Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Philosophy

What price truth?

There exists in the mind of much of the public a quite misplaced idea of an incompatibility between science and religion, or at least within the religious and scientific community there feels such a contest is under way, when in fact their questions and methods are so completely incompatible as to be irrelevant to each other (science can not replace the “meaning-gap” which religion fills for some, and the idea of religion as just bad science has always been an a-historical misnomer). Then again scientific studies like this dont really help:

a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that faith may indeed bring us health. People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief. “Even accounting for medications,” says Dr. Gail Ironson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Miami who studies HIV and religious belief, “spirituality predicts for better disease control.”

It’s hard not to be impressed by findings like that, but a skeptic will say there’s nothing remarkable — much less spiritual — about them. You live longer if you go to church because you’re there for the cholesterol-screening drive and the visiting-nurse service. Your viral load goes down when you include spirituality in your fight against HIV because your levels of cortisol — a stress hormone — go down first.

Other than the obvious placebo effect here, it still must be remarked how insignificant the benefits of faith truely are. Think about it for a second. Those of faith believe they have been welcomed into the loving embrace of a omnipotent deity who not only created the world, but knows all things that have and ever will happen, and promises you eternal life for your embrace of the true faith. But on earth you get only a slightly lower chance of dying ? It’s not exactly a great pay off is it? The big guy may be on your side, but he’s not exactly helping out around the house is he? I know all faith’s have arguments arranged for why god simply doesn’t reveal his presence and be done with it, that it is the leap of faith that makes it meaningful. But talk about hiding your light under a bushel! Killing all except a few faithful through a giant flood was apparently O.K in ancient times, but now the active benefit of faith on believers wellbeing is no different to that brought through eating more broccoli in one’s diet!

Much like Pascal’s wager, i find the whole idea of selecting beliefs based on personal benefit quite distasteful and illogical. To think that the same omnipotent being who you are prepared to rely on, couldn’t see through your selfish motives. That tis better to falsely adopt a belief so as to be a part of the right club, than earnestly be wrong in your search for truth, in the eye’s of an omnipotent, ever loving god. What price truth then, if it is suggested you sell it for a lower chance of dying (with no chance of a money back guarantee should something go wrong!), even eternal life seems a somewhat ugly reward for the selling out of our belief for the rest of our (confirmed, real, tangible) natural life about the meaning of that life, the structure and form of how it came to be and to what ends you should devote your waking life.

For my own part, I’m agnostic in that I cant accept this world bears anything but a indifferent attitude towards human life. And so whilst intellectually I do not know the answer to the existence of god/gods/a spiritual side to existence (and in this i believe all who claim to know that answer, including atheists as faith bound), morally this universe makes much more sense if it is devoid of such a being (or at least one with any of the positive moral characteristics we bind up in the label “god”). But more than that, I enjoy not having an answer to the deepest and perhaps most important question in all human life. The existence of a god changes everything for human existence. To be certain one way or the other, yet with such pitiful evidence available seems to close so many doors and a fascinating intellectual struggle. But hey, if they’re right, they might at least have a few more years to see out than we wrestlers with the truth. Swings and roundabouts I guess…

The inspiration for this blog

Rather than just recounting the details of my “About” page, I thought i’d post an article I wrote a few years back that is the real inspiration for my blog and academic career:


150 years ago this year John Stuart Mill published ‘On Liberty’. To my mind, no finer work of english language has been written, not just for its clarity and force of language, but the importance of its cause.

The point and purpose of Mills classic essay ‘On Liberty’ is to advance one simple principle

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral is not a sufficient warrant.”

These words, when I first read them as a disillusioned 20-something rang out to me like no other piece of literature, film, philosophy or writing ever has. Mill in two short sentences lays out the absolute limits of societies hold over the individual, in a way that can be applied in each case and circumstance as calculatingly and rationally as Mills Utilitarian ethics demands.

But for me, whilst there is such great intellectual resonance in this phrase, and however quickly it formed a key principle on which I base my own political philosophy, it was not simply the intellectual, but the emotive which makes this work stand out for me above all else. 

Mill’s own education and formative years are unlikely to be matched by anyone of contemporary eras, and nor should it be. He was reading Plato in the original Greek by the time he turned seven, Latin commentaries on the Roman Republic at eight, and devising his own logic systems in response to Aristotle at twelve. Mills education by his fathers hand was designed for the express purpose of turning him into the chief proponent of the system of Utilitarian ethics, summed up blandly as ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. 

