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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

John Stuart Mill on the New Atheism

Not really, but look at this passage (my interpolated comments will be italics):

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, appears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent.

Well, THAT sounds familiar!

But this, though an important consideration in a practical point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection. Undoubtedly the manner of asserting an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion. But all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible on adequate grounds conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable; and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct.

Yes, where does it end if we start requiring strict standards of logic in public discourse? No law that does this would be fair or workable.

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interested in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause. In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest, therefore, of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other; and, for example, if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion.

Mill goes on to oppose efforts to prevent either "side" from using strong language, sarcasm, etc. But his point here is that it tends to be people with unpopular opinions who are attacked for using it. Given the disadvantages such people suffer, it would be far better to attack the rhetoric of people who have entrenched, popular opinions.

10 comments:

Russell Blackford said...

Obviously, Mill didn't really know anything about the New Atheism, but these remarks seem very appropriate. My thanks to "G" and Ophelia Benson, who have been discussing this over at Butterflies and Wheels.

Steven Alleyn said...

I've read On Liberty three times now, and I honestly think it is one of the most important books ever written in politics. I love it.

Blake Stacey said...

Eerily prescient! It reminds me of the time I found James Madison writing about science blogs.

Anonymous said...

So John Stuart Mill said its OK to be a dick? Sorry, but atheism will gain very few converts with this approach.

Anonymous said...

Sure anonymous, minorities have never made any progress by being uppity...

Civil rights movements certainly held back progress with all of those tasteless marches. How rude!

And don’t even get me started on the suffragettes. It was the acme of foolishness for them to assert so baldly that they were entitled to the same rights as men-folk.

Yep, meek and mild. That’s the way to make progress.

(The preceding was brought to you by Sarcasm brand rhetoric. Available at fine blogs everywhere.)

Grendels Dad

J. J. Ramsey said...

Anonymous #1: "So John Stuart Mill said its OK to be a dick?"

No, only that attempting to stifle dickishness is unworkable.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we can't call BS on those who "argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion." It just means that hauling them to jail for that is impractical.

Anonymous #2: "Civil rights movements certainly held back progress with all of those tasteless marches. How rude!"

"I Have A Dream" is an example of dickishness?

One of the things I hate in these discussions is the false choice of either being jerks or pushovers, even when figures like Gandhi and MLK have shown just how false this choice is. Letter From Birmingham Jail showed that MLK even explicitly rejected this, writing "I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the 'do-nothingism' of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist."

"Given the disadvantages such people suffer, it would be far better to attack the rhetoric of people who have entrenched, popular opinions."

So MLK shouldn't have attacked Elijah Muhammad's rhetoric?

The "New Atheists" shouldn't be immune to criticism from other atheists simply because they are supposedly doing good on the atheists' behalf.

Anonymous said...

J.J.Ramsey,

"I Have A Dream" is an example of dickishness?

Well, according to Mill, yes. Any criticism that is “telling and powerful” will cause offence to those who hold the idea it is intended for.

The problem I have with the criticisms of the ‘new atheists’ is the complete lack of distinction between a sort of gratuitous offence that they imply, and the type of offence that Mill talked about.

If the offended could offer me some concrete examples I could be swayed. But the stuff I have seen so far is long on offence but short on specifics. Someone frankly and directly disagreeing is just not the same as being gratuitously offensive.

Grendels Dad

J. J. Ramsey said...

Anonymous #2: "Well, according to Mill, yes. Any criticism that is 'telling and powerful' will cause offence to those who hold the idea it is intended for."

Saying something that causes offense is not the same thing as being dickish. Implying that the other side is stupid or crazy when they are not is dickish.

Anonymous #2: "Someone frankly and directly disagreeing is just not the same as being gratuitously offensive."

Very true. For example, arguing that belief in God is unwarranted once the purported evidence for God is examined is just frankly and directly disagreeing. Lumping creationists and theistic evolutionists together and implicitly likening them to the Nazis is gratuitously offensive.

J. J. Ramsey said...

One other thing. This part of your comment is the diciest: "Yes, where does it end if we start requiring strict standards of logic in public discourse? No law that does this would be fair or workable."

Yes, a law attempting to enforce strict standards of logic would be bound to backfire. However, the rhetorical question "Yes, where does it end if we start requiring strict standards of logic in public discourse?" on its own could just as easily be used as a sarcastic reply to an ill-considered defense of woolly thinking. We should demand that strict standards of logic in public discourse be upheld as much as feasible.

Windy said...

Lumping creationists and theistic evolutionists together and implicitly likening them to the Nazis is gratuitously offensive.You're still banging on about that? Oh for fs...