well illustrated by Mill's relationship with Harriet Taylor. (There are various accounts of the influence of Harriet on Mill's philosophy. According to one, it was Harriet who impressed on Mill the importance of liberty, as a condition for the possibility of full human flourishing.) Mill would say, that the benefits of dissent arise from the clash of opinions leading to the best (i.e. most strongly, rationally supported) belief, and hence the belief which has the best chance of being true.

What this ignores, arguably, is that the 'opinions' do not necessarily have the same meaning to the different parties. Mill's model assumes that meaning is the same for everyone, and the only point at issue is truth. The most glaring example of this is where Mill says, or implies, that the belief in God ought to be thoroughly debated so that the best argument wins.

Let's start by asking: what has Mill missed? One glaring omission from Mill's model of free political debate is that the different parties have competing interests. In the real world, people do not engage in debate with the aim of 'attaining the truth' in some objective sense. There are class interests, economic interests, religious interests at stake.

Of course, there are cases where both sides are very clear about 'meaning'. A powerful trade union is in dispute with a company and calls a strike. The company responds by attempting to use the law to restrict the union's activities. Or they call in 'blackleg' labour to break the strike, leading to battles at the picket lines. The workers know exactly what the bosses want, and the bosses know exactly what the workers want. This is not a debate, it is a contest, war.

On the other hand, there are cases where the two sides simply do not 'see' one another and their interests as each side sees themselves. This is where the question of 'meaning attribution' comes to the fore.

You've said more about Whitehead and 'symbolic perception', but I find it rather obscure. Maybe this will become clearer in subsequent essays.

I'm still not persuaded that equality or inequality is always the essential feature, but perhaps I have the wrong picture of equality. Two forces can be equally balanced, even though the forces themselves are 'unequal'. Consider a magnet pulling a piece of iron which is attached to a steel spring. At some point the system reaches an equilibrium where the force of magnetism is balanced by (equal to) the force exerted by the spring. But the forces themselves are different, i.e. 'unequal'.

By contrast with Mill's view of free debate, in the real world there is a complex and sometimes hard to decipher interaction between argument and power struggle. Words are used as weapons (propaganda) as well as tools of rational persuasion. The parties involved do not see their clash as a disinterested observer would see it (supposing the idea of a disinterested observer even makes sense). I think that all this (and more) is comprehended by your notion of 'oppositional activity'.

All the best,