“I Prefer John Locke To Jesus Christ, I Prefer John Stuart Mill To Jesus Christ…I Prefer Jon Stewart To Jesus Christ” (Ayaan Hirsi Ali ) Hirsi Ali, the atheist, feminist, former Muslim, is currently writing a new book, ”Short Cuts to Enlightenment.” Its about the Prophet Mohammed waking up in the New York Public Library and having his absolutist ideas challenged by John Stuart Mill, Frederick Hayek and Karl Popper, her favourite liberal thinkers. It is interesting to see how radical elements with Islam have circumvented, and re-wired the writings of John Stuart Mill, to their own ends, to further their cause within Western democracies, and at the same time, says Ali, to remain in a comfort zone of seventh century mentality, without taking the necessary steps of a ”reformation”.
”Do they convince him? She smiles. ‘No, they don’t. But something happens to throw the Prophet Mohammed into doubt so that by the end of the book, he’s no longer completely convinced by his own dogma.’ She pauses. ‘I suppose that is the most I can do – creating chinks of self-doubt where previously there was none. I can start the revolution within Islam but it will be up to others to finish it.” But who is John Stuart Mill, and why is he considered a voice of reason; a pillar of liberal, democratic thinking?
Mill has become an icon of liberalism, a ”talismanic” liberal and a virtual paradigm case of what contitutes the liberal mentality in Western society. Surprisingly, there are forceful cases of reading Mill as representing certain forms of imperialistic and racist thinking along with charges of colonialism and ethnocentrism.;ultimately, providing loopholes in the inherent contradictions in liberal democratic thought that give racist thinkers a means of evasion. Mill’s whole program of social reform depended on the assumption that human differences were not fixed by nature. In Mill’s view, human nature was fundamentally shaped by history and culture, factors that accounted for most mental and behavioral differences between men and women and among people of different classes, nationalities, and races. At the other end, Mill’s contemporary, Francis Galton, was developing a hereditary psychological theory of eugenics based on Darwin’s work in which society bestowed advantages on the highly gifted as opposed to the John Locke theory of ”Tabula Rasa”.
Father and son relationships can form the core meaning of the word ”fratricide” . John Stuart Mill learned to speak Greek at three and was prattling in Latin at eight. James Mill, the father, gave much to his son. The difficulty was that he could not let him go, but attempted always to keep him for himself. According to John Stuart, he, ”carefully kept me from any great amount of intercourse with other boys”. There were, of course, no young women.
What James Mill gave his son was an ideology , fully formed: utilitarianism.The utilitarian creed, as summarized by John Stuart Mill , meant, ”In politics, an almost unbounded confidence in the efficacy of two things: representative government, and complete freedom of discussion….In psychology, his fundamental doctrine was the formation of all human character by circumstances, through the universal Principle of Association, and the consequent unlimited possibility of improving the moral and intellectual condition of mankind by education.” Expressed also in terms of economic belief, basically laissez-faire, and as a scheme for legal reform, utilitarianism dominated English intellectual life in the early nineteenth century.
When John Stuart was fifteen, he read Bentham’s treatise on legislation for himself: ”My previous education had been, in a certain sense, already a course of Benthanism…When I laid down the last volume of the Traite, I had become a different being…I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion…” It was a ”conversion” episode. In adolescence John Stuart acquired an ideology of his ”own” that went along with his identification with his father, and instead of rebellion, we have a reaffirmation at this crucial stage in his life of his father’s way of life.
He eventually ”left” his father through a mental crisis. In the autumn of 1826, he was in a deeply melancholy state of mind, ”I seemed to have nothing left to live for.” In this state of dejection, he even contemplated suicide, John Stuart had no one to whom he could turn. ”My father, for whom it would have been natural to me to have recourse in any practical difficulties, was th
st person to whom, in such a case as this, I looked for help”. John Stuart knew, unconsciously, whereof he spoke. The situation was indeed , Oedipal, and the father its object. This becomes clear as John Stuart tells us how, after the ”melancholy winter of 1826-27,” the resolution of his crisis took place. It is a strange experience , which he seems not to have tried to explain to himself.
”I frequently asked myself, if I could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner. I generally answered to myself, that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year. When, however, not more than half that duration of time had elapsed, a small ray of light broke in upon my gloom. I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s “Mémoires,” and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them-would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my been grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone. I had still, it seemed, some of the material out of which all worth of character, and all capacity for happiness, are made. Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good. Thus the cloud gradually drew off, and I again enjoyed life: and though I had several relapses, some of which lasted many months, I never again was as miserable as I had been.” ( Autobiography Sec.5 )
Intellectually, John Stuart explained his crisis as a realization that the cold, dry analysis offered by utilitarianism was not enough; it needed to be supplemented by ”the internal culture of the individual” , the ”passive susceptibilities” ; in short, the life of emotion. In ”his new way of thinking,” John Stuart turned to Wordsworth, who showed him a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings”. Thus, John Stuart had grown past his father, broadening his beliefs to include convictions and feelings outside his father’s narrow purview.
What, in fact, had gone on emotionally in the Marmontel episode that allowed John Stuart to move forward intellectually? The evidence indicates that by experiencing the death of his father imaginatively and by displacement to Marmontel’s father , John Stuart was able to ”work through” his ambivalent and hitherto unexpressed feelings of love and hate for his father. On one side we may conjecture that John Stuart could face the possibility of his father’s death as the loss of the loved object on whom he most depended, by means of an imagined period of mourning and melancholy. On the other side, we can see rather clearly that John Stuart came to terms with his rivalrous feelings toward his father by vicariously killing him and then replacing him.
