Infallibility

While almost no sane person would claim infallibility for himself, very many of us “shift” “the assumption of infallibility…from one point to another.” [John Stuart Mill, “On Liberty,” in Britannica Great Books, V. 43, 277.]

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.

In the present age—which has been described as “destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism”–in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs so useful, not to say indispensable, to well-being that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments to at on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions. [Mill, 276-7.]

An obvious example of such absurdity would be a leader making criticism of himself illegal. A less ridiculous example would be the insistence of “patriots” that their country’s wars are always just and their country’s warmongers always men of peace…and surely never terrorists. And what of the right of racists to promote their creed?

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