As for the nature of Mill’s arguments, consider, for example, his famous plea on behalf of moral, social and intellectual “experiments”. Throughout history, Mill argues, the authors of such innovations have been objects of ridicule, persecution and oppression; they have been ignored, silenced, exiled, imprisoned, even killed. But (Mill continues) we owe every step of progress, intellectual as well as moral, to the daring of innovators. “Without them,” he writes, “human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already exist.” Ergo, innovators – “developed human beings” is one phrase Mill uses for such paragons – should not merely be tolerated but positively be encouraged.
The philosopher David Stove called this the “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus” argument. The amazing thing about the success of the Columbus argument is that it depends on premises that are so obviously faulty. Indeed, as Stove observes, a moment’s reflection reveals that the Columbus argument is undermined by a downright glaring weakness.
Granted that every change for the better has depended on someone embarking on a new departure: well, so too has every change for the worse. And surely, Stove writes, there have been at least as many proposed innovations which “were or would have been for the worse as ones which were or would have been for the better”. This means that we have at least as much reason to discourage innovators as to encourage them, especially when their innovations bear on things as immensely complex as the organisation of society.