Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, June 16, 2017

Discussion Questions June 26

For those working ahead... but don't post on these topics until we've all finished posting on James and Pragmatism. 

On Liberty, 1-2
  • Mill's effusive dedication to his late wife Harriet Taylor reminds us that he was a feminist far ahead of his time, ahead of libertarians like Jefferson and even of admirers like James. Why do you think so many smart people who love liberty are so slow to extend full liberty to everyone regardless of gender, race, ethnicity etc.?
  • Mill begins: "The subject of this Essay is not the so-called Liberty of the Will, so unfortunately opposed to the misnamed doctrine of Philosophical Necessity; but Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual." But isn't it a necessary presumption of those who advocate political freedom that the individual will is free to choose, and be responsible for those choices?
  • Some modern-day libertarians think they're in Mill's corner when they urge a minimal state. In the American context, though, such minimalism would have obviated federal intervention to secure civil rights, gender rights, etc. Is Mill's legacy really more liberal than libertarian? In general, how do you understand the difference between those concepts?
  • What do you think of Mil's proposal to "give extra votes to citizens with university degrees or intellectually demanding jobs"? (see *!* below)
  • COMMENT: "The will of the people practically means the will of those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority." Is there a truly democratic way of ascertaining the will of the people? In the U.S. should we ditch the electoral college? If you know of Rousseau's distinction: is the "general will" (what is in everyone's best interest) more democratic than "the will of all" (the popular vote)?
  • COMMENT: "Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized..." Still true?
  • COMMENT: Do you agree with the harm principle, that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." Does that mean we should deregulate food and drugs, etc.? Or does regulation sometimes enhance our individual and collective liberty?
  • COMMENT: "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 and 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." So... seatbelts and helmets? Mandatory health coverage? 
  • COMMENT: "There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted... Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning." Is this what Kellyanne and others mean by "alternative facts"? 
  • COMMENT: "The truth of an opinion is part of its utility... no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful." Don't pragmatists like James think that the utility of an opinion is also part of its truth? Are they disagreeing with Mill, or just introducing a subtle shade of nuance?
  • Do you agree with Mill that Marcus Aurelius was a tragic figure, because he should have known better (by his own humane lights) than to persecute Christians?
  • Can you relate the "pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces" to common sense as James described it? How do you tell good common sense from false commonplaces?
  • COMMENT: "No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think."  
  • COMMENT: Mill says most religious people believe the tenets of their faith in a "torpid" but not lively way, "as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed." Though Mill was an atheist, this sounds a lot like the devout Christian Kierkegaard's "critique of Christendom." Is it fair, in your experience?
  • "...if it were necessary to choose, there would be much more need to discourage offensive attacks on infidelity, than on religion." Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, for those who choose it exercise it. Is our society still more hostile to non-believers than to alternative-believers?
  • COMMENT: On Liberty was published in 1859, same year as Darwin's Origin of Species. Coincidence? Or is there an implicit connection (possibly at the juncture of health and happiness) between freedom and evolution? (Darwin said "the vigorous, healthy, and happy survive and multiply.")
  • COMMENT: What do you think Mill would make of the present state of American democracy? - "'the tyranny of the majority' is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard" - Did we let our guard down? Did our electoral system let us down? Are you confident that the present crisis of confidence in government will be rectified at the polls in due course, and that our democracy will emerge stronger than before?
  • COMMENT: Mill agreed with Bentham that we should seek to achieve "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," and further argued that people should not be coerced into accepting others' definitions of happiness... but (in response to critics' charge that Bentham's philosophy was fit for a pig, whose happiness might consist in nothing more than mud-wallowing) he still thought humans should aspire to a human form of happiness. This was his "quality distinction," implying that Bentham set the bar too low. As Helen McCabe writes, below,* Mill "believed that many more things could contribute to our happiness than in Bentham’s conception – including loving, being loved, admiration, the pursuit of aesthetic and personal perfection, sympathy, a thirst for knowledge, self-respect, integrity, and virtue. In short, happiness is the knowledge that we’re living as much as possible in accordance with our own conception of a good life, where ‘good’ means morally admirable, enjoyable, full and fulfilling." So, does Mill add value to the utilitarian philosophy, compared to Jeremy Bentham? Or do you prefer the simplicity of Bentham's version of utilitarianism, summed up in his statement that "push-pin [we could just say football, or beer-drinking, or whatever] is as good as poetry"?
  • Adam Gopnik (below**) says "Mill’s odd education became one of the nightmares of the nineteenth century; in “Little Men,” Louisa May Alcott imagines a child who is so stuffed with learning by an ambitious father that he blows his circuits and becomes permanently feebleminded. But Mill emerged as the prodigy he was meant to be." What do you think the Mill of On Liberty would or should say about such experiments in educating other people?
  • Suggest your own DQs 

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806–73) was the most influential English language philosopher of the nineteenth century. He was a naturalist, a utilitarian, and a liberal, whose work explores the consequences of a thoroughgoing empiricist outlook. In doing so, he sought to combine the best of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking with newly emerging currents of nineteenth-century Romantic and historical philosophy. His most important works include System of Logic(1843), On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1861) and An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865)... (SEP, continues)
John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) is the classic statement and defence of the view that governmental encroachment upon the freedom of individuals is almost never warranted. A genuinely civil society, he maintained, must always guarantee the civil liberty of its citizens—their protection against interference by an abusive authority. This is true even when the government itself relies upon the democratic participation of the people. (On Liberty 1) The tyranny of the majority is especially dangerous to individual liberty, Mill supposed, because the most commonly recommended remedy is to demand that the recalcitrant minority either persuade the majority to change its views or learn to conform to socially accepted norms.

