John Stuart Mill and the massacre in Norway

Anders Behring B., suspected of killing at least 90 people at a youth camp of the norwegian Workers‘ Party on July 22, used a „quote“ from John Stuart Mill in his one and only Twitter message:

«One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100 000 who have only interests

The original quote seems to come from John Stuart Mill’s famous essay „On Liberty“ (1859).

The suspect seems to have misquoted Mill. His quote is off, amongst other things by a factor of 1000.

The original quote reads:

„One person with a belief, is a social power to ninety-nine who have only interests. They who can succeed in creating a general persuasion that a certain form of government, or a social fact of any kind, deserves to be preferred, have mad nearly the most important setp which can possibly be taken towards ranging the powers of society on its side.“

Mill (1806-1873), a social liberal, who opposed slavery and „the subjugation of women“, was of course not talking about acts of violence that a single person should commit against people with differing opinions. Mill was talking about the powers of persuasion that could sway public opinion. Mill often quotes the figure of 99 percent to illustrate how much of every day life decisions are just based on hearsay, convention, social pressure, habit:„Ninety-nine in a hundred of what  are called educated men are in this condition.“

Mill favors conscious, well-argued reasons. Such a good, rational conviction, based on a clear belief, can sway the behavior of 99 people.

Mill’s essay, that the suspected murderer is alleged to have quoted, includes a clear call for rational arguments and rational choice:

„And the maxim, that the government of a country is what the social forces in existence compel it to be, is true only in the sense in which it favours, instead of discouraging, the attempt to exercise, among all forms of government practicable in the existing condition of society, a rational choice.

A rational choice. Amen to that.

(Hilmar Schmundt)

Here’s an online edition of „On Liberty“

Here are some quotes from Mill’s essay:

„No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.“

* * *

It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right.

* * *
In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter — he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

* * *

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion.
* * *

 But disinterested benevolence can find other instruments to persuade people to their good, than whips and scourges, either of the literal or the metaphorical sort. 

* * *

Acts injurious to others require a totally different treatment. Encroachment on their rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage not justified by his own rights; falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them against injury — these are fit objects of moral reprobation, and, in grave cases, of moral retribution and punishment. And not only these acts, but the dispositions which lead to them, are properly immoral, and fit subjects of disapprobation which may rise to abhorrence. 

* * *

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