An extract from On Liberty

Here are two highlights, gleaned from fonss' FACTnet pages, of John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty (taken from the second chapter, on freedom of thought and discussion) revolving around the pursuit of truth. I think it's very well put. The first is from the introductory discussion of the chapter, On the liberty of thought and discussion (page 21 of my Oxford World Classic edition of 1998):

… the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it 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.

There follows a long exploration of various points which Mill summarises (on page 59 of my OWC 1998 edition) as follows:

We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now briefly recapitulate.

if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and, since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
And not only this, but fourthly,
the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but encumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

The chapter ends with a critique of even demanding that unorthodox opinion be expressed politely, with particular attention to the double standard which allows advocates of the orthodox opinion all the impoliteness and misrepresentation that proponents of an unorthodox opinion are censured for using.

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