Mill had a different notion. The proper balance between individual liberty and governmental authority, he proposed, can be stated as a simple principle:"[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." (On Liberty 1)

Although society has a clear responsibility for protecting its citizens from each other, it has no business interfering with the rest of what they do. In particular, anything that directly affects only the individual citizen must remain absolutely free. On Mill's view, this entails in particular that the government is never justified in trying to control, limit, or restrain: 1) private thoughts and feelings, along with their public expression, 2) individual tastes and pursuits as efforts to live happily, or 3) the association of like-minded individuals with each other. (On Liberty 1) No society is truly free unless its individual citizens are permitted to take care of themselves... (PhilosophyPages, continues)

21 things – and more – that you probably didn’t know about John Stuart Mill

When the name of John Stuart Mill is mooted, the words ‘utilitarian’, ‘liberty’, ‘sexual equality’ readily spring to the minds of those in the philosophical know. For those in want of the philosophical know, a quick website search provides basic information. Let us, though, take a lucky dip into some lesser known facts about this highly influential philosopher and his thinking. Some facts might surprise us. I pick and mix at will; but a picture emerges, I hope, of the richness of his oft-condemned – unfairly condemned – utilitarian thinking. It is worth remembering that this Victorian London gentleman helped radically to change the world, and to change the world for the better: no remote ivory tower for him. Those of us who value liberty, individuality, humanism – without recourse to God or gods – have much for which to thank him.

1. Feckless Breeding

John Stuart Mill was one of nine children. He notes in his Autobiography (published posthumously, 1873) that given his father James Mill’s early impoverishment – his father was first a journalist, writing on British India (six volumes) – marriage and having a large family was conduct that lacked good sense and possibly showed neglect of duty. Many years after his childhood experiences, in his highly influential On Liberty (1859), Mill stresses that his liberty does not amount to ‘anything goes’. Parenthood brings duties – to support and educate offspring well. If we cannot afford so to do, then having children is a moral crime: we harm them and harm others who end up paying for our neglect. Contrary to today’s ethos and unthinking liberalism, Mill would discourage parenthood for those who intend to rely on State support. He would, I suspect, oppose maternity and paternity pay: after all, people voluntarily embrace having children because they value family joys. I yearn for peaceful – hence childless – travelling experiences; yet no special travelling pay comes my way.

2. Educationally Challenged

John’s father, a University of Edinburgh graduate, considered formal school and university education much overrated – and expensive. So James himself taught John, starting him off, at the age of three, with classical Greek – by eight, Latin. There were no Greek-English dictionaries. Imagine the chaos, the precocious John forever interrupting the busy father for guidance. In fact, it worked well, though John notes his father’s exceptionally high expectations. This was to the good: in later life, John argued that why so many people fare badly in life is because they are not educationally stretched. Having one’s ignorance on view, through difficult questioning, also instils modesty (a feature not much in evidence though, in the adult John). Hence, John’s utilitarianism stresses education. Educated individuals are in a better position to choose how to conduct their lives. Some educationalists of today might reflect that there are benefits in properly correcting children’s work, even in red ink.

3. Jail – Or Liberty Lost?

In the nineteenth century birth control was a delicate topic. Recommending ‘obstructions’, not mere moral restraint, could lead to charges of obscenity. Restraint being no solution to the misery of unwanted children (not that Mill himself lacked such restraint, of course, of course), the young Mill, aged seventeen, distributed birth control tracts by Francis Place, entitled To Married Working People. Mill was arrested and brought before magistrates. Some doggerel used by his enemies did the rounds:
There are two Mr. M..ls, too, whom those who like reading
What’s vastly unreadable, call very clever;
And whereas M..l senior makes war on good breeding
M..l junior makes war on all breeding whatever.
Did Mill spend just a few hours in jail? A week? The papers are lost. Much is shrouded in mystery.

4. “No” To State Education

Fearful that universal state education would lead to conformity and even state control, Mill promoted instead the need for the state merely to ensure that education took place. There should be public examinations of fact and ability, to establish whether children can, for example, at least read. Today he would surely set high minimal hurdles – and would, no doubt, insist that private schools educate for open critical minds, not for minds closed down by indoctrinated religious doctrine. If children fail, then where possible, the parents should be fined, the state needing to arrange the additional required teaching. Diversity was important because as On Liberty puts it, “a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes – will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished”. Great things are needed for the greatest happiness of the greatest number: great things are needed for both individuals and the society in general to flourish.

