John Stuart Mill’s Big Idea: Harsh Critics Make Good Thinkers

In the latest installation of the Institute for Humane Studies and Big Think video series, Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University, presents John Stuart Mill’s arguments for open discourse and intellectual humility in the pursuit of a free society.

The first argument of Mill’s that Whittington shares is that we should have the willingness to learn from each other and the humility to admit that we might be wrong. It is only by accepting the possibility that we are wrong that we have the opportunity to learn.

“It’s important for our own sake that we be able to continue to learn and grow by talking to people with different ideas and being genuinely open to the possibility that they might persuade us,” says Whittington. “They might show flaws in our ideas, they might expose our mistakes, and, as a consequence, they might help us make progress.”

Mill was concerned about arrogance hindering individual and societal growth. We often assume that other people are not capable of sound judgement and worry that they will be misled. As a result, there exists a paternalistic idea that we should to suppress the ideas that oppose our own.

Whittington goes on to say that we should be concerned when we are unwilling to engage in a discussion that challenges our positions. He encourages us to challenge our convictions and reconsider arguments that fail to withstand criticism and skeptical inquiry.

“If we want to have real confidence in our beliefs as individuals, but also as a society, we should be particularly willing to expose our ideas to the harshest critics we can find,” says Whittington. “Because those critics will help us be more confident in the strength of our ideas.”

This video is one in a series about civil discourse in academia. To view additional videos from the series, visit the Institute for Humane Studies blog.

Prior video in this series:

Why Pitting Prejudices Against Each Other Keeps Society Free by Brookings Fellow Jonathan Rauch.

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