John Stuart Mill – Liberty

The general outlook of John Stuart Mill’s social philosophy, and especially his ethics, was determined perhaps as much by personal experience as by intellectual considerations. From birth he was destined by his father to carry on the crusade of the Philosophical Radicals, and certainly the elder Mill never envisaged the possibility that the objectives of that crusade could change.

The younger Mill from an early age was subjected to the most dogmatic indoctrination and the most extreme educational forcing ever suffered by a man who afterward attained intellectual independence. It was not until after his father’s death in 1836 that Mill was able to strike out his own line of approach to ethical questions, though by that time (at the age of thirty) he had long been before the public as an editor and as a contributor to the liberal reviews.

In the meantime this enforced precocity had induced a period of nervous exhaustion from which he finally escaped, as he tells in his Autobiography, by absorbing himself in the reading of Wordsworth’s poetry, certainly not a method contemplated in his father’s philosophy of education. Thus Mill’s intellectual life became ambivalent.

He retained an exaggerated allegiance, enforced by an intense sense of personal loyalty, toward the philosophy which he had learned from his father and from Bentham and of which he had been predestined to be the exponent. At the same time he achieved a considerable degree of sympathy and appreciation, but hardly a critical understanding, for an antithetical philosophy derived from German idealism which he associated with Wordsworth.

In the first third of the nineteenth century this philosophy was represented in England chiefly by the rather formless metaphysical speculation and the personal influence of Coleridge. Mill’s mind was characterized by a very high quality of candor and intellectual honesty which made him almost nervously anxious to do justice to a philosophy opposed to his own. Thus he was inclined to make concessions which implied far more than he realized and which were often more generous than critical.

The companion essays on Bentham and Coleridge, which he published in the London and Westminster Review in 1838 and 1840 respectively and which were a kind of declaration of independence from his father’s influence, did rather more than justice to Coleridge and somewhat less than justice to Bentham. With rare intellectual perceptivity Mill sensed in Coleridge’s philosophy a regard for the institutional nature of society and for the historical evolution of institutions which he felt to be lacking in the tradition of British Empiricism.

At a later date he was attracted by similar qualities in the French philosophy of Auguste Comte. In a broad sense, therefore, Mill’s philosophy was an effort to modify the empiricism in which he was bred by taking into account the very different point of view of Kantian and post-Kantian German philosophy.

Unfortunately Mill’s candor and open-mindedness were not matched by the grasp or the originality required to bring about a really coherent synthesis of philosophies so widely divergent, a task which in truth occupied almost the whole attention of English and American philosophers in the later nineteenth century. Mill’s thought had all the marks of a transitional period in which the problems have outgrown the apparatus for their solution. Without much exaggeration it might be said that his books followed a formula.

On nearly every subject he was likely to begin with a general statement of principles which, taken literally and by itself, appeared to be as rigid and as abstract as anything that his father might have written. But having thus declared his allegiance to the ancestral dogmas, Mill proceeded to make concessions and restatements so far-reaching that a critical reader was left in doubt whether the original statement had not been explained away.

Thus, for example, his Logic was by profession empirical, though it went to surprising lengths in recognizing the scientific importance of deduction and it tried to reduce inductive procedure to rules analogous to the rules of the syllogism. Yet Mill’s theory of knowledge had no way of explaining the logical cohesiveness of formal reasoning except indissoluble association which, as A. D. Lindsay said, became a philosophical maid-of-all-work called in to explain any discrepancies between the facts and what ought to be the facts on the assumption of a crude empiricism. Mill was never able to achieve critical detachment toward the philosophy in which he was bred.

On its face his psychology was still a sensationalism in which the association of ideas provided the only law of mental structure. The theory of motivation and of value in his ethics was still overtly the hedonistic calculus, and his utilitarianism was still in strict logic the egoistic individualism of Bentham.

Yet in no case would these statements correspond with the actual meaning of Mill’s philosophy. The qualifications and not the theory were what carried his meaning. For this reason systematic criticism is fatally easy and practically useless. The importance of Mill’s philosophy consisted in its departures from the system which it still professed to support and hence in the revisions that it made in the utilitarian tradition.

The ethical theory which Mill set forth in his Utilitarianism illustrates this defect of his philosophy, yet it is also the root of his revision of liberalism. He began by accepting apparently in Toto the greatest happiness principle as it had been stated by Bentham. The desire for one’s own greatest pleasure is the individual’s only motive, and the greatest happiness of everyone is at once the standard of social good and the object of all moral action. Mill united these propositions by an argument so patently fallacious that it became a standard exhibit in textbooks of logic.