5. The Godless of Gower Street

University College London, founded in 1826, opened its doors in 1828 as the first University of London, a limited liability company. Deliberately lacking religious entrance requirements and religious teaching, it encountered much opposition. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is wrongly thought its founder, not least because he sits even today, embalmed, in a sedan chair, in the University, in Gower Street, silently greeting all comers. The founders were in fact a group of Benthamite liberals, James Mill becoming a leading member of the University Council. John Stuart, with other radicals and non-conformists, attended the University’s postgraduate classes in Jurisprudence given by John Austin. The Duke of Wellington and bishops of the day, appalled at the institution’s godlessness, quickly secured status for a rival, King’s College London, essentially to imbue youthful minds with Christianity. John Stuart attacked it as a ‘church university’.

6. Knocking Down Religion

Northampton – my town of birth – is unknown for controversy and indeed, is pretty unknown for anything. To Northampton’s former credit, it repeatedly voted in Charles Bradlaugh as Member of Parliament. Scandalous! Bradlaugh was an infamous atheist maverick, was prosecuted for blasphemy, and refused to take any religious oaths. Consequently he was in turn refused his Commons’ seat. At the 1868 election, Mill supported Bradlaugh – and working class radicals – against his own party’s candidates, reaping condemnation from some fellow liberals, and indignant outbursts from The Times, the Lord’s Day Observance Society and other influential bodies. I was going to add that Mill supported Bradlaugh ‘courageously’; but when questioned, he dithered a little about quite what he had said in support. Mill was solid though in his belief that religion deserved no privileges. As with universities, so with Parliament and free speech: non-believers should have the same opportunities as believers.

7. Stoics, Socrates and Pigs

Utilitarianism is intertwined with Bentham’s name. The doctrine has a long history, Bentham acknowledging for example the influence of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Priestley (a Unitarian, note) is well-known for his oxygen discovery, but little known for his political philosophy. Utilitarians are often labelled ‘satisfaction theorists’. The right thing to do is to maximize happiness, that is, get desires satisfied. Things cannot remotely be so simple, as is shown by Mill’s notebook entry of 23rd March 1854. “Socrates would rather choose to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. The pig probably would not, but then the pig knows only one side of the question: Socrates knows both.” That it is better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig is argued further in Mill’s famous Utilitarianism (1861), where he identifies many features of a happy flourishing life: curiosity, nobility, fellow feeling and much more. Just as Mill wisely discovered that happiness should not be our conscious everyday motivation if we do indeed want happiness, so he embraces some stoicism, recommending that we concentrate on the sources of satisfaction realistically open to us, and free ourselves from excess anxiety concerning life’s evils.

8. Austin’s Sensibility

For a few student weeks, I confused the Austins (though happily not with Jane Austen). I encountered the works of the Oxford linguistic philosopher, the translator of Frege’s Grundgesetze der Arithmetik, and someone writing about law. The first two turned out to be but one, namely John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960) who with Jane Austen in mind, entitled a lecture series Sense and Sensibilia. The other, John Austin (1790-1858), became the first Professor of Jurisprudence at the new University of London. A friend of Mill’s, a significant legal theorist and fellow utilitarian (though one who thought the Greatest Happiness Principle identified God’s moral laws), this Austin rightly distinguished motivations from the utilitarian aim of the greatest happiness. Love is part of happiness; but this Austin’s sensibility declared, “It was never contended by a sound orthodox utilitarian that the lover should kiss his mistress with an eye to the common weal”.

9. Nothing To Live For

Mill commented thus at the age of twenty. He met a mental malady: a nervous breakdown. “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” Mill’s answer was “No!” The end had ceased to charm. He broke free from this crisis through recognizing that happiness embraced feeling, not just active goal seeking. This was courtesy, in large measure, of Wordsworth’s poetry. Mill met Wordsworth and Coleridge on various occasions, discovering, in contrast to Bentham, that poetry is better than the pushpin game – that some pleasures are higher than others. He travelled to Grasmere in the Lake District, took on walking, botanising and feeling for the sublime aspects of some natural scenes. This was how he came to realize that happiness should not be consciously sought. It comes en passant. “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

10. Running Out of Tunes

During his mental crisis in 1826, Mill was tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The finite number of beautiful sound combinations meant that there could be no long succession of Mozarts and Webers. This led Mill to suspect a flaw existed within life: were universal happiness to be achieved, life’s pleasures, no longer requiring struggle and privation, would cease to be pleasures. His answer was that there could be pleasure in tranquil reflection. Awareness of finite beautiful sound combinations failed to lead Mill to ask whether there existed a finite number of interesting sentence constructions out of the alphabet which, if all appropriately asserted and grasped, would put an end to curiosity – well, an end in that all the information would be there. Would that the misinformation be sifted away!

11. All Men Are Mortal

When introduced to Aristotelian syllogisms, students are often given: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. It remains a moot point how Aristotle considered such arguments with a singular proposition as a premiss, but that example is not in his extant writings. It is Mill who most famously used the ‘Socrates’ example, suggesting that such attempted proofs involve a petitio principii, that is, are begging the question. In seeking to prove that Socrates is mortal, one asserts that all men are mortal, which, as Socrates is a man, presupposes that he is mortal. Mill is best remembered for his ethical and political philosophy, but this should remind us that he wrote far more widely, and was much read, notably in logic, metaphysics, the philosophy of science and political economy. His A System of Logic (1843) became a set university text, for example.

