Blogs > Liberty and Power > J. S. Mill and Larry Summers

Aug 8, 2005 1:06 pm

J. S. Mill and Larry Summers

I'm rereading Mill's On Liberty in preparation for teaching it for the first time in a couple of years. Early in the chapter on the liberty of thought and discussion, he argues:

First, the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course, deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion because they are sure that it is false is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.

Are you listening Nancy Hopkins?

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Jeanine Ring - 1/25/2005

Perhaps it is worth remembering that many of the great minds of history... such as Socrates, Kirkegaard, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand, have been most unscholarly as well.

I think that the value the modern positivist academy places on scholarship, to the detriment of the forceful living of examined conviction angainst the niceites of society, in quite overrated. I see no evidence that human beings have become wiser through the ethos of 'scholarship'; or that modern intellectuals are wiser than the ancients; the worship of 'scientific' rigor has to my mind led to dreadful misapplicatons of science and an enervation of the life of what has been called 'the great conversation.' I do not see great spirits confined in scholarly pens, and if the of leisure that is the subtance of academic life does not encourage great spirits, I fail to see what its value is.

I prefer spirits like Hopkins to 'good scholars' any day.


Jeanie Ring )(*)(

Sheldon Richman - 1/25/2005

It is precisely because there are lectures that deserved to walked be out on that I disparage this woman for her political stunt. I don't know what the research shows, but given the mildness of Summers's remarks, her melodramatic reaction was unscholarly.

Steven Horwitz - 1/24/2005

Okay, but then our disagreement is over where Summers' view sits on the "plausibility" spectrum. I wouldn't place it nearly as far to one side as you do. If I thought it was there (or akin to Mormons and Carson), then your argument is, well, more plausible.

Roderick T. Long - 1/24/2005

Well, I guess I see it this way: given, on the one hand, the necessarily tiny amount of human behaviour that is likely to be innate (because there is necessarily an inverse ratio between an organism's capacity to learn and its repertoire of innate proclivities, with the result that no organism that is capable of reason can possibly have a sizeable repertoire of instinctive proclivities), and, on the other hand, the enormous and pervasive nature of culturally-based gender stereotypes, the likelihood that biology rather than culture plays a significant role in the gender differences Summers was discussing is so vanishingly small that it seems natural to wonder why Summers finds it a salient hypothesis.

Suppose someone said, "Maybe Johnny Carson was killed by the Mormons; I'm not saying he was, but we need to investigate that possibility with an open mind." Well, is it possible that Carson was killed by the Mormons? Sure, in some sense. But in the absence of any good reason to think so, it seems very odd to introduce it as a hypothesis. Wouldn't it be natural to suspect an anti-Mormon bias here? Would a Mormon be guilty of a presumption of infallibility for declining to join in such an investigation?

As for the "science to back up" claims of innate differences, the scientific evidence I've seen takes the form of noting that psychological differences between the sexes have neurophysiological correlates, and inferring that such differences must be innate. But this is such a blatant non sequitur (don't acquired psychological differences have neurophysiological correlates too? don't all psychological states have neurophysiological correlates?) as to be grounds for suspicion also.

Lisa Casanova - 1/24/2005

Whether his remarks are right, wrong, brillant, piggish, insulting, etc is a debate in itself, but Hopkins' actions touched on a personal peeve of mine. I have watched and participated in many political arguments that were stimulating and civil, but I have also been engaged in debates that I thought were good-natured, only to have someone suddenly declare that I had lost the argument because I was just saying things to be offensive. I don't say things just to offend, but my views are a little outside the mainstream among people I know. It's very difficult to know what to say under those circumstances, since the original subject of debate ends up being dropped, and the other person basically gets the last word because you're busy trying to soothe their hurt feelings, apologize, and plead that you're not really a jerk. It seems to me like a cheap tactic to claim that you've won an argument, when really you've made no meaningful rebuttal, you're just crying that you're offended. I would hope that if the subject is really important enough, we could do better than that.

Steven Horwitz - 1/24/2005

Fair enough that she wasn't about to use force to prevent Summers from talking, or presumably other people from saying the same thing. And of course we shouldn't be "forced" to sit through absolutely anything and everything. Still, Summers remarks, especially if they were thrown out as conjecture, are well within the bounds of "other sides" of the issue, complete with some science to back them up. To walk out of the room in that way seems to me to suggest precisely the pretense infallibility that Mill points to. What harm, in fact how much good, could come from actually listening to the argument/discussion and knowing an other side of the issue better (see Sheldon's signature)?

Yes, I can imagine situations where walking out might be appropriate (e.g., a defense of genocide), but this isn't one of them.

In fact, I'm not sure I even see how the argument in question is personally insulting. Suppose there are such innate difference and the distributions of math/science talent between men and women have different means but still significant overlap. How is it insulting to Hopkins personally to make that claim? It says nothing about her as an individual; it's only a claim about men and women as groups. And it's a claim that could be true (and if true, hardly justifies any sort of discrimination). To see only insult and not be willing to hear out the argument and engage it is what bothers me.

Lord knows I've sat through enough crap that I've disagreed with over my life!

Roderick T. Long - 1/24/2005

I'm not sure I see the applicability of the Mill quote to ths case. No one is suggesting that Summers should be subjected to government censrship. But I don't see that Hopkins was under any obligation to stay and listen to Summers' remarks. Mill's principle can't mean that people have to sit and listen placidly to absolutely everything.

Sheldon Richman - 1/24/2005

My e-mail signature contains my favorite Mill quote (On Liberty): “He who knows only his own side of the case,
knows little of that.”