Telling People to Shut Up

A little while ago I started to write a book for Continuum called, Identity Crisis: Against Multiculturalism. Its basic thesis is – or would have been – that the sort of multiculturalism practised in the UK is misguided and dangerous because it inevitably exacerbates the all too human tendency to divide the world into “people like us” and “people like them”.

I say “would have been” because it is now very unlikely I’m going to complete it. There are a number of reasons for my (almost a) decision to abandon the project, but the main one has to do with the rise of the EDL in the UK. Basically, I think the emergence of the EDL has changed the moral calculus here: it is one thing to write a book that is critical of multiculturalism when multiculturalism is getting a free pass, it is quite a different thing to write such a book when minority groups are under systematic and concerted attack by a bunch of racist, football hooligans. Of course, this is a judgement call, and I can quite see how somebody else might come to a different determination: a reasonable person could easily think that I’m wrong to abandon the project for this reason.

Okay, so why is this of any interest? Well, imagine a world in which I’m a blogger at Socialist Unity (okay, that’s a stretch even for a thought experiment), and in this world “Jeremy” has decided to go ahead with the book. In this situation, if I found out about “Jeremy’s” decision, would I be justified in publicly urging him not to write the book (assuming I agree with the real-world Jeremy that the book is a bad idea in the current political climate)? In other words, if I thought he wasn’t helping in going after multiculturalism, would I be justified in telling him to shut up?

My view is that it isn’t at all clear that I wouldn’t be justified. It doesn’t seem implausible to think that any justification of a speech act has to take into account its perlocutionary effects (which is part of the reason why this whole tone troll meme is so absurd). It would seem to follow from this that if there were reasonable grounds for supposing that some particular speech act – or a book length variant – is likely to have bad effects, then I have a prima facie moral reason at least for urging silence. This is pretty obvious stuff: if I know that somebody is about to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, and I think a stampede will likely be the result, then I am surely justified in urging the person to keep their trap shut.

Obviously there is complexity here. There are freedom of speech implications, for example: so, for instance, if one takes the naive act utilitarian view that every speech act must be justified by its particular consequences, then an individual or group can shut down all criticism just by making the consequences of such criticism sufficiently bad. And, of course, there are also complications to do with the absence of perfect knowledge: we can’t know with certainty what the outcome of any particular speech act is likely to be, etc.

But, in a way, the complexity is precisely the point. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of writing a book, employing a particular rhetorical style, or articulating a particular speech act. They can do a proper moral calculus, and come to a different conclusion. They can be attentive to the same evidence, worry about the same moral issues, and come to a different determination.

If one accepts this point, how should one react if somebody else suggests that perhaps one ought not to write a book, or that one ought to tone down some rhetoric, or go easy with some criticism?

Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.

How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).

Leave a comment ?


  1. ‘Sometimes, shutting up is the best option.’

    I often remember this ‘after the event’.

    Urging an individual to tone down their rhetotic or go easy with some criticism seems legitimate in all spheres. There are numerous times I’d wished there had been an intermediary between me and my keyboard there to do that (along with a stupidity monitor). And numerous times I’ve been criticised and, upon reflection, thought that criticism was just (although I may not have initially responded to it well). Sometimes you may actually help an individual to get across their real message if you cause them to temper their words more ‘cautiously’. It is within your freedom of speech to urge such caution. And the individual should indeed consider the merits of such claims, even if he ultimately rejects them and uses his own freedom of speech to speak out and be damned. Sometimes arguments that there seems some need to make cannot help but offend or have some undesirable effects. But authors or public figures have some duty to think about where, when and how they say things. And others have a duty to remind them. Whether telling them to “shut up” is exactly the way to go in all instances I’m not sure but, I think it may be in some, and of course one should urge an individual not to do something or at least ask him to reconsider if one sees danger in them proceeding.

    One concern I’d raise is that by *publicly* urging alternate Jeremy not to write the book you might end up doing something counter-productive (though it perhaps depends on how public and in what forum). That is to suggest that sometimes a controversy could be caused and that this might cause effects of the very nature you wish to avoid. If he publishes you may help to make the book controversial, read and (worse) misread and quoted out of context. And if he doesn’t the persons who concern you might find common cause with free-speech advocates in condemning you (wrongly) for an attempt to censor and the writer for cowardly bowing to ‘political correctness’ at the expense of ‘telling the truth’ or saying what he really thinks. Possibly private communication of your fears might be the safest route and perhaps in some instances the most effective. Ideally, you wish the man to listen to reason not bow to pressure.

    Or so it seems to me.

  2. Jakob Tomasovich

    In my opinion, the rise of the EDL is all the more reason to go ahead with this book.

    If the far right are the only people making the case against this type of multiculturalism then the public will start to sympathise with them.

    The far right would love to paint the left as irrationally multiculturalist, and at the moment we are presenting them with an open goal.

  3. I agree with Jakob. When you decided to write the book, you presumably believed you had a valid contribution to make to the debate. If you don’t write the book, that contribution certainly won’t be made by the EDL. Why is it difficult to make your point while distancing yourself from the EDL?

    What is needed is a clear argument that multiculturalism and racism are not opposites. We shouldn’t let the EDL stop us from repairing the damage done by multiculturalism.

  4. Uh-oh. *Looks around nervously.*

    I think that it is almost always going to be unwise, at the least, to suggest in public that person X should shut up about topic Y and, particularly, not put viewpoint Z about the topic. If person X is a friend, putting the arguments to her privately might be more okay. But making the claim publicly will cause resentment and anger, and probably just ramp the debate up to a level where people are now discussing both topic Y/viewpoint Z and the merits of having the discussion. Person X will almost certainly experience this as distracting, possibly humiliating, and certainly frustrating (“Just address the substantive merits of frakking viewpoint Z!” she’ll find herself saying), and it becomes a recipe for flame wars, personal attacks, feelings of being personally despised and devalued, etc., etc.

    Perhaps if we were all more rational and reasonable it wouldn’t happen this way. But person X will, in a very large class of cases, be emotionally invested in topic Y and viewpoint Z (as well as having limited energy, etc.). If topic Y and viewpoint Z are not already especially popular, person X may feel a moral obligation and almost a desperation to express herself on them. Convincing her not to speak may, in practice (not in theory, I concede) require first convincing her that she is actually wrong about topic Y, which means getting involved in the merits of a debate about viewpoint Z. And if this happens in public, it is the very thing you were trying to avoid!

    Yes, there may be a class of cases where it’s better to shut up. In fact, I regularly bite my tongue on various issues for all sorts of reasons.

    But the class of cases where we should publicly tell people to shut up is going to vanishingly small, in my opinion. Counselling people to get viewpoint Z off their chest in a different way (perhaps a way that distances them from a similar looking but truly hateful viewpoint) is one thing. But telling them publicly not to express viewpoint Z at all seems so likely to make the situation worse that I think we can adopt as a rule of thumb that it is something that we should not do. We’d be wise to go against that rule of thumb only in rare and clear-cut cases.

    I’m actually reticent about saying more (though this is getting quite long) for my own reasons, having gone through a couple of these situations quite recently, myself … and seeing how prone I am, myself, to losing my temper when someone expressing viewpoint Z that I also want to express with some urgency is told to shut up – not always rudely and directly, in the second person, but in effect.

    I think you’re right about the tone trolling thing. It’s quite legitimate to ask people to be more welcoming of criticism, to lower their rhetoric, to avoid throwing in personal attacks, to avoid bullying others, as opposed to finding appropriate occasions to address the merits of their views, to try to avoid losing tempers when disagreed with, to resist the temptation of trying to provoke other people to lose their tempers, etc.. etc. Sometimes these suggestions are made in a way that is innappropriate to what is really going on – e.g. if the discussion is already civil – but very often they are simply good advice, and following it would help the prospect of a conversation making intellectual progress.

    But telling people in public not to speak at all (even in a civil way that shows a thoughtfulness and an openness to further discussion) in favour of some viewpoint that they feel strongly about is another thing. It’s very rare that that’s going to be a bright idea.

    (I can’t resist adding that I do talk (very briefly) about this issue in the context of Islamophobia in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. I do not talk about it, however, in the context of Mooneygate, Elevatorgate (*sigh*), or the other recent ‘gates that haz plagued mah internetz.)

  5. “if one takes the naive act utilitarian view that every speech act must be justified by its particular consequences, then an individual or group can shut down all criticism just by making the consequences of such criticism sufficiently bad.”

    No, we don’t “make” the consequences! Rather, we would argue that the consequences of a particular act are sufficiently likely to be sufficiently bad to warrant silencing it. But this is usually quite hard to do, because it involves appealing to factual evidence, of which there is often an insufficiency. That explains why traditionally utilitarians have been champions rather than opponents of free speech. There is clear anti-utilitarian bias in the above claim.

  6. @Jim – Ah well, I definitely agree that one has to way up carefully whether it is right or wise to go public with one’s plea for silence, and that in many instances it might be prudent to explore private avenues of communication, etc. But I can also imagine situations where going public was part of the point – for example, if you want to express moral support for a person or group you felt was being victimised or disproportionately singled out for criticism, etc).

    @Jacob, @Julian – I think your responses precisely illustrate my point: reasonable people can disagree about these sorts of things. Of course, it’s entirely possible that you both think I’m unreasonable, in which case… damn! 😉

    @Russell – Glad we agree about tone trolling. 🙂

    I think your point about the possibility of making things worse by telling people to shut up is important (and, as I suggested in my response to Jim, my view is that one absolutely has to take that into account before making a plea for reticence).

    But I do think there is something a little paradoxical about the general view that one should not urge people to remain silent (or very rarely).

    Suppose the topic of Person X is effective communication strategies for anti-racist movements in a late-capitalist context. And suppose there is a lot of research that the confrontational approach of a group such as Unite Against Fascism is counter productive (I should say I have no reason to think there is such research).