12. Eloping?

Mill and a married mother, Mrs Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), fell in love; yet out of respect for her husband, the lovers – despite passionate letters, despite travelling together – lived separately for twenty years. The understanding Mr Taylor, knowing of their intense kinship, accommodated things pretty well. That there was no ‘impropriety’ was, wrote Harriet to John, “an edifying picture for those poor wretches who cannot conceive friendship but in sex – nor believe that expediency and the consideration for the feelings of others can conquer sensuality”. This might also have been John’s sincere view, though evidence suggests that at times he hoped they would elope. After Mr Taylor’s death in 1849, and despite some family opposition, they married in 1851. True to his condemnation of the legal inequality between men and women, John disclaimed any resultant rights over Harriet and her property. With Harriet’s death in 1858, John, heartbroken, continued their reforming advocacy, declaring how intellectually and emotionally indebted he was to her. On Liberty was published soon after her death, the manuscript having repeatedly been discussed by them.

13. W.H. Smith: The News Politician

In 1865, Mill was persuaded to stand for parliament as a liberal, though not the official candidate. Unlike politicians of today, he refused to electioneer, announced that his views were well known, spent most of the election in France – and got elected, beating the Tory, W.H. Smith (yes, that W.H. Smith). Mill was a conscientious MP, toeing no party line, and as it transpired, later influencing Gladstone’s reforms, such as disestablishment of the Protestant Church in Ireland and the Married Women’s Property Act. At the 1868 election, Mill lost against Smith, the Tories running a vigorous and expensive campaign, with Mill suffering attacks over his support for Bradlaugh.

14. Votes for Mill

Mill was a democrat, fighting for votes for all adults, men and women alike, rejecting any claims that voting rights should be based on property and sex. Women’s suffrage was considered a peculiar whim of his – how times have changed! While everyone should have at least one vote, Mill eventually argued that some should have more than one, namely those with proved educational superiority – such as…er…Mr Mill. As Mill drily noted, the proposal found favour with nobody.

15. Hanging Supported

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), famed economist, quipped, “When the facts change, I change my mind; what do you do, Sir?” Mill happily changed his mind as facts and his reflections changed. Early on, he doubted whether capital punishment could be justified; by 1868 he was speaking in its favour, where atrocious murders were concerned. Capital punishment received utilitarian justification: it was a deterrent, yet one not as cruel as life imprisonment with hard labour. It is well to reflect on the prison conditions of his times.

16. Women’s Brains: Small But Perfectly Formed?

Mill argued vehemently against sex discrimination. Women should have the same rights and opportunities as men. This didn’t lead to the mistaken claim that men and women are typically the same intellectually or emotionally. In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill conjectures – rightly, as it transpires – that, on average, women’s brains are smaller than men’s; this might explain men’s ploddings, in contrast with women’s prompt responses in thought and feeling. Mill was a rational empiricist. He sought and assessed the evidence. He also considered how things could be changed to enable both men and women to realize their full potential.

17. Defending Our Corner

Consistent with his Liberty Principle, which said that justified restrictions on individuals must at the very least be for preventing non-consensual harms to others, Mill supported free speech. In Parliament he helped talk out a motion that would have banned free speech at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. Ever keen for individuals to be as unrestricted as possible, consistent with the Liberty Principle, he argued for poisons (maybe recreational drugs today) to be available to adults, so long as the dangers were explained, and purchasers’ details were recorded, in case crimes should result.

18. Disproportionate Sex

Sex, Mill insisted, occupies an absurdly disproportionate place in human life. It is, though, “superstition and barbarism of the infancy of the human race” to impose restrictions on people’s private activities. Prostitution he saw as a great evil; but restrictions could be justified only in as far as they prevented harms to non-consenting others. In the late 1860s, venereal disease was so great amongst Her Majesty’s sailors that the Contagious Diseases Acts were passed, allowing police to cart off suspected prostitutes for medical examinations. Mill, before an astonished Royal Commission, strongly criticized the Acts, arguing that if such examinations were right for women, then men suspected of brothel visiting should likewise be examined, not least because they could be directly infecting their wives.

19. A Malevolent God

Were an omnipotent God to exist, then, argued Mill, that God must be malevolent, given the vast sufferings amongst both humans and other aware beings. This consideration was not sufficient for Mill to conclude that no God or gods existed. With evolutionary theory primitive and speculative, Mill tended to believe, on a balance of probabilities, that, at some stage at least, there was a finite power which ordered the world. He recognized that our understanding of the adaptations of nature could improve; so, ever a rational empiricist, Mill would today, I judge, with advances in genetic explanations, now linger between atheism and agnosticism.

20. Humanism’s Godfather’s

Jeremy Bentham, although no formal godfather, took a keen interest in Mill’s education. A few months before Mill died, Mill became godfather to the newly born Bertrand Russell, born May 1872. Here, with John Maynard Keynes’s birth following eleven years later, we have a line of humanist thinkers who rejected any need for God where morality was concerned, morality being grounded in the happiness of sentient beings. Mill wrote of the Religion of Humanity, meaning a devoted commitment to the flourishing of all – Humanism in deed, as well as in word.

