Alan Charles Kors on John Stuart Mill and Individual Liberty

By on August 4, 2009

FIRE Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus Alan Charles Kors was featured in a short video for George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center. Alan discusses speech codes on campus, John Stuart Mill’s philosophy on individual liberty, and why we should be willing to tolerate error. On the last topic, he says: 

It’s truth itself that benefits the most from a confrontation with error. … It knows that it can confront and overcome other people’s ideas and it’s held as a living belief, not merely as rote. 

This insight of Mill’s, ably related by Alan, is key to understanding why the philosophy of the marketplace of ideas for which FIRE forcefully advocates is so key to the intellectual life of our campuses. The fundamental (and, I contend, erroneous) assumption behind campus speech codes and ideological indoctrination is that students are better off not even hearing ideas that the powers that be believe are erroneous. 

This may have some merit when it comes to elementary school children, but is counterproductive and depressing when it is applied to adults on a college campus. For instance, take a policy that bans "racism." In a free marketplace of ideas, racist ideas would compete with the ideas of equality and whichever holds more truth is likely to win out. Does anyone seriously believe that, in such an environment, the majority of college students on any campus in the United States will be convinced that yes, white people are superior to black people? If not, why not let racist ideas compete and lose? Not only would this have the benefit of letting everyone know who the racists are (that’s important to know, if you’re someone who might be their victim), but it would also likely convince many of them that they are wrong when their arguments are found wanting. If such a process cannot take place on a college campus, where all students are selected for a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, where can it take place? 

John Stuart Mill, Alan Charles Kors, and FIRE are all convinced that the truth, if fairly and rationally considered, has a not-at-all-coincidental tendency to triumph over error. If a free society cannot trust its scholars to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, then that society is in grave trouble indeed.