    If this were the situation, then a) It doesn’t seem unreasonable – because the stakes are so high – that Person X might want to publish and publicly urge a less radical approach; and b) if Person X does publish, it is inevitable that groups such as the Socialist Workers Party will take this to mean that they’re being told to shut up, alter their tactics, etc (and, in a sense, at least, they would be right);

    The trouble is doesn’t your view entail thinking that Person X should probably not go ahead with publication (which I think is at least somewhat problematic because there are at least some good reasons for him/her going ahead)? But also if you think you have good reasons for supposing that the consequences of b) would be hugely damaging to the anti-racist movement, wouldn’t there at least be an argument that you would be morally justified in speaking out publicly to urge that Person X shouldn’t go ahead with publication (in particular, if you judge that the fallout from urging Person X’s silence will be less damaging than the fallout from their speaking out). In other words, it seems possible that the principle that one should never (or only very rarely) tell other people to shut up could end up precisely justifying telling some Person X to shut up (I realise that “shut up” is too blunt, but… well, I’m sure you get the point).

  7. s. wallerstein (amos)


    It’s a shame that you’re not completing the book.

    Perhaps you could rewrite it in more diplomatic terms.

  8. @Jeremy – “There is clear anti-utilitarian bias in the above claim.”

    Why? It’s precisely a utilitarian argument. You’re just saying that the number of situations where a utilitarian argument will go against free expression is vanishingly small. I’m not sure you’re right about that – though you’ll note that I also mentioned the point about evidence – but it doesn’t affect my general point: reasonable people can disagree about how a moral argument against speaking out cashes out in particular cases.

  9. I’d say you’re rationally justified in advising someone you trust and who trusts you to be quiet just in case a) you have a justifiable belief that the effects of the act of speaking would be negative, and b) the negative effects would have nothing to do with the truth of the proposals being expressed.

    If you’re writing a book that you think would cause third parties to incite violence against innocents, then you’d better be sure you’re saying something true. And I think the rise of the European right-wing should cause a critic of multiculturalism to question whether or not their work rings true in every respect. It’s not just a question of appropriateness, it’s also a question of cultural relevance, and whether your thesis has a comfortable fit with the current state of things.

    One idea might be to split the book in half: one half on dopey xenophobic nationalists, and a second half on the thing you call ‘multiculturalism’. That way, you’d have a better chance of hitting on the whole story.

  10. Benjamin – You’re not offering an argument in your first paragraph (as you know!), so I’m not sure why I would be persuaded to accept your stipulation. I have no problem with a), I’m not quite sure what you mean by b), and I don’t see the relevance of the trust thing (or rather, I don’t see why I should think that trust is crucial, if that’s what you’re suggesting).

    I’m also not convinced that the last sentence of your 2nd paragraph fits with your first paragraph (and I’m not sure I buy the juxtaposition of “appropriateness” and “cultural relevance” – or even understand why you’ve juxtaposed them in that fashion!).

    Apart from that, I thoroughly agree! 😎

  11. I could offer arguments. But in this context I feel like you have a very practical problem, so I cut out the reasoning and got right to the upshot.

    By (b), I mean you’re not responsible for the effects of saying something true in the same way that you’re responsible for the effects of saying something false or misleading. e.g., a person should not be held as libellous if they assert a truth. That’s sort of a platitude.

    When invoking ‘trust’, I mean to restrict the scope of discussion to the communication of cooperative, rational people. I believe that you want to talk about the conditions under which it is rationally warranted for you to advise your socialist doppleganger “Jeremy” to be quiet.

    I make that assumption because it doesn’t seem like any non-rational kinds of appropriateness are relevant to how we judge the “Jeremy” case. And I make that inference because when you invoke the phrase, “you’re not helping”, it makes me think of advice that can only work between fellow travellers. Otherwise, the phrase is used in a way that is naive, presumptuous, or heedless.

    Rational warrant can be contrasted with political appropriateness. I think it is politically appropriate to tell someone to shut up just in case they are unreasonable assholes. So, e.g., in a conversation with Margaret Wente, it seems to me that the only politically appropriate thing to say is “shut up, you ignorant tool”, over and over. I do not trust Margaret Wente, and I do not expect, need, or want her to trust me back. But I figure that your relationship with your alternate is nothing like the relationship between myself and Margaret Wente. Both you and “Jeremy” are trying to write the same book, he just has different political sympathies.

    I think ‘relevance’ is tied intimately with ‘truth’. When some proposition is misleading, we often think of that proposition as a half-truth; but often we might just as well think that the proposition is true, but irrelevant. That’s why I think my second paragraph fits with the first. But I can see why that might not have been clear, so sorry about that.

  12. Ben

    Just quickly, because I have holiday-type things to do, I don’t understand (b) at all.

    I think it’s just obvious that we do share at least some responsibility for the bad effects of saying true things (though I accept that we’re not responsible in the same way as we are for the bad effects of saying untrue things).

    So, for example, if my grandmother is dying of cancer, and I have good reason to think:

    (a) that she doesn’t want to know the truth of her condition;


    (b) that her last days on earth will be considerably worsened if she does know the truth of her condition (because of fear, etc);

    and I tell her anyway, then I am morally responsible for the suffering that occurs as a result of telling her something that’s true.

    What’s more, I’m not entirely convinced I’d be entirely blameless if (a) wasn’t true (given the truth of (b)).

    If a 16th century version of myself wrote a book that told the truth about the Inquisition knowing full well that the consequence would be that my family would disappear, “heretics” would be pursued more relentlessly, etc., then I absolutely would share some responsibility for this coming to pass. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be justified in writing the book, but if I didn’t factor the likely outcome of my literary endeavours into my moral calculus, then I would be behaving badly.

    Truth is not a get out of jail free card (whatever P Z Myers would have us believe).

  13. The true victims of multiculturalism seem to be the very people you wish to support against the right-wing extremism. They are the ones who suffer at the hands of the extremism within their own culture. I do, I think, see the dilemma. Should we keep silent about a harm done to people A, because speaking out might encourage people B to visit further harms on people A? Am I on the right page?

  14. @Jim – That is indeed the dilemma. We talk about this in some details in the chapter on Islamophobia in “Does God Hate Women?”.

  15. I think you should go ahead and write. It is however a fact that there are “people like us” and “people like them”. Sometimes we are the people like us, and other times we are the people like them. People do differ considerably, sometimes profoundly from nation to nation, religion to religion, ethnicity to ethnicity, from male to female; it is often said “their ways are not our ways”. It is another fact of life that we like some people dislike some people, and are indifferent to others. Whoever they may be. This to me seems to be an innate propensity in all humans. It is something we have, in the civilised world to deal with, and accordingly toleration and friendship goes a long way but even so, there are limits.
    Problems arise when one set of people endeavour to foist their way of life or beliefs on others or chose to live in a foreign land, and not obey the law of that land, and additionally offend against the cultural values of that land.
    So far as The EDL are concerned and The BNP for that matter they seem to get their recruits mainly from the hooligan classes who delight in focussing hatred. There may be some brains at the top of these organisations but personally I cannot see exactly what it is that drives them. Totally unfitted to be a ruling political party, they will never govern. People who have never done so before have voted for the BNP out of, as I understand it problems, arising from Multiculturalism. This seems to be something which is in need of serious attention. Fortunately the cry Racist is not so common, currently. Time was when any attempt to discuss problems in immigration or multiculturalism was met with such a response which embraced an assumed hatred and disdain for one who had spoken. I suspect this was approved by the government as it served to cover up problems which arose from lax and inefficient handling of immigration over many years. I could name at least one politician who in self protection, leapt on the “he is a racist” bandwagon rather than support a colleague who was in fact speaking truthfully.
    Yes there are problems so far as Islamism, Sharia Law, and Islamic Extremism, in UK are concerned. These need to be faced head on with all parties concerned. Crying racist will not do. We need to find a way to live happily and agreeably with everybody whoever they are with the belief that people are just different, from each other, not better or worse.
    If you really want to write that book then you will, notwithstanding what other say or advise. If you do not then you are not sufficiently driven; but there is no disgrace in that, a half hearted attempt would be far from satisfying

  16. s. wallerstein (amos)


    If the situation is such as Jim describes it, then the challenge would be to write the book in a way which does not feed the cause of extreme rightwing groups, to show people who are believe in multiculturalism out of well-intentioned, progressive political correctness that real-existing multiculturalism (not the idealized form) often increases the oppression of vulnerable groups (women, gays, skeptics, heretics, children, etc.) within communities.

    Writing the book seems a worthy project and one that someone with your learning and writing ability can tackle successfully.

  17. Jeremy,

    The internal harm is also the cause of the external harm. Until the former is addressed it seems the people you care for will suffer twice over. Sadly, I don’t know that were will be any ideal time to express your thoughts.

    I do understand your dilemma, that you feel it so keenly speaks well of you. But I suspect this debate will occur in any case, and indeed that it will have to. Like Amos, I trust in your abilities. And I rather think the debate may go better if your voice helps define it. If you don’t speak, someone less thoughtful will first.

    Whatever you decide, you have some opportunities to explore and discuss your thoughts in the meantime. I’m sure all of us would welcome you doing so here.

    best wishes whatever you decide

    and, indeed, ‘Merry Christmas’ everyone.

  18. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Happy holidays to you and to all too.

    You’re right. It would be preferable as someone as thoughtful and as aware of all the political-ethical variables as Jeremy is were to frame the debate than to leave that option open to the loudest voices.

    I’m completely ignorant about how multi-culturalism functions in the real-world U.K. and so I don’t have much to contribute to this discussion, but over the years, I’ve come to respect your opinions, those of Jeremy, those of Don, those of Ben, those of Russell and those of others in this blog (Mike, Ralph, etc.) about various ethical issues, so I’m willing to bet that any consensus view reached by you people about multiculturalism in the U.K. is, if not THE kosher one, at least one of the kosher options on the menu.

  19. If truth requires both expression and reception then silence can be better than self-expression.

    If I speak to a close friend I have a good chance of understanding what they understand from my expression.

    A public expression requires a public to understand the expression for truth to be a phenomenon. If I express to a public and understand that some will not understand then I am irresponsible if this has bad effects, extreme analogies would be expressing an important truth in a mumbling/mocking/aggressive/confusing tone.