21. Avignon

In 1839, John and Harriet (then Mrs Taylor) stayed in Avignon. John would travel in that area, often staying at the Hotel de l’Europe. It was in that hotel, in 1858, that Harriet (then Mrs Mill) died. A few months after her death, John bought a small white house in Avignon. He installed the furniture from the hotel room in which she died. The remaining fifteen years of John’s life were much spent at this home, often with Harriet’s daughter Helen, who helped John continue his and Harriet’s reforming work. On 7th May 1873, Mill suddenly died – of erysipelas, a skin infection, caught a few days earlier, causing his face to swell. He died at his Avignon home. The small white house overlooked the cemetery where Harriet had been buried. From 8th May 1873, this small white house overlooked the cemetery where, next to each other, were buried both Harriet and John.
© Dr Peter Cave 2006
Peter Cave lectures for The Open University and City University London. He is Chairman of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group: pc@petercave.com. Peter’s BBC Radio 4 programme marking Mill’s birthday will be broadcast on 17th May, at 11.00am.

Why Mill Matters

John Stuart Mill gained fame for books including A System of Logic (1843), On Liberty (1859, the year Origin of Species was published) and Utilitarianism (1863). He is an exceptionally clear prose stylist (especially for a philosopher), and is recommended reading, if only for this reason.
In Utilitarianism for instance, Mill develops the utilitarian case put forward by Bentham, that the correct moral behaviour is to advance ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ – although Mill prefers to talk in terms of ‘pleasure’. As a matter of basic human psychology, what people seek in life just is pleasure and the avoidance of suffering. But he does not mean pleasure in any simplistically sensous way. He seperates the concept of the quality of pleasure from its quantity, and says that intellectual and artistic pleasures are to be favoured over the more base and sensual ones. Moral education should include an encouragement to seek the higher pleasures. This includes the pleasure of seeking the welfare of others – thus grounding the altruism that most people would recognize as the sign of morality in terms of his pleasure principle.
To Mill, all moral systems should be evaluated in light of their ability to increase the net pleasure and happiness of the human race. This also includes principles of justice and property rights, for example. Systems of laws are justified insofar as they tend to increase human benefit (ie pleasure). These days, this would perhaps make him a rule utititarian: the overall benign effect of the legal system means laws should be followed, even though it might apparently be that in specific instances more pleasure would otherwise be created through breaking or suspending the rules.
Mill’s utilitarianism also gave rise to his views on politics and liberty. He thought that on the whole we each individually know better about what is good for us than any government can. Therefore the course conducive to the greatest happiness is to let each person live as they please, so long as they don’t hurt others in the process. Or in Mill’s own words, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection... the only purpose for which power can be rightfully excercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (On Liberty).
Mill continues to be influential in philosophical circles because of the force of his arguments, which are always reasonable and insightful. This means that it becomes unreasonable to ignore what he has to say.
Grant Bartley
*On Liberty: An Introduction

Helen McCabe introduces John Stuart Mill on his own free will.

John Stuart Mill himself believed On Liberty would be one of the works for which he was best remembered. It has certainly proved the most influential. Published in 1859, it caused an outcry, and interest in it has not died. From the rise of totalitarianism in the early twentieth century, through the debates about censorship and privacy in the 1960s, right up to contemporary discussions about free speech and surveillance, events continue to bring the book back into the limelight as answers are sought from its pages.
Mill the Man

Mill was born in 1806, a child both of James Mill and of the Utilitarian project. The experimental education devised by his philosopher father and Jeremy Bentham rendered him, like forced rhubarb, mature before his time – intellectually at least. By the time he was twenty Mill was working at the East India Company; writing articles for radical newspapers; campaigning for universal suffrage, women’s emancipation and economic and legal reform; trying to educate people about contraception and family planning, and sparring with a wide spectrum of opponents at the London Debating Society. In his ‘spare’ time he was editing his father’s and Bentham’s works; teaching his siblings, and studying economics and psychology. Mill was fundamentally committed to Bentham’s utility principle: we ought to act so as to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He also supported ‘classical’ economic theory; representative government elected by universal suffrage, and a theory of psychology known as associationism, which amongst other things argued that all our ideas come from outside our selves, and that therefore our characters are moulded entirely by external circumstances. Based on these commitments, Mill identified his happiness with the radical reforms proposed by his father’s friends, and everything he did was intended to aid their achievement.

In the winter of 1826/7, the foundation on which this busy hot-house of radical thought and campaigning was built collapsed. Mill was plunged into a depression brought on by the dreariness of the season. In the midst of it he realised that even if all the reforms he championed came about, he would not be happy because his over-rational education had rendered him incapable of emotion. His life appeared to have no purpose, and he seriously considered ending it.

Although it returned at many other times in his life, Mill eventually pulled himself out of this depression, with the aid of poetry (especially Wordsworth and Coleridge, though he was also the earliest critic to appreciate Tennyson), music (Mozart was his favourite composer, and he also composed his own pieces on the piano), Romantic authors (especially Goethe and Coleridge), and falling in love with Harriet Taylor. After a difficult twenty-five years while her first husband was still alive, she eventually became his wife. On Liberty is dedicated to her.

