Healthy skepticism depends upon open discussion: there cannot be an open mind without a willingness to listen to other opinions and constantly rethink our attitudes.

Wikipedia lists John Stuart Mill as “One of the most influential thinkers in the history of liberalism.” He was actually one of the most influential thinkers in history. He was a voice for women’s rights, saying: “No slave is a slave to the same lengths, and in so full a sense of the word, as a wife is.” He acknowledged his own wife’s part in all of his work.

On Liberty, published in 1859, remains an important essay for anyone interested in developing healthy skepticism. Here are a few passages from that highly significant work:

“…while everyone well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel very certain may be one of the examples of error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.”

john stuart mill on liberty“There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted. 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. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgement 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. In the case of any person whose judgement is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and to expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man has ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it; for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers – knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter – he has a right to think his judgement better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through similar process.”

Mill cautioned against complacency, offering a solution to groupthink a century before the term was first used or “red-teaming” was recommended: “…if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensible to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.”

At Open Minds, we salute the wisdom of this remarkable man, and hope to always be open to other and different opinions, no matter how certain we have become of our own opinions.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Have you read On Liberty? Is there a book you’d like to see reviewed here? We’d love to hear from you!