He then qualified his hedonism by asserting that pleasures can be graded as superior or inferior in moral quality. This put him in the indefensible logical position of demanding a standard for the measurement of a standard, which is a contradiction in terms, and also reduced his utilitarianism to complete indefiniteness, since the standard for judging the quality of pleasures was never stated and if stated could not itself be a pleasure.

The root of all this confusion was that Mill was not willing to accept Bentham’s greatest happiness principle for what in effect it was, namely, a rough and ready criterion for judging the utility of legislation. Used for this purpose, which was the only purpose that had interested Bentham, it was logically independent of Bentham’s theory of psychological motives and might be equally applicable to legislation no matter what standards of personal morality individuals might follow.

The distinctive characteristic of Mill’s utilitarianism, on the other hand, was that he tried to express a conception of in moral character consonant with his own personal idealism. From this point of view Bentham’s famous pronouncement, that pushpin is as good as poetry if it gives one the same pleasure, is simply vulgar nonsense, while Mill’s own pronouncement, that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” states a normal moral reaction but is certainly not hedonism.

Mill’s ethics was important for liberalism because in effect it abandoned egoism, assumed that social welfare is a matter of concern to all men of good will, and regarded freedom, integrity, self-respect, and personal distinction as intrinsic goods apart from their contribution to happiness. Moral convictions of this sort underlay Mill’s whole conception of a liberal society.

It was therefore natural that his most characteristic and also most lasting contribution to political thought should have been contained in the essay On Liberty (1859). This essay struck a definitely new note in utilitarian literature. As Mill himself said in another place, the utilitarians of his father’s generation had desired liberal government not for the sake of liberty but because they thought it would be efficient government, and it was indeed true that Bentham had changed nothing but details when he turned from benevolent despotism to liberalism.

For Mill freedom of thought and investigation, freedom of discussion, and the freedom of self-controlled moral judgment and action were goods in their own right. They aroused in him a warmth and a fervor that hardly appeared in his other writings but which placed the essay On Liberty beside Milton’s Areopagitica as one of the classical defenses of freedom in the English language.

Mill believed as a matter of course that intellectual and political freedom are in general beneficial both to the society that permits them and to the individual that enjoys them, but the effective part of his argument was not utilitarian.

When he said that all mankind has no right to silence one dissenter he was really affirming that freedom of judgment, the right to be convinced rather than coerced, is an inherent quality of a morally mature personality and that a liberal society is one which both acknowledges that right and shapes its institutions in such a way that the right is realized.

To permit individuality and private judgment, as if they were tolerated vices, is not enough; a liberal society puts positive value on them as essential to well-being and as marks of a high civilization. This valuation of free personality affected profoundly Mill’s valuation of liberal government.

He did not defend popular government because it is efficient. He had grave doubts whether it always is, and he had quite lost his father’s confidence that the apparatus of liberal government, such as the suffrage, would always be rationally used for beneficial ends. The real argument for political freedom, he thought, is that it produces and give scope to a high type of moral character.

To hear public questions freely discussed, to have a share in political decisions, to have moral convictions and to take the responsibility for making them effective among the ways in which reasonable human beings are produced. The reason for constructing this kind of character is not that it serves an ulterior end but that it is an intrinsically humane, civilized kind of character.

If it were felt that the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; that it is not only a coordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilization, instruction, education, culture, but is itself a necessary part and condition of all these things; there would be no danger that liberty should be undervalued.

It is a striking characteristic of Mill’s argument for liberty, and even of his essay on Representative Government, that strictly political questions are no longer in the foreground. His argument was addressed not to the state but to society.

The essay On Liberty was an appeal not for relief from political oppression or for a change in political organization, but for a public opinion that is genuinely tolerant, that values differences in point of view, that limits the amount of agreement it demands, and that welcomes new ideas as sources of discovery.

The threat to liberty which Mill chiefly feared was not government but a majority that is intolerant of the unconventional, that looks with suspicion on divergent minorities, and is willing to use the weight of numbers to repress and regiment them.

This was a possibility that had never troubled the older generation of liberals, indeed that they had never thought of, as long as their problem had been to take government out of the hands of an intrenched minority. The elder Mill had supposed that the reform of representation and the extension of the suffrage, given a moderate degree of public education, would solve all serious problems of political liberty.

By 1859 it was apparent that even after substantial reforms the millennium did not follow, and that the achievement of liberty was more than a problem in the mechanics of political organization. What Mill recognized, and what the older liberalism had never seen, was that behind a liberal government there must be a liberal society.