Importantly for understanding On Liberty, much of Mill’s core political thought changed as well. In particular, he embraced a wider understanding of happiness, and a Romantically-inspired concept of the self.
Happiness and Individuality

Mill was still a utilitarian in many respects, and he certainly still believed that the right moral action is that which tends to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Yet he now believed that many more things could contribute to our happiness than in Bentham’s conception – including loving, being loved, admiration, the pursuit of aesthetic and personal perfection, sympathy, a thirst for knowledge, self-respect, integrity, and virtue. In short, happiness is the knowledge that we’re living as much as possible in accordance with our own conception of a good life, where ‘good’ means morally admirable, enjoyable, full and fulfilling.

This conception of happiness involved a much more active idea of the self. Rather than seeing the self as an essentially passive bundle of connected ideas, Mill adopted Coleridge’s idea of a self which was self-conscious and which could also be self-developing and self-creating. Thus, Mill no longer saw people as being entirely moulded by their environment, but believed that they might also help form their own characters in keeping with their own ideas about what was good, right, noble, beautiful, perfect and sympathetic. The founder of associationism had argued that if it was possible to ensure two people were subjected to exactly the same external stimuli up to a certain event, they would have exactly the same responses to that event. Mill now believed that if two people had been subjected to the same external stimuli their responses would be different, depending on how they had reflected on these stimuli and what their ideas were about the right response. This creation of a character by a choice-making and reflective self as well as by outside circumstances, is what Mill calls ‘individuality’.

For Mill it is this self-created individuality which allows us to pursue all the things that make us happy. Firstly, because it is through reflecting on circumstances and on our own ideas and feelings, making choices and building our own character, that we know what makes us happy, and hence what we want to pursue. Secondly, because it is through a similar process of self-creating reflection that we know what we think is right, and Mill did not think we could ever really be happy if we were not doing what we fundamentally thought was right (as opposed to what we want, which can be a very different thing). Lastly, because in creating and perfecting our characters to the best of our ability, we gain the sympathy, admiration and affection of others, and feel sympathy, admiration and affection for others, all of which are also very important for happiness.

Therefore, happiness – that most important ethical goal for Mill – lies in the free development of individuality, that is, in our free ethical self-createdness. It is this that Mill is championing in On Liberty. It is also what Mill is trying to protect, because he believed that we can only develop our individuality if there was some space in which we’re free from coercion.

This point is important, because On Liberty is often quoted in discussions on the nature, size or justification of government, but it is not primarily the government that Mill is concerned with in On Liberty: Mill is not just talking about personal liberties in the legal sense. Mill is aware that social pressure, through public opinion in particular, is every bit as coercive as state power, and can be even more insidious, since it makes us our own oppressors. After reading about America, Mill felt that democracies had to be especially aware of this type of coercion, where there’s almost continual pressure for everyone to conform to the majority’s idea of what’s right, good or respectable. He insists that although democracies have historically been formed by those fighting for political liberties, they ought not to become complacent and think this is all the freedom their citizens need. Rather, we need to be protected from the coercive effect of public opinion operating in areas the law does not cover, and also from pressure to oppress minorities through the law, which is possible when a majority elects the government.

In On Liberty, then, Mill wants a ‘moral sphere’ of free choice around people, with which neither the state nor any individual or group may interfere. This sphere must protect the individual from the coercive power of public opinion, state power and individual interference. In particular, it is supposed to ensure the free development of that individual’s individuality, and to prevent their character from being warped, twisted or cropped by the ideas of government, society, or other individuals. Mill’s own metaphor is that of a tree which is allowed to grow freely, compared to being cut into topiary, or pollarded.
Harm and Coercion

Mill is only concerned with unjustified coercion. There are many things he thinks society and the state are completely justified in coercing people to do; and indeed, one of his tasks in On Liberty is to try and draw the line between what is and what is not justified coercion. The principle upon which he drew this line is perhaps deceptively simple: coercion is only justified if an action is causing or directly threatens to cause harm. For example, Mill felt it so harmful to an individual’s chance of happiness to prevent them from having an education that he thought society was completely justified in forcing parents to educate their children. Thus he supported free, nationally-provided schools; although he was concerned that if these were the only schools, then the government’s power over the curriculum would form an unwarranted threat to individuality.

Of course, this opens up a philosophical can of worms as to what ‘harm’ means. You may recall that Mill embraced the principle that right action was that which tended to cause happiness (or pleasure), and wrong action that which tended to cause pain. It would be wrong, however, to make the mistake of equating harm with pain. Harm may well be painful, but this is not its most important feature. Rather, for Mill, harm is something which prevents the free development of our individuality. Stubbing my toe on the bath definitely causes me pain, but it does not cause me harm: being tortured until I acquiesce certainly does. Mill was aware that pain can have a harmful effect on individuality, when it warps our actions and hence warps the development of our individuality. Thus Mill was heavily involved in the campaign against domestic violence, because as well as causing immediate pain (which is in itself wrong), it also warps the behaviour and so development of those who are abused. Mill also argued that an education which trains us to close off a vast number of possible actions as out-of-bounds is also harmful, although it may never have been attended by pain. Thus, women’s education, which trained them to believe they were inferior to men, and to place all their hopes and aspirations in marriage, was harmful, even if the women thus educated were contended, and lived well-fed, pampered lives.