In this strange an ”accidental” way John Stuart was able to assert his independence. He passed not only through a reawakened Oedipal crisis but also through a work and career crisis. His identity as a reformer; the utilitarian’s pursuit of ”changes in institutions and opinions”, was challenged and shaken. In the end however, it was not destroyed but broadened and made more humane. The identification with his father’s career, both as an intellectual and a civil servant, was also eventually reaffirmed, but in the new terms.
Superficially, Mill’s arguments for freedom of expression are simple enough. He himself summarizes them as follows: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.” But if one examines the way in which these arguments are elaborated, one soon discovers that Mill’s summary of them is in fact oversimplified. One of his central arguments is based on the notion of human fallibility. But this argument is ambiguous, and depending on how it is interpreted, it in fact establishes two very different connections between human fallibility and the allowance of freedom of expression, and corresponding to these two connections, there are two different notions of the value of the search for truth.
Sometimes Mill points to human fallibility as a reason for not suppressing an opinion because we may be mistaken, and in suppressing a purportedly false opinion, we may in fact be suppressing what in future will be shown to be true. Thus he points to the mistakes, arising out of human fallibility, which led to the deaths of Socrates and Jesus and to the persecution of the early Christians. Those who engage in mistaken acts of suppression are often sincere men who believe in the rightness of what they are doing. It is sometimes referred to as the Avoidance of Mistake Argument. Its central claim is that human fallibility makes necessary freedom of expression if we are to avoid suppressing true beliefs. This first argument can be distinguished from what may be called the Assumption of Infallibility Argument.
The latter is put forward by Mill when he considers an objection to the Avoidance of Mistake Argument. According to this objection, from the fact that we may act mistakenly in suppressing a true opinion, it does not follow that we should not act at all. If we genuinely, and on good grounds, believe that an opinion is false and that its expression will have pernicious consequences, we should not be deterred from suppressing it by the mere possibility that our views may be mistaken. At this point Mill replies: “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action: and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” The reply tries to undercut the claim that we could have good grounds for believing that our opinion is true in the absence of freedom of discussion.
Unlike the earlier argument for freedom of expression which stresses the dangers of making mistakes, this new argument emphasizes the lack of rational assurance of fallible men in the truth of their beliefs. According to the Assumption of Infallibility Argument, the opinion we desire to suppress may very well be false, as we claim it to be, but, as fallible beings, we can have no rational assurance that it is false unless there is freedom to discuss it.
”The Assumption of Infallibility Argument is closely related to a third argument of Mills that even if an opinion is false, it would be wrong to stifle it. Let’s call this the Necessity of Error Argument. It maintains that in the absence of freedom of discussion one will not appreciate the full meaning of the opinion. The true belief will be held as a “dead dogma”. By this Mill means that the person who holds such a belief will not be properly influenced by it. He will not appreciate to any considerable degree what he is committed to when he accepts the opinion. At the same time his acceptance of this belief will prevent him from accepting other beliefs that appear to oppose it, but may in fact be no more than complementary to it, or perhaps a refinement of it, or even completely unrelated to it. The absence of freedom of discussion also prevents us from knowing “the grounds of the opinion”. Men will hold on to a belief quite independently of the balance of arguments and evidence for and against it. Their belief will therefore be held in a rigid and dogmatic way, and they are unable to adapt it to changing circumstances. If, for example, there are strong arguments limiting the area of application of a rule, they will not appreciate them. They will apply the rule indiscriminately, overlooking what may well be proper exceptions to it. They may even insist on applying it in situations which the rule was not meant to cover. Mill goes on to say that the effort to know the grounds of an opinion cultivates the intellect and judgement. On the other hand, the absence of freedom of discussion leads to the atrophy of these faculties.
Once again it is not simply the having of true opinions that Mill values. Rather, it is the way in which the truth is held. He wants people to hold their opinions in a rational manner, with a knowledge of the significance of these opinions and the grounds for them, and with a willingness to change or modify them in the light of new arguments and evidence. Referring to those who hold a true opinion without knowing the grounds of the opinion, he says that the true opinion “abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument” . There is therefore for Mill a distinction between having true opinions and what he calls “knowing the truth”. Whereas the Avoidance of Mistake Argument stresses the value of having true opinions, both the Assumption of Infallibility and the Necessity of Error Arguments emphasize the importance of trying to know the truth. ( Chin Lieu Ten )
”The plot to murder Muslim soldiers in the British Army is consistent with the purest teachings of Islam, which encourages you to kill Muslims who join the infidel army. Violence is inherent in Islam – it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder. The police may foil plots and freeze bank accounts in the short term, but the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it’s not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself.’
But surely she must see, I counter, that the majority of British Muslims are moderates? Sitting in her publisher’s office in an elegant grey-flannel trouser suit and pearl earrings, she fixes me with her lucid brown eyes. ‘If the majority are moderates, why did the Muslim community never take to the streets to abhor the 7/7 bombers? Why is it that the only time we see Muslims protesting en masse is when Islam is allegedly insulted, like with the Danish cartoons, or the Pope’s comments?
‘I’ll tell you why: because Islam is the new fascism. Just like Nazism started with Hitler’s vision, the Islamic vision is a caliphate – a society ruled by Sharia law – in which women who have sex before marriage are stoned to death, homosexuals are beaten, and apostates like me are killed. Sharia law is as inimical to liberal democracy as Nazism. Young Muslims need to be persuaded that the vision of the Prophet Mohammed is a bad one, and you aren’t going to get that in Islamic faith schools.” ( Ayaan Hirsi Ali )