    I personally find truth to lie entirely in reception, call it my own reception of my own expression when I’m alone. Or at least that’s what she said. (Joke cocooning succinct point.)

    Being yourself is important and that others can pick up on its actuality. Learning the receptive qualities of others does not and should not entail losing hold of your true self.

    I don’t want to live in a paternalistic world where truths are held back to protect – the danger is we will suffer by utility/maxi-min/functionings. I do want to live, to be clear and sharply satirical – I love a lot of cool objects some of which feel; life sucks too.

    Expression should lead to a greater shared reception of what you understand, if it is done with the proper great truths of empathy and caring feeling. It’s mushy but – Merry Christmas.

  20. @Jim, @Amos – Thanks for your kind remarks. I remain disinclined to write the book (for the reasons given), but I will give what you’ve both said some thought.

    @Ash – This anti-paternalism thing gets trotted out quite a lot in the blogosphere, as if it is itself an argument. But it isn’t. I’d say that sometimes paternalism is absolutely appropriate (which is not to say I necessarily disagree with you about paternalism, generally).

  21. Jeremy, I agree with your anti-Cliffordian verdicts in those situations, but that has no bearing on my suggestion.

    What I said was that you’re not responsible for the effects of saying something true in the same way that you’re responsible for the effects of saying something false or misleading. That is, there’s a clear moral difference between striving to convince people of the truth of a harmful lie, and striving to convince people of the truth. Similarly, e.g., there is a clear moral difference between killing and letting die (positive and negative responsibility). That doesn’t mean that you are not responsible for the harmful truths you tell, any more than it means that you are not responsible for letting die. It means that you’re not responsible in the same way — the corresponding duties are weighted differently in your moral calculus.

    Also, the relationship between you and your sick grandma is utterly unlike your case, in part because they involve different quantities of lies. Lying to your grandmother involves a single falsehood, told in her time of need. Compare that with publishing a manuscript that is about a wide number of key theses in political philosophy. If you believe your thesis is true, and if you assume that people are generally better off when their repertoire of beliefs contains more truths than falsehoods, you have a good reason for publishing it.

    If you don’t believe it’s true, or if you believe it is a half-truth, then sure, you might consider putting a stop to it, or splitting the book in half. But I don’t see the moral point of telling yourself to shut up just because some fools like the EDL will misinterpret you. Idiots misinterpret; that’s their calling in life. The real moral danger is that you might encourage the fools by telling half-truths, when instead you could tell the full truth, and not run that risk at all.

  22. Ben – Very cool to hear that I’m anti-Cliffordian. That’s been a lifetime ambition, obviously! 😉

    Sure, you said the same way thing in your second comment, but I think your clarification falsifies, or, at the very least, undermines, your original proposition that:

    you’re rationally justified in advising someone you trust and who trusts you to be quiet just in case a) you have a justifiable belief that the effects of the act of speaking would be negative, and b) the negative effects would have nothing to do with the truth of the proposals being expressed.

    because in that formulation b) is too narrow.

    Anyway, we don’t disagree substantively about that point.

    The grandma thing isn’t utterly unlike my case; it’s somewhat unlike my case. Obviously I don’t think that a claim about people being “generally better off when their repertoire of beliefs contains more truths than falsehoods” gets us very far in thinking about a case such as mine.

  23. Regarding (b) — Ah, whoops. (b) should be a sufficient condition, not a necessary one. During the initial formulation, I evidently thought my claim was stronger than it was. You got me, guilty as charged.

    Regarding your last paragraph. I think the duty to foster more truths than falsehoods is a major sticking point, something that applies very well to the political publishing case and not the grandma case, simply because the grandma case involves one lie of short duration designed to produce good effect, while the political publishing case ostensibly involves producing a surfeit of truths with unknowable effects. A single, crafty lie told to a single person is less likely to bring about avoidable disaster than the tolerance of a popular and ostensibly harmful system of falsehoods.

    (As an aside, on the main subject, Ian Hacking speaks for me when he writes: “Sometimes people focus on the loss of tradition and resent ‘multiculturalism.’ That is one fear I cannot take seriously, perhaps because the word was in use, in a purely positive way, in Canada long before it got taken up in the American culture wars. My goodness, where I live my provincial government has had a Minister of Multiculturalism for years and years; I’m supposed to be worried about that?”)

  24. Hey Ben

    Well, except for the trust thing, I think we pretty much agree about the necessary but not sufficient formulation (given your clarification).

    The stuff about duty, truth, etc – I just think it’s extremely complicated. I’m not sure we’ll get anywhere talking about it here (not because it’s not interesting and important, just because it’d take vast quantities of time, etc).

    Your point about multiculturalism. I can’t say I’m in the least bit bothered about the “loss of tradition” in and of itself. But I don’t think you can read off the British experience of multiculturalism from the Canadian experience. My view is that they are… well, different enough to make a difference (albeit I’m by no means an expert on Canadian multiculturalism).

  25. Our disagreement about the role of trust is fundamental. On first pass, it strikes me that morality is an idealized way of acting and thinking in such a way that one has a categorical need to be worthy of trust. (But morality is just a subset of ethics, and conduct might be ethical without being moral.)

  26. Well, that may or may not be the case, but in your original formulation you have it that:

    in advising someone…who trusts you

    And, of course, it’s entirely possible to be worthy of trust without actually being trusted.

    I have a nasty feeling that if we pursue this we’ll end up talking about Grice again! 🙂

  27. That difference in strength between those two conditions is a result of the fact that I didn’t know (and to some extent still don’t know) which kinds of answers you were looking for. I had assumed you were talking ethics. The moral answer has to be different from a merely ethical one.

    Anyway, the morals/ethics distinction is a painfully pedantic and uninteresting digression which is not going to be of any interest to the main discussion. Regardless of whether we’re talking ethics or morals, it shouldn’t make a lot of difference to the claim that trust must be involved as some kind of prerequisite in both conditions. If ethics doesn’t involve some kind of trust (as a precondition, and/or as the end-goal), ethics doesn’t look like it’s going to be much of a distinctive subject matter. As Mill was dearly aware, the right is not just the production of the good; it’s about the production of good people, too.

    I think you’re right to suspect that the present exchange contains echoes of our earlier conversation. Earlier, it seemed to me that you’re effectively defending the practice of ‘shouting at the mountains’, to use my earlier phrase. The difference is that in this case part of me feels like you might be on to something. It’s at least plausible to think that there’s an element of foot-stomping involved in ethical and moral claims. And taken alone, foot-stomping need not involve trust.

    But I think my intuitive sympathy with you owes to the fact that ethical assertions involve a presumption of authoritativeness in speaking. And authoritative speech involves some boldness. Still, boldness can never be all there is to ethics and morals. Unless, of course, you’re adopting an interpretation of ethics as a manifestation of the will to power — but then we’re back to mountain-shouting.

  28. Thanks J. I follow the twitter, it’s nice to be involved in a conversation thanks.

    It’s interesting for me that you discuss paternalism often. Emotionally thoughts such as dirty hands should seem as if they never justify a worse outcome. I understand this is what you think.

    It is how arguments are received that is at issue and the reception of truth will be affected by the receiver’s psychology.

    Psychology plays an important a role in the way philosophy proceeds. The psychology of philosophy is interesting.

    I agree that if you think the climate is wrong to publish a work, then you should not publish it. The belief-system of the readers may be at issue – both philosphical and psychological, or the intensity with which they behave and believe.

    Please forgive me for talking about the psyche. I am going to read some of your blogs to avoid my generalities and determine who I am discussing things with. I will be sure to return – all the best.

    P.S. Jo Wolff rules (mostly). Love his heart and style. Yes I’m UCL (2008 BA Phil 2010 MA Legal and Political Theory – currently BPP Law oh no).

  29. Ben – I can’t have this conversation all at once (same reason as always, I can’t justify the time it’ll take). But:

    Earlier, it seemed to me that you’re effectively defending the practice of ‘shouting at the mountains’, to use my earlier phrase.

    Yeah, I know that’s what you thought, but that’s not quite right. I was defending the moral value of a speech act that might turn out to be “shouting at the mountains”; even in the case where one hopes that it turns out merely to be shouting at mountains. I think the argument is solid, and I stand by it. You, on the other hand, think I’m dogmatic. Woof! (It’s possible the word “dogmatic” has nothing to do with dogs. ;))

    You’ll have to make an argument for your trust point. At the moment, there’s a lot of assertion and an appeal to authority (I realise, of course, that you haven’t attempted to outline your position in detail). Treat me as a philosophical naif – which shouldn’t take too big a leap of imagination! – and persuade me that I should take your point seriously. (If you’re so inclined, obviously – I might not respond at great length, but I do read and think about the things you write; which, actually, also goes for the things other people write here).

    I think ultimately it might well turn out that I do tend to think of ethics as a manifestation of will to power (which presumably you’ll think does enough violence to the conception of ethics so as to render it meaningless). Indeed, I have on occasion made precisely that argument, mainly as a last ditch attempt to avoid the spectre of nihilism.

  30. Jeremy, while I’m here … I get an error message whenever I try to read the religion and science thread. The other threads that I’ve tried (this one and the eating horses one) are fine. Could you look into why that might be happening?

    I certainly agree that there can be circumstances when it’s a good idea not to go ahead with a certain book, or even with reviewing a certain book. There are also circumstances when it’s a good idea to advise someone privately against doing so. And there are circumstances when it’s a good idea to tell someone to shut up in public. I’m not an absolutist about any of this.

    I just think that the circumstances when it’s a good idea to do the third of these things will be very rare. It will almost always be better to do something else, such as expressing substantive disagreement with someone’s position, or explaining why, although their position is arguable (or even correct), it doesn’t have to entail some similar but horrible position. There are usually (I believe almost always) more productive alternatives than publicly telling someone to shut up.

    Now, you might be able to come up with a clear-cut case where publicly telling someone to shut up is the best plan of action. You sketch some cases above in the thread. But I don’t deny that; I just think that these clear-cut cases will be very rare in practice.