Harm can be caused just as much through inaction as through action. But Mill believed that certain actions could never cause harm, even if they could be shown to cause pain. He called these self-regarding actions, because they are entirely concerned with our selves. Our faith, or lack of faith, in any particular religion; our code of ethics; what we read, listen to, watch or believe; and anything done in private with consenting adults, are all included in this self-regarding sphere.

A common objection to this idea is that no action is completely self-regarding – everything we do has some impact on someone else. However, this objection is misplaced for On Liberty, since here self-regarding actions are those pertaining to the very creation of our selves. Mill believed that actions consistent with the freedoms we need for this, for example, the freedom of conscience and thought, could never interfere with the free development of another person’s individuality. Hence, for example, no matter how unhappy a religious fundamentalist is made by the knowledge that other people do not believe what he believes or act in a manner he considers to be sinful or wrong, this unhappiness does not count as harm because it does not impede the free development of his individuality.
Freedom and Persuasion

Yet some things both are tightly bound up with the development of our individuality and have the potential to cause harm to others – freedom of speech comes under this heading, for example. If even an action (or inaction) which is important for the free development of our individuality can be shown to cause harm which is not outweighed by the harm of preventing that action, then society is justified in forcibly preventing it. The possible harm in the prevention is not only to the individual who is prevented from acting (or who is forced to act), but also to the rest of society. Mill believed that every person’s individuality, now and for future generations, is jeopardised by the censorship of opinions, even if those opinions were definitely wrong. Despite what we may now believe, those opinions might be true, and we would therefore be robbing both ourselves and future generations of the chance of realising the truth. Or they might be partially true; but then we’re robbing ourselves and future generations of the chance of working out which parts are true and so which parts of our own opinions are false. Mill thinks there is value even in the challenge of false opinions: if our true opinions are not regularly challenged, they become dead dogmas – things we believe, but passively, and thus without their having any real impact on our lives. Mill believed even very important ideas could degenerate into such shibboleths, to which we pay little more than lip-service, if they were not continually challenged. The very progress of humanity, then, depends on hearing potentially untrue opinions.

On the other hand, Mill was not unaware that the expression of some ideas can cause harm outweighing even the benefit to society of being able to hear them. Where the balance lies depends on the context. For example, when there is a risk of violence following their expression, the censorship of opinions may be justified. Mill’s example is the opinion that corn-dealers starve the poor because they keep prices high for their own benefit. Writing this in a newspaper or book, or expressing it in most circumstances, is completely warranted, however much such an accusation upsets the corn-dealers. However, expressing such opinions to a hungry and angry mob massed with fire-brands outside a corn-dealer’s house is not justifiable. In short, Mill is attempting to draw a line between expression, which should always be tolerated, and incitement, which by no means need be. He demands society’s toleration for all expressions and actions which are primarily self-regarding and which do not cause harm to others. Mill believes this is the only way in which we can secure the freedom necessary for the protection of individuality; and without individuality, no one can be happy.

Mill has been accused of desiring that we should all be completely unengaged with the other individuals around us, pursuing our own conception of the good life with no consideration for others, merely tolerating their existence, and allowing them to do whatever they think best so long as it does not harm us. Yet this is by no means what Mill desires. It is an exercise of our own freedom and individuality to engage with the beliefs of others: to learn from them, to help them learn from us, and to do our best to see that they live a good life, up to the point of using force. In On Liberty Mill is concerned with protecting individuality from unjustified coercion. However, he was well aware that there are many, many ways of influencing people besides coercion – and all of these methods he wholeheartedly embraces. Unless harm is concerned we may not force, but we can do a great deal up to that point, and Mill wants us to. In On Liberty we are actively encouraged to argue with people, cajole them, beg them, plead with them, attempt to persuade them, debate with them, and in extreme cases, avoid and ignore them; we may even counsel others to abjure them, although not to the extent that this forms some kind of social punishment amounting to coercion. As far as Mill is concerned, we ought to care what our fellow-men believe, and how they live.

That is the crux of On Liberty: we ought to care about other people’s happiness, hence we have to care about the free development of their individuality. Thus, we must strive to ensure that there is an inviolable sphere of freedom around them, protecting their self-regarding actions. When it comes to other-regarding actions, society is justified in coercing individuals to prevent harm to others, so long as that harm is serious compared with the harm caused by preventing the action, and is sufficiently directly linked to that individual’s actions. Society is never justified in coercing either action or inaction when it comes to self-regarding action, or actions which are other-regarding but non-harmful, but that does not mean that society is not justified in engaging with the individual in other ways. Indeed, if we do care about other people’s happiness, we have to engage with them.

