In Chapter 2, Mill looks exclusively at issues of freedom of thought and of opinion. It is significant that he attempts to justify the importance of this freedom by showing its social benefits––for Mill, diversity of opinion is a positive societal good.
Mill’s argument that the dissenting opinion may be true brings up some important points. First, it highlights that Mill believes that moral truths do exist. Thus, in defending liberty, Mill does not say that all opinions are equally valid Mill is not a relativist; he is not saving that all things can be true according to their circumstances. Rather, he is simply saying that any single idea might be true, and that for this reason no idea can be dismissed, since truth is a boon to progress.
Second, Mill tries to show the contingency of popular beliefs about truth while going to great lengths to not actually state that any popular views about things like religion are wrong. To accomplish this, he observes that in the past people hay e been persecuted for what is now believed to be true. Thus, Mill creates a logical situation in which anyone reading must accept that if they support persecuting “false” views, then they are required to accept their own persecution if in the minority on a specific issue. Mill is thereby able to dismiss the persecution of “false” views, without condemning modern views as being false. Third, Mill’s examples of persecuted truths reflect some of his rhetorical strategies in this essay. Mill is very conscious of his audience in 19th century
, and he uses examples, like the crucifixion of Christ, which would certainly have resonance with his readers. This reflects a more general strategy in this essay of choosing familiar and often uncontroversial examples in order to make much broader moral claims. In reading this essay it is important to remember that England did not have the same legal protection of liberty that it has today : Mill uses examples to make his points that would not get him into trouble with the law or English society. England
Finally, it is worth thinking about the importance of Mill’s assumption in the existence of truth to his justification for freedom of opinion. If no one could be wrong or right would this require tolerance and respect of difference, or could the strongest opinion simply try to defeat all others? Mill does not try to answer this question, because the existence of truth is assumed throughout. However, thinking about such issues is important in seeing how persuasive Mill can he to people who do not share all of his assumptions.
Mill makes the case that if people hold a true opinion they will benefit from hearing dissenters argue against that opinion. He also observes that he thinks most people only know partial truths, and that they might benefit from hearing other fragments of true. This discussion reflects a particular conception of how people learn Mill contends that people learn through debate, and through having their opinions challenged. Thus, dissenting opinions are socially useful because they help people to understand the real strength (and limitations) of their own beliefs. Mill believes that the usefulness of dissenting opinions cannot be substituted for, neither when the unpopular view is partially true, nor when it is completely false.
One idea to consider when thinking about Mill’s argument is whether he has an overly idealized view of this learning process. For example, what happens when the conflicting opinions rest on fundamentally different presuppositions––are the conversations that Mill describes really possible? If people do not share the same vocabulary for discussing moral and political issues, then will they really be challenging each other or simply talking past each other? Think about what answer Mill might give to this problem. If his answer is unconvincing, then can he still say that a diversity of opinions is socially useful?Finally, it is also worth looking at Mill’s refutation of someone who thinks that Christianity is the whole truth. Mill seems to argue that such a person misinterprets Christianity. Would this response be convincing to a person with views on Christianity that are different from Mill’s? Does Mill have other arguments that might provide a better response to this claim? More generally, Mill’s discussion of religious toleration in Chapter 2 brings up the issue of whether Mill can be convincing to people whose beliefs demand intolerance of those who disagree with them. Since Mill is using social benefit as the basis of his justification for liberty, it would seem that a person who believes in intolerance could simply say that any benefits of free opinion are outweighed by allowing something evil to be expressed. Think about how persuasive such a critique is, given Mill’s claims about the need for dissent in order to truly understand one’s own opinions.