    Because I’m not an absolutist about any of this, I don’t think we should just say whatever we have an impulse to say. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to moderate our tone. Generally speaking, I also think it’s a good idea to avoid meta-level discussion of our interlocutors’ moral virtue or vice, or their possible ulterior motives, or the propriety of their putting their positions at all. There are probably some other generalities that apply.

    I also think that, generally speaking, we are entitled to be passionate about certain issues, and even to be motivated by anger. (By “entitled” I probably just mean something like: being passionate or angry does not show a vicious character.) Passion and anger provide us with energy, and I think we should, in a large class of cases, reject calls to set aside those sources of energy. On the other hand, even when we are angry we can step back and moderate our tone to an extent. On the gripping hand, if we tell someone, publicly, to shut up, we shouldn’t be too surprised if she responds with anger. He or she very likely felt passionate or angry about the substantive issue even before we spoke up in public to say, “Shut up.” She was entitled to feel that way. Telling someone who is already passionate and/or angry to shut up in front of others is usually going to be foolish.

    Now, taking aside a friend who is feeling passionate or angry and giving her some advice is another thing. There is no risk of embarrassing or humiliating her in front of others, or making her fear a pile-on or a witch hunt; we probably know how best to talk to her (she’s our friend, right?); the taking her aside shows our good faith; and she’s going to be inclined to trust us to speak in a way that (a) has her own interests at heart, and (b) has some sense to it (we’re her friend, right?). And really, one reason we have friends around in the first place is to act as sounding boards, people with whom we can deliberate, from whom we receive advice, etc. So the dynamic is going to be very different from the dynamic of publicly telling someone to shut up. (She may, of course, still feel upset at the prospect of what she considers an important viewpoint not getting expressed in the public square and having its chance to attract adherents.)

    The best time to advise someone to shut up is before she has said anything in public. Telling someone after the event that she should have shut up, even if you tell her in private, as her friend, may not go down well. In that circumstance, she has already put in effort (possibly a lot of it, if she’s written a book or something) and is probably not going to be receptive to the idea that it was not only futile effort but positively socially destructive effort.

  31. I might say more about what I think about trust on some other occasion, when I have the heart and head for it. For the moment, I’ll just make two critical points:

    1. That the desire to produce a state of trust strikes me as a useful way of grounding your ethical conviction that “tone-trolling” is not a form of trolling at all. In participatory democracies, e.g., councils governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, anyone gets to make a ‘point of personal privilege’ whenever somebody else acts like an ignorant asshole. The idea is that there has to be some mechanism that allows you to maintain trust and solidarity in order for the discussion to be worth having.

    2. If you think it makes for a sound moral strategy to engage in speech acts that you hope will just turn out to be “shouting at the mountains”, then — yeah, from my point of view, it’s hard to see how you’re being productive. Since unproductive principles generate lost opportunities, they wouldn’t pass the test for any utility-minded moralist.

    So if you’re going to tell someone to shut up, and call this expression ‘moral’, then it better not be just because you want to indulge yourself. Granted, everyone has the right to engage in pointless activities, so in that sense you can do whatever you want. It’s just not at all obvious (given 1-2) that this kind of activity has anything to do with morality. So it looks like the burden of proof is on you.

  32. Ben

    Okay, so let’s take a specific example. Suppose I’m an undercover agent, and the group I’ve infiltrated are planning to detonate a bomb. There’s a council of war meeting, during which I’m able to manipulate tensions within the leadership, and perhaps even bully and cajole, in order to get them to call off the bombing.

    I do this for what I take to be moral reasons. My intelligence minders want me to allow the bombing to go ahead, but I think they’re making the wrong moral choice. I do what I take to be a moral calculus, and determine – and believe in good faith – that the costs aren’t worth it.

    I’m not sure how this would fit into your framework? It seems to me that I am morally justified in pursuing such a strategy.


    a) Trust – well, it’s not obvious that’s necessary: I have to be listened to, but not necessarily trusted (in fact, one can imagine playing precisely on the fact that the various factions don’t trust me or each other in order to secure the desired outcome).

    b) Solidarity – seems not to be relevant. In fact, probably helpful if there are factions.

    c) Behaving like an ignorant asshole – it might well be necessary.

    In general, it seems to me that what you’re doing is identifying what might be a sufficient condition of acting morally (on some particular occasion), and then turning it into a necessary condition. To the extent that you are making claims about the necessary conditions of acting morally, I think that rather than identifying instances that support your contention, it’d be more fruitful to examine those that might falsify it.

    Also, it just isn’t necessarily true that “unproductive principles” (though I’m not keen on the phrasing there) wouldn’t pass the test of any utility-minded moralist. One can be utility-minded – as I am – but also think that utility is not the entire story. (I understand that you might want to respond that ethical pluralism doesn’t get off the ground, but that isn’t relevant if what we’re looking at is whether some principle will pass the test of some particular moralist).

  33. Hasn’t the rise of the EDL written the last part of the book for you?

    Consider a book in 3 parts:
    1) Criticism of multiculturalism in the U.K.
    2) What to do about it
    3) What *not* to do about it

    The EDL has written part 3 for you.

  34. Jeremy, sure. And when you’re manipulating the leaders, you’re manipulating their trust. When you’re obeying the orders of your higher ups, you’re justified in doing so on the basis of your trust. In other words, there’s no moment where a person will look at your scenario and say, “Well, clearly this guy is just shouting at the mountains”. It’s a social situation up and down.

    I think your point is that you’re treating people as means and not as ends in themselves, and in that sense, the role of trust is not as robust and idealized as we might expect from a moral principle. But then, your intent doesn’t appear to be the formulation of a positive principle — instead, it looks like you’re doing a stress test on the involvement of trust in morals. Unfortunately, applied morality is full of half-measures and dirty hands; that’s to be expected. But this says nothing about morality.

  35. Ben – It’s not straightforwardly the case that I’m just treating people as means to an end in that scenario. I might be treating the leaders as a means to an end, but I’m doing so precisely – in contradistinction to my intelligence minders – because I’m considering the people who would be victims of any such bombing as ends (and not simply as means). Also, I could plausibly argue that in preventing people from carrying out atrocities that they might well come to regret, and which might result in them losing their liberty, etc., that I am precisely treating them as ends…

    Moreover, I don’t buy there’s an easy separation between applied morality and morality. My view is that the half-measures and dirty hands is precisely telling us something about “morality” (for example, that there is no hard and fast rule that says that “trust” has to be present for an action to be morally justified; or even, perhaps, virtuous).

    The “shouting at mountains” thing is a red herring here. That’s a different point, and argument (though I can see how it might become relevant in the original dilemma).

  36. Oh, and one final thing. It also isn’t true that in that scenario I am necessarily manipulating their trust. My whole strategy might depend on leaving their trust exactly where it is. It would depend.

  37. Right, I meant treating the leaders as means not ends. You might be doing so for paternalistic reasons (“You’ll regret it later!”), but that’s an additional stipulation that is not hinted at in your initial formulation of the scenario. And anyway, if those really are your goals, then it’s fair to characterize them as an attempt to make you worthy of their trust.

    If you’re manipulating the leaders as mere means and not ends, and if you’re doing so without using trust as a means, and you’re not doing so with the aim of making yourself worthy of trust, then it’s pretty difficult to see how you’re doing something moral.

    I suppose your act might turn out to be righteous. e.g., so you secretly shut off the microphone, preventing the party leader from speaking to the convention, so that the dissident has more time to drum up support for the Good Guys; and you do so, not because you understand the dissident or talk to him at all, but because you independently decide to bring down the party leader.

    That’s not saying much in favor of the idea that you are right in doing your specific isolated action. If you’re the kind of person who needs to skulk in the shadows, then the odds are against you being one of the good guys. It seems more like you’re one of the middle-managers of morality: not quite good, not quite bad, but getting along with it well enough.

    Moreover, I don’t buy there’s an easy separation between applied morality and morality. My view is that the half-measures and dirty hands is precisely telling us something about “morality” (for example, that there is no hard and fast rule that says that “trust” has to be present for an action to be morally justified; or even, perhaps, virtuous).

    I would say there is such a rule, so long as a) we understand integrity as a kind of self-trust, and b) sympathy, empathy, and rule-following as typical characteristics involved in trusting others. Without any of these things, there is simply no morality to talk about. There’s just people jostling and colliding like bumper cars.

  38. Ben

    then it’s pretty difficult to see how you’re doing something moral.

    Well I don’t think it’s difficult, and I think I’ve demonstrated it! 🙂

    I’m doing something moral because I’m making use of what I take to be the only means available to secure the end of preventing a large harm. (Indeed, in the way I’ve set up the thought experiment, it’s not just that I take it to be the only means available, it is the only means available). My actions are not ruled out on the grounds of treating people as a means rather than an end, partly because these people are culpable for planning the bombing, and partly because the harm that would occur should it go ahead is large enough to trump the worry about treating people as a means rather than an end.

    I don’t understand how you’re using the word “moral” if you think this isn’t an instance of a behaviour that is not only morally permissible, but perhaps even morally obligatory.

    It’s possible your response here will have something to do with the “worthy of trust” thing. But, if so, I’ll lay you odds it’s just going to end up being tautological.

    then the odds are against you being one of the good guys.

    Well, that doesn’t strike me as being a very good argument, but, anyway, it’s not a matter of odds: I only need one instance of a morally permissible, or obligatory, action in the absence of trust, etc., to falsify your proposition.

    I would say there is such a rule, so long as a) we understand integrity as a kind of self-trust, and b) sympathy, empathy, and rule-following as typical characteristics involved in trusting others.

    I guess I might buy into a). I don’t in the least bit buy into b). I see no reason to think I can’t have sympathy, empathy and (possibly) rule-following in the absence of trusting-others (or the other way around – that these things would necessarily make me worthy of trust). Moreover, I see no reason to think (a) that somebody without integrity (defined as a kind of self-trust) cannot act morally on some particular occasion; (b) that it is impossible to act morally in the absence of sympathy and empathy, certainly (even the rule-following bit is arguable); or (c) that I might not act immorally while possessing/manifesting sympathy, empathy (and again, the rule-following thing is arguable).

