Friday, 24 April 2009

John Stuart Mill's Debating Ethics

In light of Smeargate and the recent discussion on the centre left about progressive blogging values, an examination of what John Stuart Mill has to say about the ethics of debate is timely. 'Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion' in On Liberty strikes the reader with Mill's zealous advocacy for unimpeded argument. He even went so far as to state the interference of the government or 'the majority' in the development of public discussion is simultaneously an attack on the wider interests of our species. He says:
... the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that is is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error (1929, p.20).
For Mill there are two reasons why the suppression of democratic discussion takes place. The first is obvious: that the suppressed ideas are true and act against established interests. The second is the suppressors believe their position is absolute and unassailable - so why bother letting other arguments exist when they're superfluous? Whatever the motives of suppression are, the effects are the same: both prevent others from judging the veracity of that argument. But what about the prevention of argument on the basis that some ideas are dangerous and pernicious? This, for example, is a position many anti-fascists adopt in their no-platform strategy. Mill's response is:
Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right (p.23).
This might resemble an idealist argument but the formation, exchange and clash of ideas does not exist outside of material existence for Mill. Rather, argument is all about the interpretation of experience. And for Mill, this is the only road to fact. It logically follows collecting and engaging with other bodies of opinion is a rigorous means of correcting one's own, which has the effect of investing that position with confidence. Mill suggests that once all other arguments have been taken into account, one can justifiably place one's judgment above others. Taking my own position in the field of academic sociology, for example, because I have read and engaged with a broad range of literature across several topics I have enough legitimacy to believe the positions I hold are superior to those I disagree with. But to transpose this position onto other sociological topics without getting to know it thoroughly, this justification disappears. Plus arguing about them runs the risk of making myself look an ass.

What about opinions or ideas that are useful from the standpoint of the common good? Are they sacrosanct? For instance, on the left there remains a view that we shouldn't criticise x, y and z sacred cows because we would be giving succour to our enemies. Therefore things are often better left unsaid. Mill however would argue that the usefulness of silence is itself a matter of opinion and is open to contest as much as anything else. This is because to prove received opinion(s) wrong and make the new truth widely available is as important a thing as one can do. When an idea is persecuted and repressed it can take a long time for the truth to work its way out, reaking damage on those who suppressed it in the first place. Krushchev's revelations that the USSR under Stalin was never sweetness and light damaged the Communist Party in this country - who had a long record of pretending the opposite - and strengthened the liberal democratic tropes of anti-Soviet cold war rhetoric.

What of those who believe they possess absolute truth but refuse to even countenance debating them? For them Mill has this piece of advice:
However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth (p.42).
But there are those who refuse point blank to play this game. Truth for them is a matter of faith and therefore, from their point of view, no good can possibly come from it being questioned. Religious regimes and movements, for example, typically bring their influence to bear to protect their dogmas from rational scrutiny and discussion - the antics of Scientology are a case in point. Be that as it may, religious irrationalism and fundamentalism does not mean its critics should act in like manner. Regardless of the character of the position being critiqued, challengers have a responsibility to know the position they are critiquing. It means establishing a familiarity with the positions of people who sincerely believe them (and why they do so), and learn the most persuasive arguments they deploy to defend their position. Only this way can one become aware of all that can be said against one's own arguments. However, should we have complete and untrammeled freedom of opinion the light of reason would not banish the sectarian shadows cast by political and religious movements. Nor will it rid the world of people who accept everything they see at face value. But nevertheless as long as the liberty of thought and argument is preserved the hope all kinds of fundamentalism can be overcome remains.

In sum there are four basic points to Mill's arguments:

1) Suppressed opinions might be true. To say otherwise is to pretend infallibility.
2) Silenced opinion, even if it is mistaken, contains grains of truth whereas received opinion can never be the whole truth. By allowing the two to freely collide the truths of both are liberated.
3) Received opinion is only a truth if it is contested. In its absence it is merely prejudice.
4) In the absence of contestation an opinion loses its vitality and becomes a dry formality. Nor can it be renewed by conviction alone.

There are three main problems with Mill's arguments. The first is philosophical. His ethics of the argument sound fine as general principles, and of course I'm sure the left would be a nicer and more welcoming place if we all adhered to them. But they are completely divorced from material existence. Yes, Mill acknowledges that ideas derive from experience and the clash of ideas is really the argument over the interpretation of experience, but he completely fails to realise the extent to which ideas express collective experiences. While it is true working class Tories have always existed in their millions, left reformists and Marxist revolutionaries simply do not exist in the same proportion in ruling class circles (see here for more on this). Arguments therefore are more than squabbles about the truth between idiosyncratic individuals - it is a political struggle. Perhaps another example will suffice: the reason why the labour movement as a whole is opposed to fascism and can be found at the forefront of campaigns against the BNP and similar riff-raff is not because they present an ideological challenge. Rather it's that wherever fascists have come to power they have physically smashed up movements of working class people. Mill's ethics seem in step with how model students should behave in seminars than the messy reality of really existing politics.

The second problem is to do with the ethics themselves. There is a vagueness over what constitutes the suppression of an argument: is banning a group or an individual the same as the refusal to acknowledge and ignore a set of ideas? Because this blog does not solicit guest posts or comments from religious fundamentalists and would probably ignore such contributions, is the refusal to engage a breach of liberty? No. If Mill's ethics are to be consistent, the freedom of opinion must also allow for the freedom of abstention, provided this abstention is not a pretext for suppression. In the internet age where all manner of opinions wheel freely through cyberspace measures taken to exclude trolls or political and religious undesirables on blogs does nothing to suppress their ideas when ample opportunity to propagate their ideas by setting up their outlets exist.

The third problem is what is the exchange of ideas for? For example, as a leftist to me the Conservative party historically represents the political expression of capital. It is both opponent and enemy of my class. However is the liberty of thought and opinion being infringed because I am neither privy to its internal political discussions nor able to take part in them? Likewise is liberty offended because Tories are barred from my Socialist Party branch meetings? Of course not. Liberty of opinion is not the same as being forced to face violently opposing ideas at all times. Liberty of discussion includes the liberty of being able to engage with like-minded people free from intrusion of those who do not share the same basic positions.

Mill's ethics are limited (like much of his philosophy) by the level of abstraction his arguments operate on, which can serve to obscure more than they illuminate. But also, fully in-keeping with the spirit of Mill, his ethics are themselves a matter of opinion. To elevate them to the level of dogma like many on the right do (who are always the first to cry freedom of speech these days?) cuts against the thrust of Mill's position and justifies anything but rational critique and engagement.

Edit: A complete list of posts on On Liberty can be found here.


Phil BC said...

The previous pieces in this series on John Stuart Mill and On Liberty are:

A Short Note on Liberties, Liberalism and Socialismand

Liberty and Individual Sovereignty

Ken said...

There point where On Liberty touches on 'No Platform' is the bit where Mill says something to the effect that the opinion that landlords are parasites may be freely held and circulated, but not proclaimed to a hungry mob outside a landlord's mansion in a famine.

The 'no platform' position would therefore be compatible with Mill's if it could be argued that all fascist agitation amounts to incitement to violence against our class's constituencies in the present or near future, which is close enough to being the case.

Failing that, I tend to fall back on our obligation as citizens under the Potsdam Agreement.