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Why Tolerate? Reflections on the Millian Truth Principle

Philosophia, Vol. 25, Nos. 1-4, pp. 131-152, 1997

22 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2009  

Raphael Cohen-Almagor

University of Hull

Date Written: February 7, 2009


The aim of this essay is to reflect on the Millian, utilitarian argument from truth that is held as one of the most conspicuous answers to the question Why tolerate? This argument postulates that only in a free market of ideas may the truth be discovered. Even the most unpopular idea may contain some truth in it and may contribute to the advancement of knowledge. It further commands us to contest those opinions which are believed to be true vigorously and earnestly to explore some further truth, and to acknowledge their false aspects. The results of free exchange of opinions will either confirm our idea, or bring some doubt to our attention, to cast accounts and maybe change our opinion, at least to some extent.

After reflecting on some of the common arguments that are frequently mentioned in this connection, I discuss Mill's formulation of the Truth Principle as it came into expression in his writings. Here I reflect on his article "Law of Libel and Liberty of the Press" which did not receive adequate attention by scholars. I show that it is difficult to reconcile what Mill had to say in this article with what he later said in On Liberty. I further maintain that the Millian view of truth as superior to all other social values might endanger the very ground which the Truth Principle is intended to safeguard, i.e., tolerance. The holding of truth as the most important value might result in harming individuals, and in generating an atmosphere of intolerance.

Keywords: Mill, truth, tolerance, falsehood, libel, utilitarianism

JEL Classification: 700

Suggested Citation

Cohen-Almagor, Raphael, Why Tolerate? Reflections on the Millian Truth Principle (February 7, 2009). Philosophia, Vol. 25, Nos. 1-4, pp. 131-152, 1997. Available at SSRN:

Raphael Cohen-Almagor (Contact Author)

University of Hull ( email )

Cottingham Road
Hull, Great Britain HU6 7RX
United Kingdom


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