    I’m not sure we’re going to agree here. So how about a different question? Why are you invested in the trust thing? Does it perform some function in a more general moral/philosophical framework with which you have sympathy?

  39. Jeremy Strangroom wrote:

    “an individual or group can shut down all criticism just by making the consequences of such criticism sufficiently bad.”


    “It’s precisely a utilitarian argument”

    But how do you suppose utilitarians manage to “shut down all criticism” in this way if doing so necessarily involves appealing to facts or purported facts? Historians and scientists are similarly obliged to appeal to facts, and they only manage to “shut down all criticism” by telling a compelling enough story, or coming up with a convincing theory, suitably buttressed by suitable evidence. The very phrase ‘shut down criticism’ drips with contempt – and lack of reflection!

    I object to the suggestion that act utilitarians are somehow free to arbitrarily conjure up factual claims to suit themselves. The idea seems to be that facts are not “hard” enough for morality to appeal to – unlike the more abstract alternatives such as rules.

    But in a sense, nothing could be “harder” than the concrete reality of the actual consequences of action. There will always be facts of the matter, although we may not have much confidence in judging what those facts will be. That is an epistemological problem that troubles historians and scientists as much as utilitarians. It inspires scepticism about our moral judgements rather than an overly-confident, trigger-happy, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, play-fast-and-loose-with-the-facts sort of attitude, as your claim above suggests.

    Far from treating moral judgement with an unwarranted licence or abandon, a good act utilitarian will always have a guarded awareness that moral judgements are uncertain, like factual judgements. That uncertainty is partly what makes utilitarianism an unusually tolerant moral position.

  40. @Jeremy – I’m afraid I have very little idea of what you’re talking about!

    It seems true that if one thinks that every action has to be justified by an appeal to its specific consequences, then there will be some consequences that would be bad enough to rule out said action (otherwise the principle is empty).

    If that’s the case, it follows that if one has good reason to think that criticism of an individual or group will bring about said consequences (because of the response of the individual or group, or otherwise), then one is not justified in making the criticism.

    That’s a threat to free speech, and that’s the point I’m making. (And it’s a standard point.)

    If you’re arguing that for epistemological reasons this situation will never arise, then that suits my overall argument, because clearly I don’t want to be in a situation where telling people to shut up is ruled out as a matter of principle on the grounds that it threatens free speech.

  41. Jeremy B,

    John strongly values freedom of speech and expression. And he may wish to address the civil rights rally about the evils of the burqua to strongly condemn the infringement of liberty forced upon Muslim women by Islamic clerics and to condemn those ‘liberals’ who excuse this in the name of ‘multiculturalism’.

    But the police warn John that doing so will likely cause immediate civil unrest on the part of both the Muslim extremists and the EDF. The police urge John not to deliver his speech. John makes the act-utilitarian judgement not to risk making the speech act.

    Intolerant groups – not the utilitarian himself – shut down criticism, by making the consequences of certain speech acts sufficiently bad.

    Nobody is suggesting the act utilitarian is somehow free to arbitrarily conjure up factual claims to suit himself.

  42. @Jim – Right, that’s the claim/worry.

    And the more general point is that if the consequence of telling people to shut up is that individuals/groups realise that by ratcheting up their rhetoric they will get less criticism, etc., (partly because situations where it is justified to tell somebody to shut up on consequentialist grounds become more common; and partly because situations where people make their own consequentialist judgement that they should shut up become more common), then you could be in a situation where de facto free speech is being undermined.

    Jeremy B’s argument seems to be that we don’t have to worry too much about that arising, because we’re never certain enough about the consequences of an action (speech act) to have good reason to suppose that the train of events that might lead to free speech being threatened will occur.

    On the one hand, that’s good for my argument (since it’s not going to work if it turns out for free speech reasons that the harm of telling somebody to shut up always trumps the harm that occurs if they speak out). But obviously I’m going to have to deny any claim that we can never be sure enough about the consequences of a speech act to think for consequentialist reasons it shouldn’t go ahead.

    (There’s a tension here, but it’s not insurmountable, I think, since one could plausibly argue that the free speech consequences of telling somebody to shut up are much less immediate than the proximate consequences of them not shutting up.)

  43. Thanks Jim — the penny has finally dropped! I tend to bristle defensively when I read terms like ‘naive act utilitarian’ — and forget how to read!

  44. I didn’t mean the “naive” in that expression to refer to a person, but rather to the view that the only things that count in a moral calculus are the immediate, obvious consequences of a specific act.

  45. Jeremy S wrote:

    “I didn’t mean the “naive” in that expression to refer to a person, but rather to the view that the only things that count in a moral calculus are the immediate, obvious consequences of a specific act.”

    I see that now — apologies for my misreading. (Although that seems a more “sophisticated” version of utilitarianism than I would care to defend!)

  46. No apology necessary. I need to be more careful about how I phrase things.

  47. Note to self: must avoid my own tendency to paranoia when I think I detect an anti-utilitarian bias – I’m usually mistaken!

    I tend to imagine a sort of unintentional “rhetoric” against utilitarianism in such innocent things as the order in which philosophy students are introduced to ethical theories. Typically, there are three levels. First, divine commands (that’s the pig making his house out of straw – lousy), second utilitarianism (the pig making his house out of sticks – better than straw, but still pretty crappy). Finally, let joy be unconfined as we walk into the broad sunlit uplands! – We get to meet Kant, Nietzsche, Rawls, and other Übermenschen who have have moved beyond lumpen utilitarianism!

  48. Jeremy (S.), I think we’re in definite disagreement with respect to the first part of your post. I characterize your thought-experiment as being an illustration of the problem of dirty hands, while you think it’s revealing something about morality proper.

    In fairness, it should be noted that each of us has our own crosses to bear in our positions. At least on the face of it, I can be accused of having a haughty, idealized view of morality, while you can be accused of dirtying morals for the sake of expedience. I doubt that either of us can be pinned down on either criticism, but it’s worth stepping back to see a potential characterization.

    I’m struggling to keep the conversation tethered to your proposed topic (of when it’s okay to tell people to STFU), and don’t want it to float off into the meta-ethical stratosphere. So I don’t want to digress too far into a conversation about the meta-ethics of trust — what motivates my reasoning, my overarching projects, and so on. So I’ll just address the last bit of your post, with fingers crossed that it bears on my central concern — the telling someone to shut up is essentially trust-breaking, and that this is deeply morally significant.

    Trust is the assumption of ‘being on the same page’ as someone else, broadly speaking. Rule-following, instinctive sympathy, and intentional empathy are the ways of justifying to yourself that you’re on the same page; integrity is what we call the condition of knowing where you stand for yourself. Moral principles must have some characteristic authority, and that authority characteristically derives from sympathy and integrity. So moral principles are distinctively moral so long as they are predicated upon good reasons to believe that trust and self-trust can be maintained.

    Here’s some indirect evidence: my plan to have breakfast involves no sympathy or integrity. Uncoincidentally, it intuitively appears to be an amoral intention.

    That doesn’t mean that lone wolf morality is impossible. It means the lone wolf has to consider himself worthy of trust by virtue of his acts. Integrity alone means bupkis.

    A non-utilitarian consequentialist might deny that moral claims require any authority derived from human sympathy. But then you have to wonder what makes those consequentialists distinctively moral. The utilitarian consequentialist, on the other hand, would find nothing disagreeable about what I’ve said. In fact, the insistence upon human sympathy is taking a page right from Mill.

  49. @JeremyB – Ha! James Garvey and I have written a book called “The Story of Philosophy”. There’s a chapter on ethics, and… I’m afraid that’s the order we do it in! 🙂

    @Ben – Thanks. That actually helps a lot. We definitely don’t agree, but I know why we don’t agree now. It’s going to come down to a meta-ethical disagreement about whether moral principles have characteristic authority, and from where it might be derived. (Basically, I think it would turn out that I’ll argue that sympathy, etc., doesn’t do the job; and you’ll argue that my position is de facto a kind of nihilism.)

  50. Jeremy S wrote:

    “There’s a chapter on ethics, and… I’m afraid that’s the order we do it in!”

    Well, be aware that I wasn’t aware of that. It’s the normal “order of growth”, not an “intentional” rhetoric. Thomas Kuhn complained about the “Whig history” described in science textbooks, and I’d argue we ought to do the same with philosophy textbooks.

  51. I don’t normally like quoting other people as a substitute for thinking oneself, but in this case I make an exception, because I cant say it better than this:

    “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. “

    Noam Chomsky

  52. ..and further as to whether one should not go against a popular view, on the grounds that so are a lot of deeply distasteful people, I can only say that this is not only false logic, but its deeply dangerous.

    It is precisely the problem someone I know has with respect to racial discrimination: He is an ‘ethnic minority’ and his crusade is against those who would use the rules to deny access to those with presumed racist views.

    He sent me the Chomsky quote…

    We both agree that philosophically, discrimination is how we create a world of entities objects and categories: discrimination is what we as humans do: to somehow attempt to airbrush this out of our natures is madness.

    The risk the becomes that those with extreme agendas will capture the ground of reasonable discrimination, and use it for narrow selfish ends.

    Far better to condemn the extremist, and promote the rational message of what is good about discrimination, in the same breath.

  53. Great quotation from Chomsky.

    Personally, I think JS Mill would have thought it so important that knowledge of the Holocaust or of evolutionary theory be kept alive (rather than the truth be held as “dead dogma”) that he would have favored some sort of government subsidy for Holocaust-deniers or Creationists, if Holocaust-denial or Creationism became too unpopular or too uncommon.

  54. @Leo – Yes, but it’s not a freedom of speech issue (at least not at first brush – see our conversation about utilitarianism and free speech above). The issue here isn’t whether I have the right to write and publish a book that has x risk of bad consequences, it’s whether I ought to write said book if the value of x gets too large.

    Far better to condemn the extremist, and promote the rational message of what is good about discrimination, in the same breath.