This recognition that political institutions are part of a larger social context which largely determines the way in which they work was in itself an important discovery and it indicated an important addition to political concepts. Society or the community becomes a third factor, and a preponderating factor, in the relationship between the individual and government and in securing the individual’s liberty.

Mill’s fear of an oppressive and intolerant public opinion was in part a realization that the individualism of early liberal theory was inadequate. At the same time it is difficult to say what precisely this phase of Mill’s thinking connoted. That it was a note of disillusionment, as compared with the high hopes of his father’s generation, is evident.

Probably in part it reflected also the shrinking of a sensitive, fastidious, and highly intellectual personality from the contact with mediocrity implied by practical politics. Perhaps it indicated also a half-expressed fear that the democratizing of society might prove to be incompatible with individual distinction. Such a fear was common enough in the mid-nineteenth century.

Yet it is quite certain that Mill had not lost faith in the traditional lines of liberal reform, that on the contrary he valued some of them, like the enfranchisement of women, out of all proportion to their importance. In his Representative Government he hailed as a great discovery that ignis fatuus of doctrinaire liberalism, proportional representation.

The total impression produced by Mill’s theory of liberty is therefore a little indefinite or perhaps even negative. While he affirmed an ethical valuation of liberty that had been quite lacking in earlier liberal writing, he identified liberty with no new lines of approach to political problems. In particular he never really faced the problems of individual freedom that are peculiarly characteristic of an industrial society or the problems of freedom that press most heavily on wage earners in such a society.

When Mill went on from his general estimate of the moral worth of freedom to his practical rule for deciding what limitations either society or the state is justified in imposing on it, his essay was at its weakest. What he proposed was that it is possible to distinguish a class of self-regarding action which affects the interests of no persons besides the agent and with which neither society nor the state ought to interfere.

Taken literally this would reduce freedom to a triviality, since an act that affects no one but a single person probably will not affect him very much. Mill’s argument avoided the appearance of triviality only because it was circular, as no doubt Bentham would have pointed out. For an act which concerns only an individual really means an act for which he ought to take the responsibility and which therefore ought to be left to his own decision. But it was just this area of private decision that Mill proposed to define.

His argument would be convincing only if there were a body of natural rights which belong intrinsically to individuals and of which they ought never to be deprived, but obviously no such line of reasoning was open to a utilitarian. On the other hand, it was equally clear, in view of the intrinsic value which he had attached to freedom, that Mill could not fall back on Bentham’s reasoning and hold that rights are creatures of the law and that individuals have only such liberties as the state gives them.

The fundamental difficulty with Mill’s argument was that it never really analyzed the relationship between freedom and responsibility. At time he retained the traditional view derived from Bentham that any compulsion or even any social influence is an abridgement of liberty. Ye he never supposed that there could be any important freedom without law and when he identified liberty with civilization, he did not imagine that there could be civilization without society. What Mill’s theory of liberty required was a thoroughgoing consideration of the dependence of personal liberty on social and legal rights and obligations. It was this which T. H. Green tried to add to liberalism.

The uncleanness of Mill’s criterion for defining the proper limits of legislation became apparent when he went on to discuss actual cases. His conclusions conformed to no rule at all but depended on quite subjective habits of judgment. Thus he regarded prohibition of the sale of alcoholic liquors as an infringement of liberty though compulsory education is not-a conclusion that certainly could not be justified on the ground that a man’s education affects other persons more than himself-and he was prepared to accept a large and ill-defined regulation of business and industry in the interest of public health and welfare. However unclear the principle, the important result emerged that Mill had abandoned economic laissez faire.

Even Bentham’s maxim that legislation is inherently bad and so must be kept at a minimum has lost the connotation that it had for Bentham. For all practical purposes Mill simply laid aside the dogma of earlier liberalism that the largest amount of freedom coincides with the absence of legislation and accepted the evident fact that-there are many forms of coercion other than that exercised by the law.

But one of two results must follow either legislation cannot be judged at all by the liberal purpose of diminishing coercion or liberal theory must be extended to considering the relation of legal coercion to the effective though nonlegal coercion that would exist if the state abstained from acting. This was the issue that Green tried later to meet with the theory of positive freedom. So far as Mill was concerned, he merely accepted the need for social legislation, probably on humanitarian grounds, with no clear theory of its justifiable limits.

