Mill: the Means to Sound Judgment

John Stuart Mill's famous treatise, On Liberty, addresses, in depth, the virtues and methods of human judgment when considered both as an individual and collective attribute. For Mill, the aggregate impact of human judgment when regarded from an historical viewpoint reveals "that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct" (Mill, 2005, p. 45) and this aggregate can also be regarded as a cumulative (but ongoing) massing of "truth." The key to understanding Mill's conception of truth is to understand that truth is viewed as the target of human judgment, but it is only arrived at by way of discourse and disagreement: "Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it" (Mill, 2005, p. 45-46). The process alluded to above can be considered a process of dialectic whereby existing ideas are challenged and eventually improved through the airing of viewpoints, facts, and opinions.

In order to fully understand Mill's conception of how human judgment functions both in relation to history and to empirical facts, Mill's forthright statement regarding the "means" of preserving the "value" of human judgment must be firmly kept in mind. Mills states that: "The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand" (Mill, 2005, p.46). Obviously, in Mill's estimation, reliance must be placed on human judgment; therefore, the "means" which are needed to keep human judgment "reliable" are of the most profound importance and concern. The breadth of Mill's discourse in chapter 2 of On Liberty describes the "means" which are referenced in the passage quoted above. The elucidation of the "means" provides the focal conceptual-points of Mill's conception of human judgment, and -- by extension -- the underpinnings of human civilization.

For Mill, the embodiment of reliable judgment can be paraphrased in modern terms as "open-mindedness" but it is a special kind of open-mindedness which indicates not only an acceptance of new or even exotic ideas and opinions, but the acceptance of criticism regarding extant beliefs and traditions. The person of truly reliable judgment has "kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct" and has made a practice to "listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious" (Mill, 2005, p. 46).

Obviously, there are tenuously reinforced assertions amid Mill's larger concerns regarding the nature of human judgment. One of the key weaknesses in Mill's argument is that it depends to some extent upon collective agreement, even to the possible disregard of empirical fact. When Mill asserts that "Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning" (Mill, 2005, p. 46) the point is well-taken, however, the weakness of this assertion is that it seems to disregard the nature of empiricism. Mill goes a step further when he suggests that: "It is not too much to require that what the wisest of mankind, those who are best entitled to trust their own judgment, find necessary to warrant their relying on it, should be submitted to by that miscellaneous collection of a few wise and many foolish individuals, called the public" (Mill, 46-47), which would seem to herald some sort of democratizing of knowledge.

Two examples that Mill cites in his argument make inroads against these points of contention. When Mill compares the soundness of his "means" to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, the comparison is meant to simultaneously reinforce his notion of "means" and to challenge (if subtly) the sacrosanct status of the Church itself. Mill writes: "The most intolerant of churches, the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a 'devil's advocate.' The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honors, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed" (Mill, 47) and it is obvious that Mill hopes by way of this slight hyperbole to instill in his reader the "common sense" of his vision of human judgment, to assure the reader that it is based in human nature, that it is somehow endemic to the human condition.

The other example which Mill uses is Newtonian physics. He writes: "If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do" (Mill, 47) which is a point which seems to address the question of empiricism squarely. What Mill means is that even the most complete theory of set of knowledge based upon empirical fact continues to benefit from the collective appraisal of society even when detractors are proven wrong again and again. The disproving of detractors keeps the theory or knowledge fresh, robust, and honest.

This point can also be made by an inverse logic: the most dangerous threat to any theory or knowledge which is supposed to be based on empirical truth is the lack of robust opposition because without robust opposition, no theory is probed deeply enough adn thoroughly enough to be fully exhaustive and fully functional. What Mill indicates through his word "means" in chapter 2 of On Liberty is more than open-mindedness but an acceptance of an innate culturally driven dialectic which serves human civilization by engendering sound judgment and reliable theories and beliefs.




Mill, John, S.; Cahn, s., Ten C.L., ed (2005); On Liberty; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.







Good Links






This free website was made using Yola.

No coding skills required. Build your website in minutes.

Go to and sign up today!

Make a free website with Yola