    I think blanket pronouncements to that effect miss the point. It is entirely reasonable to think that whether or not it is better to condemn the extremist has something to do with the consequences of doing so. If, for example, the likely result of doing so at time x is a nuclear war, then… well, probably it’d be best to keep quiet.

    You’ve got to do a proper moral calculus.

  55. Jeremy B,

    There is nothing in Mill to suggest he would have advocated taxing citizens in order to support Holocaust-deniers and Creationists if they became an endangered species (though obviously he would grant them freedom of speech whilst they exist).

    In matters of “morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life” he thought that “if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.” And with regards to such matters he thought the teachers of mankind should find “some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner’s consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion”.

    Mill recognised that “the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.” And he gives no warrant for the claim that the state should use public funds to support those who genuinely deny the reality of the Holocaust or the truth of evolutionary theory on the basis that it is important people know why what they claim is wrong.

  56. Hi Jim,

    I’m wondering which step of my train of thought you disagree with:

    1. Do you think Mill would have opposed subsidized education?

    2. Do you think Mill’s idea of eduction did not essentially involve devil’s advocates?

    I chose the examples of Holocaust denial and Creationism because I find both of them repulsive opinions.

    It is my personal view, of course, as I indicated earlier, but I think Mill wouldn’t just have wanted the writings of David Irving (say) to be “allowed to be published”, but further to be “not allowed to be silenced by popular opinion”, which would have involved a bit more, such as public subsidy. Even Creationists occasionally remind us of the ubiquity (and falseness) of the assumption of “design” in nature. An unintended but valuable insight.

  57. Hi Jeremy,

    The step where you go from Mill “would not have wanted opinions to be silenced” (this only meaning that Irving has the right to publish) to “would have favored some sort of government subsidy for Holocaust-deniers and Creationists”. There’s nothing in Mill that argues for the latter. We both know his views on subsidies for the poor to be schooled and his opposition to a state schooling systems and his views on devil’s advocacy as an an educational tool when it comes to matters of “morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life” as opposed to mathematics, languages and the natural sciences. I still don’t know where you get the idea that Mill thought we should set out to preserve false opinions through state subsidy.

  58. Hi Jim,

    This is not a legitimate “step”:

    “The step where you go from Mill “would not have wanted opinions to be silenced” (this only meaning that Irving has the right to publish) to “would have favored some sort of government subsidy for Holocaust-deniers and Creationists”.”

    I gave you two options, i.e. two places to say where I go wrong, and if you think we need more options, fine, but say where!

    As Chomsky said, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.”

    I sure mean that, and think it is very important to accommodate the thought expressed there.

  59. “I still don’t know where you get the idea that Mill thought we should set out to preserve false opinions through state subsidy.”

    I don’t know where you get the idea that Mill thought “false opinions” were to be treated differently by the sate from “true opinions”. Reference, please?

  60. Jim wrote:

    “(this only meaning that Irving has the right to publish)”

    A moral “right” to publish is a million miles away from Mill’s territory. You need to think more like Mill:

    “I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions”

  61. Jeremy,

    I don’t need more steps. It’s the conclusion that doesn’t follow.

    Mill would prefer the state not to run schools (and if that proved necessary they should not have a monopoly) and he didn’t want the state to set the curriculum, but he favoured subsidising places in schools for poor children. We agree.

    Mill favoured Socratic methods and a devil’s advocate approach, towards education in “morals, religion, politics, social relations”. We agree.

    (Would Mill want the state to withhold funding for poor children to attend a schools run by religious fundamentalists, or want to deny an academic position to an individual who openly professed scepticism about the Holocaust? No.)

    Might Mill favour state subsidies intended to ensure that sincere proponents of Creationism and Holocaust Denial don’t go extinct?

    – There’s absolutely no reason to think so, and this does not follow from any of the preceding. We only need people to play devil’s Advocate in some circumstances we don’t need the devils themselves.

    As you say we have “knowledge of the Holocaust [and] of evolutionary theory” not mere opinion. Knowledge presumes true belief. The value you placed on keeping a few Creationist and Holocaust Deniers around was that what they profess is false opinion (that might keep the ‘truth’ alive). I didn’t say Mill thought ‘false’ opinions were to be treated any differently by the state. I just claim there is no reason to think Mill would want the state to be in the business of bankrolling those who, by your lights, profess false opinions simply on the grounds that what they profess is in fact false.

  62. Jeremy don’t read too much into ‘right’. I just mean that Mill would not approve of Irving being censored by societal pressure or of any law prohibiting him from publishing or expressing his opinions. There’s nothing contoversial there.

  63. s. wallerstein (amos)

    I’m a lot more big-statist than Mill is, but given the number of false opinions floating around, even a petro-state could easily go bankrupt subsidizing false beliefs.

    Should we subsidize astrology?

    How about 9-11 conspiracy theorists?

    How about primal scream therapy?

    I mean, if we’re going to subsidize false beliefs, why single out Holocaust denial and creationism?

    For example, there are people who think that Stalin was right to exterminate the Kulaks, as a class, that it was a necessary step on the road to true Communism.

    Should the taxpayers subsidize them?

    Really, there are so many deficiencies in public education, not to mention the fact there are budget cuts in spending in most countries these days, why, instead of spending money on fomenting reading and arithmetic in schools, should we spend scarce resources subsidizing false ideas?

  64. Jim wrote:

    “I just claim there is no reason to think Mill would want the state to be in the business of bankrolling those who, by your lights, profess false opinions simply on the grounds that what they profess is in fact false.”

    I didn’t say the falsity of an opinion was grounds for subsidizing its expression — I referred to lack of popularity or uncommonness.

    It is not hard to imagine a situation in which no profit-making publisher could hope to print Mein Kampf without causing damage to their business. Or in which no privately-funded university could hope to invite speakers such as David Irving (or the equivalent spokesperson for Creationism or climate scepticism) without damaging their commercial interests.

    In those sorts of situation, I imagine Mill would have supported public funding of some sort — such as actually exists for public libraries.

    Not that I’m familiar with Mill’s economics — I just feel too many right-wing libertarians have misappropriated liberal ideas and re-cast them as “opposition to state power” rather than “support for individual freedom”. It seems to me that Mill’s liberalism is quite consistent with subsidised education and the protection of unpopular ideas, if necessary by the state.

  65. I repeat: I was NOT talking about the falsity but the unpopularity of ideas. Unpopular ideas tend to get shouted down, to the detriment of human knowledge.

  66. s. wallerstein (amos)


    Stalin’s theoretical works on Marxism-Leninism are not popular these days.

    Should we subsidize them?

    In fact, there are copies of Mein Kampf displayed in almost all street bookstalls here, while the works of Stalin and Mao find no buyers.

  67. amos wrote:

    “Stalin’s theoretical works on Marxism-Leninism are not popular these days.

    “Should we subsidize them?”

    If there are no copies of Stalin’s writings in a public library of any decent size, then yes, I think the library should make sure they are available. This being a public library, I think it should be supplied at the taxpayers’ expense. Interested members of the reading public need to be able to read what Stalin wrote. That is part of wehat it means to be a civilized society.

    “In fact, there are copies of Mein Kampf displayed in almost all street bookstalls here, while the works of Stalin and Mao find no buyers.”

    Yes, but I was asking you (and Jim) to imagine a situation in which that was not the case — in which lack of popularity had in effect made it unavailable.

    This sort of thing does happen. On my last visit to Kuwait I spent a long time browsing in the (large, mostly well-stocked) Virgin bookstore. There were some surprises — plenty of Freud and Einstein, quite a bit of “edgy” philosophy including Judith Butler (presumably popular because of her opposition to Israel rather than her lesbian feminism). But not the merest hint of a whiff of anything to do with Darwin, Dawkins, or any variety of evolutionary theory.

  68. s. wallerstein (amos)


    I agree with you completely that a public library should have as wide a variety as possible of authors, especially those such as Stalin, Mao and Hitler, who at one time influenced many people.

  69. Arguments against freedom of thought and expression often have a “hectoring” aspect. This hectoring takes the form of darkly hinting that if one supports the freedom of expression of an opinion, then one must be a supporter of the opinion itself.

    I need hardly say that that is not the case to anyone who professes to discuss philosophy.

  70. s. wallerstein (amos)


    You seem to suggest that I darkly hint that you support the beliefs which you say should be given freedom of expression.

    If you’re not suggesting that I darkly hint, why remind me of the fact that people often darkly hint?

    Could you point out where in my posts above I hint that you support said beliefs?

    Actually, throughout this whole conversation, I have been aware that you state (on December 28, at 2:43PM) that you consider such opinions to be

  71. Jeremy,
    Okay you meant to talk of unpopular ideas (though presumably you can see why talk of the state maintaining the holders of beliefs that are contrary to knowledge led me astray).

    Do I think Mill would want the state to subsidize the proponents of ideas simply because their ideas are unpopular? No, there is no warrant in Mill for that suggestion.

    There is, perhaps, only limited profit in imagining what Mill might do.

    But Mill actively argued for subsidised education – as in the state providing means for the poor to attend places of learning – we don’t need to imagine that. And indeed he argued for compulsory education of children (this not being the same as compulsory attendance at a school) enforced through compulsory public examinations set by the state to ensure that all children – however and wherever they were educated – met a certain minimum of general knowledge (with parents fined if their children failed without good reason).

    Any ‘general education’ would include matters of history and science. Mill was not a sceptic about historical knowledge and he certainly wasn’t with regard to natural philosophy. With regard to the latter, he only held that you need to know why phlogiston theory is wrong in order to understand why oxygen theory was true. On that basis I would hold he would say that to understand why Darwin was right you only need to know why Lamarck was wrong – that fairy tales don’t need to be brought up when educating people about science. And I don’t believe he would hold that wildly stupid conspiracy theories need to be brought up in order to teach history.

    Mein Kampf is an important historical document, and of course Mill would want to see copies maintained, whether that is a job for the state or not is a different question. Imagine as you will.

    Would Mill want the state should fund the publication of conspiracy theories by the likes Irving?