Mill’s economic theories showed like deficiencies of logical clarity and therefore are subject to like criticism. He started indeed from the economics of Ricardo and the classical theorists and in principle he never definitely abandoned this position. He became convinced, however, that the classical economists had confused certain general and inescapable conditions of production with conditions of distributing the products of industry which arise from the historical development of economic and social institutions.

The latter, therefore, he conceived to be matters of public policy and hence within the province of legislative control. Indeed in his later years he was willing to contemplate a degree and kind of control which he called socialism. This criticism of classical economics indicated one aspect of a general deficiency which Mill came to attribute to the social philosophy of the early liberals, namely, that it neglected the institutional nature of society and the historical growth of institutions.

His criticism of classical economics was sound in so far as it merely pointed out a tendency to regard all economic concepts as absolutely general, without regard for historical conditions, and therefore as derived from universal properties of human nature and unchangeable physical conditions of human life.

Mill’s distinction between historical institutions and general psychological laws of human behavior, however, or between institutions and unchangeable physical conditions, did not coincide with the economic distinction between production and distribution. Consequently it did not really bear upon the economic difficulties of combining a capitalist system of production with a socialist system of distribution.

The significant feature of Mill’s economics was that he substantially abandoned the conception of natural economic laws and in consequence the dogma of a self-regulating competitive economic system. Thus he opened the whole question of the relation between legislation and the economy, even its relation to the maintenance of a free market. The practical implications of this change, however, were far from clear. Like liberals in general Mill retained a considerable suspicion of government and all its ways. What it did, he suspected, would probably be done badly.

Hence he preferred individual initiative and feared paternalism, though his objection to the latter was ethical and not economic. Mill’s economic thought, like his social philosophy in general, was really directed by a generous moral indignation against the injustices of a capitalist society which, as he said, distributed the product of labor almost in an inverse ratio to the labor.

A just and at the same time a sympathetic estimate of Mill’s liberalism is very difficult. Nothing is easier, for reasons that have been explained, than to represent it as a typical example of the futility of putting new wine into old bottles. His expressly stated theories-of human nature, of morals, of society, and of the part to be played by government in a liberal society-were always inadequate to the load that he made them carry.

Yet this kind of abstract analysis and criticism is neither sympathetic nor historically sound. The clarity of his writing, though it was too often a superficial clarity, his manifest generosity and candor, which often made the worst of his deficiencies, and his almost hereditary position as the successor of the first 8eneration of liberals, all gave weight or influence to his opinions out

of proportion to the philosophical argumentation that he was able to put behind them, Paradoxical as such a judgment seems when applied to a thinker who concerned himself continually with the rationale of evidence, Mill’s most important insights were intuitive, the outcropping of a fine moral sensitiveness and deep consciousness of social obligation. Without reference to the defects of coherence that marred Mill’s systematic philosophy, his contribution to a liberal philosophy may perhaps be summed up under four heads.

First, his version of utilitarianism rescued that form of ethics from the desiccation to which it was condemned so long as its theory of moral value ran in terms only of a calculation of pleasures and pains. The central moral idea in Mill’s ethics, like Kant’s, was really respect for human beings, the sense that they must be treated with a due regard for the dignity that moral responsibility deserves and without which moral responsibility is impossible. Mill’s ethics was utilitarian chiefly in the sense that he thought of the value of personality not as a metaphysical dogma but as something to be realized in the actual conditions of a free society.

Second, Mill’s liberalism accepted political and social freedom as itself a good, not because it contributed to an ulterior end but because freedom is the proper condition of a responsible human being. To live one’s own life, developing one’s own native traits and capacities, is not a means to happiness; it literally is a substantive part of happiness. A good society must, therefore, be one which both permits freedom and opens up the opportunity for free and satisfying ways of life.

Third, liberty is not only an individual good but also a social good. To silence an opinion by force both does violence to the person who holds it and also robs society of the advantage it might have had from a free investigation and criticism of the opinion. In fact these two claims, that of individual right and of public utility, are closely connected. For a society in which ideas live or die by a process of free discussion is not only a progressive society but is in truth the only kind of society that can produce persons fit to enjoy the rights of free discussion.

Fourth, the function of a liberal state in a free society is not negative but positive. It cannot make its citizens free merely by refraining from legislation or assume that the conditions of freedom exist merely because legal disabilities have been removed.

Legislation may be a means of creating, increasing, and equalizing opportunity, and liberalism can impose no arbitrary limits upon its use. Its limits are fixed by its ability, with the means at its disposal, to preserve and to extend to more persons those conditions which make life more humane and less coercive.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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