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Mill’s Trident: The Most Powerful of Arguments on Freedom of Speech?

What happens when a legendary philosopher gets his hands on a godly weapon? Rhetorically speaking of course. John Stuart Mill is probably one of the most influential thinkers on liberalism, liberty and individual freedom. In Greek mythology, the trident is the weapon of choice of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Mill’s Trident goes back to a three-part observation the English philosopher made on the importance of free inquiry. Coined by free speech advocate Greg Lukianoff, is it the most powerful of all arguments on freedom of speech or a self-defeating dilemma in disguise?

Mill was a staunch proponent of open thought and debate. In his 1859 philosophical essay On Liberty, which you’ll also find on my Reading List, the English philosopher explored the relationship between authority and individual freedom. With his 2021 piece on Mill’s (Invincible) Trident, Lukianoff picks up on a powerful argument Mill made in his masterpiece.

What Is Mill’s Trident?

According to the philosopher, there are only three possibilities when it comes to the evaluation of an argument: It’s either entirely wrong, partially correct or completely true. Building on this idea, Lukianoff makes the case that “every possibility is improved or strengthened by freedom of speech and inquiry”. Let’s take a close look at the sharp ends of this argument.

1. What If We’re Wrong?

The first prong of Mill’s Trident comes into play if our argument is incorrect. Lukianoff rephrases Mill’s first point as follows:

You are wrong, in which case freedom of speech is essential to allow people to correct you.

This is perhaps the most likely of all possibilities. If there’s one constant in the universe it’s that we humans tend to be wrong; constantly and about lots of things. In fact, all of science revolves around people dedicating time and effort to discovering and detailing how wrong they’ve been. But how can we be wrong when it comes to everyday arguments? We can think of an argument as consisting of a statement, an explanation and further evidence that supports the former. Being entirely incorrect would mean being wrong on all three accounts.

Let’s consider an example: New Zealand is superior to Australia because nothing beats a Kiwi. The All Blacks rugby team, for example, has been undefeated for 20 years. The claim of New Zealand’s superiority can easily be deemed incorrect due to its general nature while the explanation and illustration of the All Blacks being undefeated are demonstrably false. In the 2019 world cup alone, England beat the Kiwis in the semi-finals. We haven’t even gotten into all the other ways the argument is of low quality. There’s a myriad of informal fallacies that can render an argument logically sound but meaningless.

When it comes to the free exchange of ideas, Mill’s first possibility is perhaps the most uncontroversial one. Essentially, it says that it’s in our own self-interest for others to be able to correct us when we’re wrong. I think most people will agree that this is vital for the discovery of knowledge and truth, especially when we go beyond rugby trivia. Granted though, this possibility is also the most hurtful to the ego. Even if we were scientists, meticulously trained in celebrating our own wrongness, we’d still want the ability to contradict someone else’s nonsense. The human addiction to correct is a powerful one.

2. What If We’re Partially Correct?

The second prong of Mill’s Trident strikes whenever an argument is only partially correct. Here’s Greg Lukianoff again:

You are partially correct, in which case you need free speech and contrary viewpoints to help you get a more precise understanding of what the truth really is.

Being only partially correct is quite easy. We tend to take mental shortcuts in answering complex questions on a daily basis. It’s a fast and intuitive yet imperfect way to make decisions. Rarely do we have all the facts at hand. If we consider the anatomy of our Kiwi argument again, we may indeed find a few poor souls who fully agree with New Zealand’s superiority. Though, they may still take issue with parts of our reasoning and the supporting evidence. It’s much more likely to be objectively correct about aspects of an argument than to be 100% correct.

What does this mean for free speech? If we look at this possibility from a deficit perspective, being partially correct also means being partially wrong. Ultimately, this brings us back to the first possibility, even though our picture of the truth may be slightly higher-resolution and our ego might not be as shattered. At least we have some ground to stand on. Who knows, maybe our thinking just needs a bit of calibration. The only way for us to navigate the known unknowns is to become aware of our ignorance. According to Mill and Lukianoff, free inquiry and exchange of ideas allow us to achieve just that.

Now, in my interpretation, the first two categories also cover the right to utter rugby nonsense in the first place. Because how are we going to find out whether we’re right or (partially) wrong to begin with if we must not voice our thoughts? Sure, we could make the case that there are some ideas that are so obviously wrong, that they should never be voiced let alone discussed again. The problem is, even fatal ideas a group of people once held to be self-evidently untrue must be perpetually rediscovered by new generations; hopefully through discourse, not action.

Even if everyone agreed on what’s definitely to be considered wrong, it’s impossible to keep track of the current state of facts in an ever-growing and changing world. Besides, who or what authority decides on what is and is not to be discussed and how? Finally, if the arguments in question are so obviously wrong, whether partially or in full, it shouldn’t be a problem to debunk them.

3. What If We’re 100% Correct?

Apart from being (partially) wrong, there’s a third possibility. Oddly enough, the third prong of Mill’s Trident is also the most surprising one:

In the unlikely event that you are 100% correct, you still need people to argue with you, to try to contradict you, and to try to prove you wrong. Why? Because if you never have to defend your points of view, there is a very good chance you don’t really understand them, and that you hold them the same way you would hold a prejudice or superstition. It’s only through arguing with contrary viewpoints that you come to understand why what you believe is true.