    There is absolutely no reason to think so, not from anything you will find in his writings.

  72. ‘I need hardly say that that is not the case to anyone who professes to discuss philosophy.’

    Yes you did not need to say that at all.

    I fail to see why you would choose to bring up ‘hectoring’ and ‘dark hinting’.

  73. “I agree with you completely that a public library should have as wide a variety as possible of authors, especially those such as Stalin, Mao and Hitler, who at one time influenced many people.”

    My apologies — I took the above to be sarcasm! Now that I understand you meant it literally, I would urge you to reconsider your idea that an opinion deserves to be subsidised because it has been influential. That is to allow its expression on the grounds of its popularity rather than its unpopularity.

  74. Its not the case that an opinion deserves to be subsidised – but that copies of texts of historical importance or importance in the history of ideas need to be maintained.

  75. It seems to me that anyone who (A) thinks education in the broadest sense (including public libraries, educational broadcasting, etc.) should be subsidised, and (B) is also sympathetic to Mill’s views as expressed in On Liberty is thereby committed to the subsidization of the expression (publication, promulgation, exposure, etc.) of unpopular views.

    I think Mill would have been sympathetic to Feyerabend’s more explicit view that a proliferation of conflicting opinions is valuable. All opinions, no matter what they may be. Of course we cannot subsidise the expression (publication, promulgation, etc.) of all opinions, but it doesn’t follow that this must be the fate of none of them. That would be as fallacious as arguing that no one should bother being a vegetarian because innumerable animals end up as food in the Serengeti anyway.

    So which expressions of opinion should be subsidised? We cannot decide on the basis of which opinions are true or false, for reasons defended by Mill. It seems to me that the opinions we should make the greatest efforts to ensure remain “in circulation” are the ones that most directly come into conflict with the most commonly-held, most popular opinions. These are opinions that are most widely regarded as false, and most widely disliked – in short, opinions whose very unpopularity threatens them with extinction. Their very unpopularity is a prima facie reason to consider their expressions suitable recipients of subsidy.

    I’m not sure why that idea itself meets so much opposition. Perhaps it is because very few people in fact – when you scratch the surface and pay attention to more than lip service – accept Mill’s idea that knowledge requires controversy. Mill is a difficult thinker, not because his ideas are complicated or abstract, but because the alternative view is so hard to shake off. That alternative view is that to promote the expression of an opinion is to promote the opinion itself.

  76. That said Jeremy

    Given that Holocaust Denialism and Historical Revisionism, are themselves subjects worthy of study, a university library might well stock copies of books published by David Irving.

    Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece about him, one that might chime with your commitments to free expression.

  77. Thanks for the reference Jim — that article really does chime with me. Hitchens notes that “Irving’s books are almost impossible to obtain in the homeland of the 1st Amendment”. I would add that the reason is their unpopularity.

    A self-respecting university library should stock books by Irving, but I think it quite conceivable that privately-funded university libraries might “prefer not to” for the same reasons as US bookshops choose not to. Private universities (and their libraries) depend on the goodwill of their benefactors, much as bookstores depend on people who buy books.

    I’ve often argued that social welfare has to be in the hands of the state rather than left to charities, because the latter are subject to the whims of popularity. For example, many might be happy to contribute money to support single mothers, while few might care to support single fathers. But their children’s needs are the same. Single fathers can (in theory at least) make a “case” against the state, and demand what their children deserve — but this can’t be done against a charity.

    Analogously, I would argue (and I think Mill would have agreed with me) that unpopular opinions need state protection to survive. For example, if it is true that humans stand at the brink of catastrophe by climate change, then it is important that the general public know it. But they can’t know it unless it is challenged reasonably often by the opposing view, however unpopular that may be in certain quarters. For that, a body such as the taxpayer-funded BBC would have to give the opposed view a reasonable airing (not “equal” to the most popular view, but enough for it to become familiar to the people who decide public policy – namely, the public.)

    Years ago, “The Brains Trust” was a classic BBC format: opposed opinions as expressed by AJ Ayer, Malcolm Muggeridge, etc. came into conflict. For that, the taxpayer subsidised unpopular opinions, many or most of which were false.

  78. s. wallerstein (amos)

    There’s a problem with unpopular opinions being subsidized by the state: the creation of an “official” opposition or “official” dissenters.

    Subversive ideas, when they become officially supported, tend to become less subversive, and offical dissenters tend to lose their force, to be co-opted by the system.

  79. Hi Jeremy,

    I’m unsure about the value of speculating about what Mill might or might not be sympathetic towards had he not died at a natural age. I think if you stick to the text, it’s clear he thought the state has no business subsidising the expression of opinions, popular or otherwise.

    But the world is not that of Mill’s, one can take the spirit of Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ and come to conclusions he himself did not draw – and also end up in reasonable disagreements with those of broadly similar sympathies.

    Myself I am for the free expression of ideas, I think it a good that works of intellectual or historical importance remain publicly available, and that the public get to hear all the sides of all the important debates. In certain fields – ethics, politics – there can only be opinions – no knowledge. And in science many matters are not settled, there is room for much debate there, as there is with regards to certain historical questions. The state may subsidise forums that allow for the expression of unpopular opinions.

    But as for the state subsidising the proponents or the opinions themselves, just because they are unpopular, no I’m not with you on that.

    There is knowledge in some areas – as Mill recognised about the natural sciences – we know evolution is true and that a holocaust occurred and we do not need the state to fund those who believe otherwise, or claim to, on the basis of fairy tales, conspiracy theories and lies. There is no real debate to be had with young Earth Creationist, or a holocaust-denier. And we will not need a devil’s advocate to replace them, even less than we need a Devil’s advocate for phlogiston theory.

  80. Hi Jim,

    “I’m unsure about the value of speculating about what Mill might or might not be sympathetic towards”

    Well yes, it’s “what-if” history, all the same it promotes the exchange of ideas.

    “I think if you stick to the text, it’s clear he thought the state has no business subsidising the expression of opinions, popular or otherwise.”

    I disagree. I think you have mis-read Mill.

    “In certain fields – ethics, politics – there can only be opinions – no knowledge.”

    But it’s precisely where there are truths/falsehoods and the possibility of knowledge that Mill insists on the promotion of unpopular ideas, partly because they can help us find truths, and partly because they can help us know truths instead of merely “parroting” them. In this Mill prefigured such disparate figures as Popper and Feyerabend.

    “in science many matters are not settled, there is room for much debate there”

    But Mill was not in favour of debate where or because there is room for debate — he meant to make room for debate in places where orthodoxy, conformism and the respect for authority shuts debate down.

    “There is knowledge in some areas – as Mill recognised about the natural sciences – we know evolution is true and that a holocaust occurred and we do not need the state to fund those who believe otherwise, or claim to, on the basis of fairy tales, conspiracy theories and lies.”

    Again, I think you have mis-read Mill.

  81. Jeremy,

    There is a reason why he specifies “morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life”. I’m pretty sure he mentons mathematics and natural philosophy in the same chapter. And you can read more about his views on education – and how the natural sciences differ from matters of morals and religion – in his inaugural address at St Andrew’s as I recall.

    If you’re to gong to insist I’ve misread Mill you might quote what you think contradicts me.

  82. Hi Jim,

    We can be sure Mill is appealing to factual opinions rather than matters of taste or prescriptions in his defence of freedom of thought and expression, because his celebrated three arguments appeal to epistemological aspects of opinions that only factual opinions can have. For example, the first argument appeals to human fallibility. But we are only fallible where our opinions might be false even though we think they are true. The concept of fallibility hardly applies to “incorrigible” attitudes (they hardly deserve the word ‘opinions’) such as “champagne is nice” or “shut the door!”

    Or take the argument that merely “parroting” words that happen to express a truth falls short of knowledge. The possibility of knowledge, and knowledge of truths are both essentially involved here. Or take the argument that the truth is often found between two extremes of opinion: again truth and falsity have to be involved for the argument to work.

    What I’m objecting to in your earlier claim is the idea that “opinions” somehow fall short of knowledge by being mere opinions, that opinions and knowledge thus form mutually exclusive categories. That strikes me as a confusion of truth and certainty. I would argue that opinions are the same as beliefs, and that factual knowledge consists of beliefs that meet some other criteria as well, so that knowledge is a subclass of opinion. I think this is the way Mill is thinking as well.

  83. Jeremy,

    Regarding opinions and beliefs I see no need to make a distinction here. I’m well aware that we are talking about matters of fact not taste (on that there is no disputing). And I’m well aware that Mill wanted people, as far as possible, to know of what is true why it is true and of what is false, why it is false.

    All I am contending is that there is a significant difference, as far as Mill was concerned, between education in matters of “morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life”, and in matters of mathematics and science.

    In education pertaining to “ethics and politics, in the largest sense… are not, in the existing state of human knowledge, the subject of a science, generally admitted and accepted. … What we require to be taught on that subject, is to be our own teachers….. Education is not entitled, on this subject, to recommend any set of opinions as resting on the authority of established science.”

    There are established sciences that can be taught as such. There are certainities in some fields such as maths, physics, chemistry etc etc – you should learn why competing theories were false and be made aware of disputes but you needn’t concern yourself with ‘competing’ fairy tales and there is no need for a devil’s advocate in their education.

    And if you can find an instance where Mill suggests the state should subsidise the expression of opinion I’d be delighted to know about it.

  84. Hi Jim,

    “There are certainities in some fields such as maths, physics, chemistry etc etc – you should learn why competing theories were false and be made aware of disputes but you needn’t concern yourself with ‘competing’ fairy tales and there is no need for a devil’s advocate in their education.”

    I couldn’t disagree more, and think this is a gross misrepresentation of Mill.

  85. “It is instructive to know the failures of the human intellect as well as its successes, its imperfect as well as its perfect attainments; to be aware of the open questions, as well as of those which have been definitively resolved.”

    Yes Jeremy, you think x, y an z are misrepresentations, and that I’ve misread Mill, we’ve established that. One does reach a point where “oh no it isn’t” ceases to be an interesting response though.

