The famous philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), born 200 years ago, was a utilitarian who became a liberal, but never understood the limits of reason, writes Roger Scruton.
|John Stuart Mill|
Two of Mill’s major contributions to political thought – radical individualism on the one hand, and a preference for the state over the family on the other – have led to many unfortunate consequences in the modern world.
May 20 this year saw the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, the greatest exponent of 19th-century liberalism, whose philosophy still dominates jurisprudence in the English-speaking world. Mill was a many-faceted intellectual who wrote on all aspects of philosophy, on law and morals, on political economy, and on poetry and the arts.
The Bible and Homer
His home-schooling at the hands of his father, the economist and historian James Mill, was a model of rigour, causing him to read and write Greek aged 6, to master Latin aged 9, and to have acquired a thorough grounding in history and mathematics aged 10, when he began work on a history of Roman government. Mill later developed a taste for poetry, acquired a perfect knowledge of French, and, despite his agnostic upbringing, read deeply in the Bible, which he believed to be one of the two Great Books, the other being Homer.
Mill was never a member of a university, but devoted his life to self-education while holding lucrative posts at the India Office. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown in 1836. This breakdown, described in Mill’s remarkable Autobiography, was in part a response to the hard-headed utilitarianism of his father and his circle of “Philosophical Radicals”. The cost-benefit morality that James Mill had inherited from Jeremy Bentham, and which he had instilled into his son, left Mill bereft of all emotional succour.
Utilitarianism (“that action is right which promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number”) was a philosophy of the head which seemed to make no room for the heart. Mill recovered through reading Wordsworth, found consolation with Harriet Taylor, the wife of a tolerant gentleman who no doubt had good grounds for trusting in his wife’s chastity, and subsequently married the widowed Mrs Taylor to continue in an apparently sexless union.
Mill’s rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defence of it, and his Utilitarianism is acknowledged today as one of the few readable accounts of a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime.
Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia. As Mill recognised, the “greatest happiness principle” must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant. In response to his own wavering discipleship, therefore, he wrote On Liberty, perhaps his most influential, though by no means his best, production.
At the time, Benthamite ways of thinking were influencing jurisprudence, and arguments based on the “general good” and the “good of society” appealed to the conservative imagination of the Victorian middle classes. It seemed right to control the forms of public worship, to forbid the expression of heretical opinions, or to criminalise adultery, for the sake of a “public morality” which exists for the general good. If individual freedom suffers, then that, according to the utilitarians, is the price we must pay.
According to Mill’s argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny – including the “tyranny of the majority”. Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it – for in such circumstances one person’s gain in freedom is another person’s loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual’s right to act and speak as he chooses.
Concept of harm
This principle has a profound significance: it is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the “sovereignty of the individual”. The problem lies in the concept of harm.
How can I prove that one person’s action does not harm another? How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs – beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability? How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life’s meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms? These questions are as significant for us as they were for Mill; the difference is that radical Islam has now replaced Scottish puritanism as the enemy of liberal values.
Mill’s defence of liberty, which was enunciated with great force and seeming clarity, soon followed the path taken by his defence of utilitarianism, and died the death of a thousand qualifications. On Liberty sees individual freedom as the aim of government, whose business is to reconcile one person’s freedom with his neighbour’s.
The Principles of Political Economy by contrast, while pretending to be a popular exposition of Adam Smith, accords extensive powers of social engineering to the state, and develops a socialist vision of the economy, with a constitutional role for trade unions, and extensive provisions for social security and welfare. The book is, in fact, a concealed socialist tract. While On Liberty belongs to the 18th-century tradition that we know as classical liberalism, Principles is an example of liberalism in its more modern sense.
Mill’s hostility to privilege, to landed property, and to inheritance of property had implications which he seemed unwilling or unable to work out. His argument that all property should be confiscated by the state on death, and redistributed according to its own greater wisdom, has the implication that the state, rather than the family, is to be treated as the basic unit of society – the true arbiter of our destiny, and the thing to which everything is owed.
The argument makes all property a temporary lease from the state, and also ensures that the state is the greatest spender, and the one least bound by the sense of responsibility to heirs and neighbours. It is, in short, a recipe for the disaster that we have seen in the communist and socialist systems, and it is a sign of Mill’s failure of imagination that, unlike Smith, he did not foresee the likely results of his favoured policies.
Taking On Liberty and Principles together we find, in fact, a premonition of much that conservatives object to in the modern liberal worldview. The “harm” doctrine of On Liberty has been used again and again to subvert those aspects of law which are founded not in policy but in our inherited sense of the sacred and the prohibited. Hence this doctrine has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators.
Meanwhile, the statist morality of Principles has flowed into the moral vacuum, so that the very same law that refuses to intervene to protect children from pornography will insist that every aspect of our lives be governed by regulations that put the state in charge.
Mill famously referred to the Conservative Party as “the stupider party”, he being, from 1865, a member of Parliament in the Liberal interest. And no doubt the average Tory MP was no match for the brain that had conceived the System of Logic – an enduring classic and Mill’s greatest achievement.
Yet Mill suffered from the same defect as his father. He never understood that wisdom is deeper and rarer than rational thought. He never understood that the intellect, which flies so easily to its conclusions, relies on something else for its premises.
Those conservatives who upheld what Mill called “the despotism of custom” against the “experiments in living” advocated in On Liberty were not stupid simply because they recognised the limits of the human intellect. They were, on the contrary, aware that freedom and custom are mutually dependent, and that to free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.
- Roger Scruton is a conservative philosopher and author. For many years he was editor of The Salisbury Review. He recently wrote Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life (available from News Weekly Books for $29.95). This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal (May 19, 2006).
POSTSCRIPT: J.S. Mill was “a book in breeches”
|James Fitzjames Stephen|
Victorian conservative philosopher and jurist, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, (1829-1894), wrote a book, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), as a rejoinder to J.S. Mill’s essay On Liberty (1859). According to R.J. White, Stephen once called Mill “a book in breeches … as narrow as it was possible for a man to be, and as cold as ice”. Stephen thought Mill not so much cold-blooded as bloodless, a body stunted by brains.