Mill suffered for these trials, and by age 20 he experienced a mental breakdown and deep depression for over 6 months. This black spell only began to abate when he turned to literature and poetry and found in them the non-purely rational and intellectual demands and rigors as had been so harshly forced upon him by his father’s expectations. 

I first encountered JS Mill when I was of a similar age, though a very different background. I had cruised through school, convinced my schools name and status would entitle me to a place in university, and when I found myself only able to scrape into the local TAFE I had to wonder at my choices. I attempted to overcome this through my own program of study, beginning with the man to whom all western philosophy is mere footnotes, Plato. (Whitehead in Russell 2004)

But in Plato, however great my admiration for his thought, language and ability to challenge common dogma and encourage philosophical inquiry, I found a man whose totalitarian system of political organisation I began to loathe. Further pursuits into Philosophy, notably Hegel, Kant and Sartre seemed similarly torturous, either for their repulsive ideas or turgid language. 

I first read Mill sitting on the bus one evening on my way home, and when I first came across that passage ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ I was dumfounded.
Mill for the first time in my education seemed someone who could not just write but express the very notions and principles that were beginning to form within my own conscious. I found in Mill not just a realization that participation within the great political and philosophical debates was possible, but that there were natural allies and reasonable, and sensible men involved in these to whom I could look for inspiration and agreement. Finally I could escape having to grit my teeth as I read Plato or Aristotle for the purpose of improving my mind, all the while detesting most of what they advocated.

Mill’s purpose in the essay is to stress the importance of individual liberty, not simply from the tyrannous king, but also from the majority when acting as a mob. In the face of those who argue we must censor thought or discussion, he recognizes that it is as wrong for one man to stop all humanity thinking or advocating a certain position, as it is for all humanity to stop just one man. Likewise, those who are possessed of the truth are as much robbed when discredited and heretical views are censored, -for they lose the ability to test and prove their own beliefs-, as those who actually holds such views are damaged by this censorship.

Mills individualism is a classical individualism. He does not see man, as Thomas Hobbes or John Locke might, once free and now in the chains of the state (to which all good liberals and individualists must seek to hold back its omnipresence), but rather his individualism, and liberalism is a search for development, and the pursuit of character.

Though I was only dimly aware of it at first, each time I re-read On Liberty, Mill’s declaration of the supreme sovereignty of the individual, what resonates is not just the demand for personal freedom as self-protection, but a clarion call for self-development.

Mill advocated the supreme liberty of the individual not according to some abstract ‘natural right’ handed down by god or nature, and never utters the words ‘human rights’ but instead seeks that we may use freedom to develop our utmost in character and virtue. This Mill argues is the true aim of human freedom and purpose.

As Mill writes in an often ignored passage in ‘On Liberty’ 

“the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct, should be to human beings an end, to which the specific pursuit either of their own happiness or of that of others (except so far as included in that idea) should, in any case of conflict give way.”

Mill does not seek liberty simply for its own sake, but according to his utilitarian principles so that we may for our own sake become who we truly are. Mill does not seek to hector or demand we follow his moral or personal as a local priest might, but instead demands the state guarantee us the freedom to take real responsibility for our own passage in life and use of that freedom.

For a disillusioned young man, John Stuart Mill’s work ‘On Liberty’ spoke to me of three great themes. One was recognition that there were great and sensible philosophical minds I could honestly engage with, and find some common agreement. And If I could agree, I reasoned, I could surpass. I also found in Mills simple principle the most honest and forthright principle for the organisation of the states laws that has been before or since been presented. 

And finally, I found in the space and freedom he offers via his principle, an opportunity, and a calling to take responsibility for the use of that freedom. The slave is never answerable for his actions, only the free man is. That is the burden and the joy of freedom. And for Mill, it was the development of that character and virtue as would guide us in our choices to which individuals must turn their focus and thought. 

Mill’s work gave me reassurance I could understand and argue at this level, it gave me opportunity, it offered clarity and common sense, and perhaps most importantly it demanded I take responsibility for my choices from that moment forth. That I am where I am today, PhD student, Lecturer, blogger, is in large part due to the influence of John Stuart Mill and his essay ‘On Liberty’.

p.s – I chose the image for this post because it shows Harriet Mill, his beloved wife, and too whom ‘On Liberty’ is dedicated and is her proper memorial. Also because the more traditional image of Millas the dour faced victorian doesn’t do justice to the passion of the man in both his writing and life.