    I hope we’ll enjoy a more productive conversation on something else soon.

    Btw Here’s a link to an online library that contains all of Mill’s writings.

  86. Hi Jim,

    Mill was ahead of Popper in seeing that scientific theories have to survive in a sort of free market of ideas in order for us to have a reason to believe them. Mill deserves the label ‘fallibilist’ as much as Popper, or even Hume. He thought the only sort of necessity was that of “analytic/a priori” truths, which to him were equivalent.

    Mill thought the truths of mathematics were empirical truths. The idea that Mill thought claims of physics and chemistry were “certain” is just ridiculous.

    Above all, Mill went to great lengths to persuade his readers that there is no class of opinions that are “beyond question” or “beyond debate”. That is an assumption of infallibility.

  87. Personally, I don’t think science will ever change its mind about such questions as “whether humans are a species of ape”. In the sense that “as a matter of fact, science is not going to change its mind in the future on this issue”, such questions have been “definitively resolved”.

    But that historical claim about the future is entirely different from the epistemological claim that our answer to the question is certain, or that it is beyond dispute. Mill’s whole epistemology depends crucially on the necessity of a “free market of ideas” which gives us reasons to believe anything. Without the competition of such a market, and its reliance on ongoing dispute, we believe nothing but dogma and superstitions, even if some of them may be accidentally true.

    By the way, although I detest authority and regard it as as a wholly spurious thing to appeal to in a philosophical disagreement, you seem not to. I propose that we refer our dispute here over Mill scholarship to a higher “authority”, someone who is internationally recognized as “authority” on Mill. What do you say?

  88. Yes, yes, this is ridiculous, that’s ridiculous, never any close arguments or quoting from the texts.

    “While mathematics, and the mathematical sciences, supply us with a typical example of the ascertainment of truth by reasoning; those physical sciences which are not mathematical, such as chemistry, and purely experimental physics, shew us in equal perfection the other mode of arriving at certain truth, by observation, in its most accurate form, that of experiment. “

  89. ‘I detest authority and regard it as as a wholly spurious thing to appeal to in a philosophical disagreement, you seem not to.’

    Well Jeremy,

    There are fallacious appeals to authority and non fallacious ones. The sooner you learn the difference the better you will be.

    When it comes to assessing the complex claims of cosmologists and quantum physicists the layperson has nothing useful to say. One can point to some of the layman-friendly remarks that those with some learning in the field may make. But unless you, speak the language of advanced mathematics and are actively immersed in the subject, you don’t even know what those in these fields are really in dispute about.

  90. Hi Jim,

    “When it comes to assessing the complex claims of cosmologists and quantum physicists the layperson has nothing useful to say.”

    Thanks for saying that!

  91. Hi Jeremy,

    You are most welcome.

    These are obvious cases where we just are not ‘entitled’ to any opinion at all and indeed have no good need of one. And there are obvious cases where it is rational to trust in the opinion of experts such as oncologists. All a non-fallacious appeal to authority can show is that it is rational to believe x is the case – or at least to act as if one thought it were – not that x is, in fact, true. (Even then it is something to be handled with a great deal of care.) We have, presumably, no serious dispute over this. We only have dispute over the extent to which it is rational for a man to trust in the truth of what cannot be demonstrated to him to be true. We both beleive things to be true that cannot be demonstrated to be true even in principle.

    To say that you detest authority and regard it as a wholly spurious thing to appeal to in a philosophical disagreement and that I seem not to is not the worst (or indeed the best) insult I’ve had hurled at me. All we disagree on is to what extent a non-specialist can have a useful opinion on certain matters that does not, upon analysis, depend upon that for which he has no no demonstration only the testimony and consensus of experts. The points of controversy needn’t be returned to here but it seems you envisage an educated man as being able to form a useful opinion for himself on a wider range of things than I do, that is all.

    To some extent we may have been talking past each other, you thinking about Mill’s claims about how science works, me thinking of what he said when he talked about how the young are to be educated in schools and at university. Outside very basic mathematics, and the realm of tautology, there probably is nothing we can claim is an absolute certainty. I should indeed have been clearer on this, but then Mill slips into talking of ‘certain truth’ with regard to natural philosophy when he is talking about university education too. That the Earth is flat, that phlogiston theory is true, that the sun revolves around the Earth, are all opinions that, like every other opinion, are not to be silenced by law or societal threat.

    But personally I find nothing whatsoever in Mill that suggests any warrant for the claim that the state should subsidise people in order that they might go about professing such silly opinions. And nowhere in Mill can I find the claim that we need Devil’s advocates for such stupidities. Only the claim that young people should be taught that such things are false, and why they are false (or at least wildly irrational to believe) But I’m happy to hear you make an opposing case and to stand corrected. I don’t need you to find an expert on Mill to persuade me that I’m wrong – a good argument from you would do just fine.

    Personally I think we should welcome the coming of the day when nobody seriously believes such piffle, or makes claims to the effect that the Earth was created in 6 days some 6000 years ago or that the Holocaust never occurrred. And I think we are quite entitled to dismiss such twaddle out of hand because such claims have had every opportunity to prove themselves worthy of consideration and have come up wanting.

  92. By you’re own lights, haven’t you’ve just ruled out any remark that you may care to make on these matters as a “layperson”? – At least I don’t believe such authoritarian, illiberal, narrow-minded, compartmentalized, imagination-stifling, rule-worshipping orthodoxy!

    You are paying more attention to one of Mill’s least-read, least-celebrated utterances than to his most-read, most-celebrated masterpiece. That is like spending more time poring over the Book of Revelation than the four Gospels to find out what Jesus thought!

    Mill’s address to St Andrews is so short that our interpretation of words such as ‘certain’ is problematic and unreliable. I don’t think he was thinking about the “absolute certainty” of scientific theories as you seem to suppose. Probably, as a somewhat traditional empiricist, he was thinking of epistemological “foundations” such as the axioms of mathematics and the supposed observational “basis” of scientific theory (which practically all current philosophers of science nowadays reject). That is, he was not talking about the theories that constitute the bulk of science (such as phlogiston theory, and the others you mentioned) but rather its methodology as he misconceived it – specifically, its supposed reliance on an experimental “basis” (or what he mistakenly conceived as a “basis”, like most traditional empiricists of his day). No wonder that address is a little-read part of his oeuvre – it expresses traditional empiricist assumptions that are unexceptional as well as mistaken.

    My original claim was:

    “Personally, I think JS Mill would have thought it so important that knowledge of the Holocaust or of evolutionary theory be kept alive (rather than the truth be held as “dead dogma”) that he would have favored some sort of government subsidy for Holocaust-deniers or Creationists, if Holocaust-denial or Creationism became too unpopular or too uncommon.”

    I think that is a very modest claim, wholly in keeping with the spirit of Mill’s liberal philosophy
    as expressed in On Liberty and elsewhere, and I stand by it. I think you should pay more attention to Mill’s central writings – the writings he himself was most proud of – rather than to a speech he might well ave made when under the influence of drink and public adulation!

    If you think of BBC programming, state-sponsored university education and publication, public libraries and the like, and remind yourself of Mill’s attitudes to education and to the downright necessity of hearing both sides – on pain of losing the meaning itself of important truths – I think it is just completely undeniable that Mill would have insisted on the presence of opposed voices in all of the above, state-sponsored activities. For that, expression of the unpopular opinion would have to be subsidized. I stand by that claim. For example, I think Mill would have strongly opposed the currently one-sided nature of BBC programming, which promotes orthodoxy instead of exercising the individual judgement of viewers. I think he would have insisted on paid airtime for people like David Irving and various “intelligent design” theorists (who are really Creationists by another name). These are essential voices in the debates of our time, especially between cultures. They express opinions that are deeply unpopular in our own culture, of course.

    I rarely get involved in counterfactual “what-if” history. (But I think it can be done: personally, I think Hitler would have been in favor of the destruction of the state of Israel, although of course he cannot have explicitly written such a claim during his lifetime.) Sometimes, such as in our own disagreement here, I think we can actually make some philosophical headway with “what-if” history. I have long thought that although On Liberty is widely read, and widely assented to in the most superficial way – in lip service – hardly anyone actually accepts its central claims. It is far more “radical” and distasteful to them than they realise. Scratch the surface, and we nearly always find that people who claim to agree with Mill “make an exception” of a special class of opinions which are supposedly “beyond dispute”.

    The idea that science generates these supposed “certainties” is one of the greatest errors of modern times. It is the single greatest failing in the current universally inadequate teaching of science. Science penetrates the hidden structure of reality, and in doing so it makes claims that are not “certain” but mostly very uncertain. A brief glance at the history of science reveals the surprising twists and turns, the revolutions and revelations that characterise the whole enterprise.

    If making judgements about the history of science is too “specialized” for the “layperson”, at least learn something from a philosopher like Kant, who deemed Newtonian mechanics to be so certain that it “could not be false”. (But of course it was false.)

  93. ‘I rarely get involved in counterfactual “what-if” history.’

    Not as rarely as one might like.

    I do wish you’d keep ‘Jeremy Bowman thinks’ well away from ‘Mill would approve of’.

    Argue for state sponsorship of Creationists and Holocaust deniers on your own authority. Argue for the claim that Creationists and Holocaust deniers should be represented in publically-funded discussions about Evolution and History on your own authority. And do please admit the distinction between the two, even if you do wish to maintain both.

    We can then separately discuss what Mill actually said and what he meant, and which of the things he did say should be dismissed as the result of drunkenness because they conflict with “what Jeremy Bowman thinks”.

    Have a happy new year.

  94. OK, let’s leave the last word to Mill:

    If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day. This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.
    Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion.
    Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.
    The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful, is the cause of half their errors. A contemporary author has well spoken of “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”
    The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. Where this advantage can no longer be had, I confess I should like to see the teachers of mankind endeavoring to provide a substitute for it; some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner’s consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion.

  95. No, no… we should only grant Mill the first words not the last.

    Best wishes for the New Year 😛

  96. Same to you — enjoyed the discussion! 😉

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