Wednesday, July 07, 2010

John Stuart Mill on the Value of Moral Disagreement

I have been thinking lately about the value (or disvalue) of philosophical moral reflection, and I find myself reading, yet again, Mill's On Liberty. I love the prose in that book. Here is what Mill says about the value of moral disagreement:

We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers a lively apprehension of the truth which they normally recognise, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire a real mastery over the conduct. No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is fighting for its existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines; and in that period of every creed's existence, not a few persons may be found, who have realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced the full effect on the character which belief in that creed ought to produce in a mind thoroughly imbued with it. But when it has come to be an hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively -- when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience, until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being. Then are seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the majority, in which the creed remains as it were outside the mind, incrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant.
You go, baby!


Autumnal Harvest said...

As an American atheist, this is why I wish we had an established church. ;)

CP said...

Feyerabend, in ‘How to Defend Society Against Science’, on the healthiness of competing ‘creeds’:

“Ideologies are marvellous when used in the companies of other ideologies. They become boring and doctrinaire as soon as their merits lead to the removal of their opponents.”

He is interested in the broad intellectual healthiness of society as a whole, while Mill focuses on the particular intellectual virtue of understanding, and that only in the believers themselves, but I think the two have the same sorts of problems in mind. That is, if Feyerabend is serious. It can be hard to tell.