John Stuart Mill - On Liberalism
I have definitely been procrastinating writing this one, but the time has come. I think that I have been procrastinating because this one is very foundational; it is like a writer that has a hard time writing the pinnacle work of her life because it is just so damn hard to do.
So I have been sitting here for an hour; this is what I’ve come up with, Liberalism embraces evolution as a method of cultural interaction. Mill published On Liberalism in 1859; the same year Darwin published The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man. Wow, that was quite a year, modern science is based on Darwin and modern politics is based on Mill (in Canada at least).
1. Importance of Diversity
I think that Mill advocated for an intellectual environment that didn’t suppress diversity: “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This is a powerful statement supporting diversity in dissenting ideas. He saw the value of diversity of opinion as: “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” and in that way the limiting of freedom of expression is not robbing the individual but “it is robbing the human race.”
But What’s the Point?
Near the end of On Liberalism Mill talks about the saying that truth will overcome persecution; his assertion is that this is not true, but goes on to show that it is: “The real advantage truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such advance as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.” At this point however, if I am going to continue the comparison of liberalism to evolution the end goal needs some thought. For example, I don’t think there is an end goal of evolution, other than survival. Maybe that is the function of truth, truth is what helps us survive an philosophical paradigm. The philosophical paradigm is truth. As the paradigm changes so does truth. But to get back to the quote, maybe it was my reading of the quote, but I didn’t get a subjective understanding of truth, but an absolute truth that is enigmatic and unrecognizable in some instances. I don’t think Mill would agree with the idea that truth is what helps us adapt to survive intellectually. I think I’m on to something though, because…
Not that there can’t be truth that transcends culture, but there can also be truth that helps us survive
I’m using the word truth a lot so I had better define it. I’m using truth in this blog as the ideas that people agree upon.
However, people agree upon some stupid things, like slavery. I don’t want to say that the arguments for slavery were true at the time. What made it alright for Nazi Germany to exterminate Jews? It was illusion, not truth…
Maybe what a civilization agrees upon may or may not be true, but it is intellectual adaptation for the individual. But what is true and how close a person’s civilization’s intellectual paradigm (what the civilization agrees upon is their intellectual paradigm) resembles that truth may be the determining factor in how good that civilization is. This idea isn’t evident in evolution however. That is what I am struggling with. The only goal of evolution is survival. The goal of culture goes beyond survival to the ideal of truth. This is very Hegelian in that the best civilization to live in will be a model of truth.
I began this blog with the idea that Darwin and Mill were advocating for diversity as a basis for survival (evolution), but I am ending with a thought that they are quite different, using the same means, but with vastly different ends. It is insufficient to have a cultural paradigm whose goal is survival, rationalizing the current context. I know for myself, that if the goal of the current paradigm was to rationalize the context then I wouldn’t put much faith in it. The question that must be asked is: Do ideas legitimate power, or does power bring life to ideas? Legitimate government is power bringing life to ideas, but I think as time goes on and contexts change and regimes stay the same that ideas are produced to legitimate the regime. That is survival; the first is a commitment to truth. To living beyond survival, living for ideals…