Being 100% correct is the seemingly most satisfying and self-righteous position to be in. In terms of our example from above, it means that our claim, explanation and supporting evidence are all verifiably true. They follow logically upon each other and every attempt to falsify Kiwi exceptionalism is doomed to fail.

That’s a big ask. What’s more, the way Lukianoff phrases the third possibility implies even more nuance in regard to our awareness of being 100% correct: The only thing better than being 100% correct is knowing exactly why. This leads to three possibilities again:

  1. We don’t know that we’re 100% correct or why. Perhaps it happened by chance. Or we’re just unconsciously competent. Either way, we’re oblivious to being the arbiters of objective truth on a subject.
  2. We know we’re 100% correct but not why. We may have regurgitated a good argument we heard somewhere else. We know it’s correct. But we haven’t thought it through or could elaborate on it further.
  3. We know we’re 100% correct and why. We’ve fully thought our argument through, know it inside out and have more evidence than anyone could ever listen to. Regardless of how hard people try to find holes in our reasoning.

What if we curtailed free speech in the last case? The debate is clearly settled. The truth has been discovered. From heron out free speech can only do more harm than good, can it not? Let’s consider some factors at play:

  • Time: It’s perfectly possible the truth is settled at the moment. What if we considered the case closed and the debate ended? Well, first, many truths will become Dark Horses, that is unknown knowns. Second, what’s true today can be wrong tomorrow. It’s impossible to know how any of our arguments will hold up in the long term.
  • Practice: Debating an issue even though we know we’re 100% correct is great intellectual sparring. As Lukianoff implies, it still helps us refine our arguments. The whole premise of debate games and debate championships is based on this idea of practice and mastery. It’s also closely linked to the next factor.
  • Origin: Somehow we must’ve arrived at the point of being 100% correct and understanding why. Chances are it was through a painful process of discourse. There’d be no point in writing this very piece on Mill’s Trident if it weren’t for my own selfish wish to understand the concept better and a hope to add to a discussion.

I admit, there might be the odd case in which we’re so certain about an issue that we don’t consider it worthwhile to engage. That seems like an odd motivation for censorship, though. If the lack of difficulty is the issue, I recommend the steelmanning challenge, a method to argue the best possible case for your opponent, which is partially inspired by Mill’s ideas.

The Problem With Mill’s (Invincible) Trident

That being said, I believe there’s a major caveat to Greg Lukianoff’s concept, namely the claim of invincibility. As such, Mill’s Trident seems reminiscent of rhetorical manipulation tactics. The paradox of Morton‘s Fork comes to mind.

In the 15th century, archbishop John Morton purportedly raised a benevolence tax for the King of England. He argued that anyone living well could certainly afford to pay it. While those living humbly could do the same as they must have savings. It was a cunning rhetorical strategy with two contradictory statements leading to the same judgement. This trick of starting with the conclusion to make everything else fit also seems typical for propaganda.

So is Mill’s Trident Morton’s Fork in disguise? The short answer is ‘kind of’. On the face of it, all of Mill and Lukianoff’s premises lead to the same conclusion, the indispensability of free speech. This is despite the three arguments being rather contradictory. With his trident, Mill appears to unfairly block all the exits to different conclusions. However, it’s not that simple.

Rather than blocking all the exits, Mill’s rhetorical weapon radically keeps the doors open. While Morton’s Fork was intended to shut down discourse in favour of a pre-defined power-grabbing goal, Mill’s Trident allows open exchange so as to avoid any power-grab based on hard power or information superiority. I doubt that Morton himself would’ve appreciated the kind of scrutiny that had come from implementing Mill’s views. In sum, Mill’s Trident does the opposite of robbing people of individual agency. It safeguards it.

Free Speech and Power

That all isn’t to say that there aren’t any arguments against freedom of speech. Especially none not worth debating. Greg has addressed many of them in a piece in Areo Magazine. Where we come out often depends on personal definitions, perception of the harm of words or, let’s face it, whether we think we’re correct or not on a particular occasion. In short, whenever we don’t put finding the truth at the top of our priorities, Mill’s Trident loses its power.

Many free speech debates are not as joyful and light-hearted as rugby. The more personal, political, or ideological it gets, the more heated the debate. But it’s important to note that Lukianoff wrote the three possibilities specifically from your perspective, that is from any individual’s point of view. He notes:

Throughout history, powerful people have elevated their own prejudices and superstitions to the third category, protecting them for a time by censoring contrary viewpoints. And once that censorship failed, as nearly all censorship eventually does, those ideas were often exposed as wrong.

Closing Thoughts

Mill’s Trident comes in the guise of an invincible rhetorical weapon. By nature, that makes me suspicious. There’s always a catch, which is beautifully illustrated in Franz Kafka’s short story Poseidon. The mighty god of the sea is drowned in admin work as he manages the oceans all by himself. He just wouldn’t delegate any of his tasks. Poseidon becomes a prisoner of his own ego, rendering his trident useless. So if there’s any vulnerability to the argument of Mill’s Trident, it’s the claim of invincibility itself.

But it certainly is a powerful argument for freedom of speech. One from which even and especially its opponents benefit if they want to argue the truth. The secret lies in Mill’s Trident being self-referential. Its very conclusions guarantee dissent and allow the trident itself to be eternally scrutinised. Perhaps one day someone will prove that freedom of speech is a net loss and Mill’s Trident is a blunt weapon. Paradoxically, we can only find it out if we allow everyone to get their hands on it. Rhetorically speaking of course.