J. S. Mill and doxa

"He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.…if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion." -- On Liberty

It is all a matter of "opinion," and one can't know there is a tree in the front yard without knowing the "reasons" the other side gives for why there is no tree there.


  1. Does Mill have things like trees in mind when he refers to someone's "side of the case"? I wouldn't have thought that absolutely everything was a matter of "cases" or argument.

    Of the things that are arguments, however -- which necessarily involve contention, and quite often uncertainty on the part of either or both (or all) parties -- knowing cases other than your own is a helpful thing, whether for uncovering a fuller truth, dispelling your own mistakes, or showing the benighted slave of doxa where he has gone wrong.

    I haven't revisited Mill's words in context, but I take his use of "opinion" to refer to unexamined belief, and consideration of alternatives is part of what it takes for an idea to become examined. Wouldn't Aristotle agree that claims that are open to contention are only doxa until they've been examined?

    1. Yes, Mill would have excluded positivist "facts" from his world of opinion. He hadn't gone all the way down the postmodernist slope yet.

  2. Liberal argumentation at its best! From JSM, we also get the predecessor of the Libertarian Non-Aggression Principle, the so-called 'Harm Principle' - a ridiculous idea about when the State has justification for coercing individuals. The HP states that unless someone is physically and directly harming someone, the action should be permitted (not coerced). Of course, JSM was still arguing his points in a culture that had some vestiges of traditional Christian morality: he probably did not think that philosophers would use the principle to justify incestuous relationships, bestiality, voluntary cannibalism, necrophilia, etc etc.

    Now that Christianity is slowly being eradicated by liberals and Progressives (or amended to the extent that it loses its 'normative teeth'), we are seeing that people are quite happy to be as vulgar and disgusting as they want to be - and philosophers are quite content to argue that these barbarians and disgusting people not only *should* be allowed to do what they want to do, but that arguing that these things are grossly immoral - despite what some fancy theory says - is obtuse and ignorant. It reminds me of Chesterton's prescient claim that people would build fires to help contemplate the truth of basic arithmetic.

    1. It's not like Mill's harm principle (I'm not sure how "coercion" fits into it) is something unique to the Enlightenment. "Do no harm" is a very common saying.

    2. Incest — Gross, but not something that I think is as serious a taboo as the other stuff you list.
      Bestiality — Yeah, probably should be illegal, but on the same grounds you might give.
      Voluntary Cannibalism — Abominable and repulsive, so you got me there. Not the same as my reason for opposing voluntary slavery which is in the same vein.
      Necrophilia — Desecration of remains is the problem, not really anything to do with the living side of things.

      "…we are seeing that people are quite happy to be as vulgar and disgusting as they want to be - and philosophers are quite content to argue that these barbarians and disgusting people not only *should* be allowed to do what they want to do, but that arguing that these things are grossly immoral - despite what some fancy theory says - is obtuse and ignorant."

      Trying to figure out what you have in mind here. Can I have some examples?

  3. Samson, the whole point of the Harm Principle is to provide a justification, or, rather, limitation, on coercion. It is a naive principle that seeks to limit what can or should be illegal. The things that I listed are things that should *not* be illegal, according to the Harm Principle. And yet, it appears that there are things that two consenting adults do that do not inflict harm in the narrow sense of JSM's Harm Principle and are immoral to the extent that they *should* be illegal.

    I brought this up because JSM's Harm Principle is an excellent example of both the lack of wisdom in contemporary philosophy and the love of sheer opinion. Why? Well, for one thing, people who have correctly ordered moral intuitions immediately 'see' some sort of 'wrong making' property in the above disgusting and immoral actions, but the lover of opinion - the philodoxer - denies that with a mere dismissal (some philosophers derogatorily call these 'intuition pumps', or 'arguments from personal repugnance'.) They take some properties of wrong action and then abstract from those principles so that we can, in theory, apply these principles or rules - like JSM's Harm Principle - to other, more difficult cases in normative ethics.

    But as Gene has stated repeatedly on here, concrete experience - not abstractions - is what philosophy is, or should be, about. Philosophy is seen as something that is supposed to produce what Gene might call an 'openness' to experience in its totality: experience 'without apprehension' as philosopher Michael Oakeshott might say. The whole point of philosophy is to cut through the bullshit that the philodoxers heave upon the populace: it is not to craft more and greater monuments to said bullshit. Plato might have said that the role of philosophy is to help get people out of the Cave.

    As Gene has previously said, we obtain a greater alignment (or 'openness') when we use philosophy, virtuous actions, and legitimate religion to 'rightly order' our souls so that we can more clearly see the truth... and act as its conduit into the world. Key in this is openness is the realization that abstraction comes *from* experience: as Gene has pointed out in his new post, we have experience, first, and then abstraction. It is a mistake to assert the primacy of the abstract over the concrete. This is, however, what most contemporary philosophers do, especially in the realm of metaphysics and ethics.

    The Enlightenment period is when much of this love for abstraction and obtuse system building started, and that is why I brought it up. When you state "do not harm is a very conventional saying", you are correct. Where your analysis is off (and I am not saying this in a rude way) is that you seem to be failing to understand that JSM, NAP Libertarians, and Progressives - all creatures that come from the Enlightenment - are appealing to this concept of harm in a much stricter sense. The 'set' of what constitutes 'wrong making properties' is much less rich than, say, what a Catholic philosopher would consider 'wrong making properties', and their set of what actions should be forbidden by the use of force is certainly different.

    If you are confused about the paragraph that you quoted from me, you should keep in mind two things: 1) most philosophers, from my meager reading of the history of philosophy, have been more than content to ride the culture wherever it goes. The idea of the philosopher who bravely fights against the stupid asses that the masses so often represent is largely a myth, and 2), that being the case, you will always have philosophers who pat themselves on the back for defending stupidity in both morals and truth as if they were doing something heroic or even risque... when in actuality they are just brilliant idiots who are going along with the crowd.