Mill rules out from this analysis those who are incapable of freely developing their individuality, either through age or natural inability. He also allows coercion even for self-regarding action in certain extreme situations. His example is of a man whom we witness running onto a bridge we know to be unstable. It is rational to presume he does not want to kill himself or risk injury: therefore, if there is no time to warn him by shouting, we are justified in tackling him to physically prevent him from crossing. These provisos aside, however, Mill’s assertion that “over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” is the core of On Liberty. We must respect this sovereignty, but also have regard for the well-being of the individual who wields it. Coercion is ruled out – engagement is most certainly not.
After Liberty

The period surrounding the publication of On Liberty was blighted for Mill by the death of his much-beloved Harriet. He wrote the book at a time when he was beginning to return to an active engagement in politics, after spending much of the 1850s with his wife in seclusion and illness. He would shortly become the MP for Westminster, introducing an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act which would have given women the vote on equal terms with men. However, his parliamentary career was most famous for his attempt to bring Governor Eyre before an English court of justice. Eyre’s rule of Jamaica had been particularly brutal, though he was considered by many to be a national hero. Mill was also involved in the campaign for women’s education and other economic, social, political and legal reforms. He died in 1873, and is buried with Harriet in a quiet graveyard in Avignon, beneath a tombstone engraved with the eulogy he wrote for her just as On Liberty was being published.

That the arguments of On Liberty still need making would probably have disappointed but not surprised Mill: he was well aware that in throwing down such a gauntlet to society, he made a challenge it would take a great number of generations to achieve. It was, however, one he believed it would always be worth striving to meet.

Philosophy Now
**Right Again - the passions of John Stuart Mill
by Adam Gopnik

It is a hard thing, being right about everything all the time. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and we wait for the moment when the know-it-all is wrong to insist that he never really knew anything in the first place. The know-it-all, far from living in smug superiority, has the burden of being right the next time, too. Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century English philosopher, politician, and know-it-all nonpareil who is the subject of a fine new biography by the British journalist Richard Reeves, “John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand” (Overlook; $40). The book’s subtitle, meant to be excitingly commercial, is ill chosen; a firebrand should flame and then die out, while Mill burned for half a century with a steady heat so well regulated that it continues to warm his causes today—“Victorian Low-Simmering Hot Plate” might be closer to it.

Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals; and opposed adulterating Anglo-American liberalism with too much systematic French theory—all this along with an intelligent acceptance of the free market as an engine of prosperity and a desire to see its excesses and inequalities curbed. He was right about nearly everything, even when contemplating what was wrong: open-minded and magnanimous to a fault, he saw through Thomas Carlyle’s reactionary politics to his genius, and his essay on Coleridge, a leading conservative of the previous generation, is a model appreciation of a writer whose views are all wrong but whose writing is still wonderful. Mill was an enemy of religious bigotry and superstition, and a friend of toleration and free thought, without overdoing either. (No one has ever been more eloquent about the ethical virtues of Jesus of Nazareth.)

All of which makes trouble for a biographer. Every time we turn a corner, there is Mill, smiling just a touch too complacently at having got there first. Admiration for intelligence and truth easily turns into resentment at the person who has them; Aristides the Just was banished from Athens because people were fed up with hearing him called Aristides the Just. It is one of the many virtues of Reeves’s funny, humane biography that it brings Mill to life in the only way sententious great men can be brought to life, and that is by showing us what he was like when he lost his heart and when he lost his reason. Both happened to him just once, but that was sufficient. Mill’s is a story of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.

Mill’s boyhood was one of the strangest of the nineteenth century, and is one subject of his own matchless memoir, published posthumously. He was born in 1806 to a driven Scottish writer, James Mill, and a passive and mostly invisible mother. Chosen for an experiment in education, he was crammed with learning by his father and his father’s mentor, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The aim was to produce a mind distended out of all proportion—force-fed facts, as unlucky geese are force-fed corn. The foie gras of the boy’s mind was then to be dined on by a grateful nation; the boy’s life, like the goose’s comfort, was secondary. Latin, Greek, ancient history, political economy: “By the age of six,” Reeves notes, “young Mill had written a history of Rome; by seven he was reading Plato in Greek; at eight soaking up Sophocles.” By twelve, he more or less sat his examinations for university entrance.

The curriculum had no room for new poetry, and not much for old music. It was nothing but history, math, economics, the classics, and the Benthamite axioms: actions could lead to pleasure or pain, happiness or distress, and the right action was the one that led to the most happiness for the most people. In hard hands, the principle could seem like a mechanical parody of ethics, but it had its points. Bentham’s real achievement was to squeeze the piety out of Enlightenment talk of “rights.” People didn’t have rights because their creator endowed them with rights; they had them because rights were useful to have.

Mill’s odd education became one of the nightmares of the nineteenth century; in “Little Men,” Louisa May Alcott imagines a child who is so stuffed with learning by an ambitious father that he blows his circuits and becomes permanently feebleminded. But Mill emerged as the prodigy he was meant to be. At the age of seventeen, he became a clerk at the East India Company, the private corporation that then ran India, and remained at its headquarters in London for thirty-five years, administering Indian affairs at a distance—a servant of British imperialism, but a benevolent kind. (When, later, the government tried to cut funds for Indian colonial colleges teaching Arabic and Sanskrit, Mill fought to keep the practice going, for fear of losing all contact with the élites. “Without knowing the language of a people, we never really know their thoughts, their feelings, and their type of character,” he wrote.) He was such a demon for work that, growing overheated through feverish memo-writing, he would gradually strip off his clothes and work gravely at his stool without waistcoat or pants, as his colleagues watched in prim Victorian wonder... (New Yorker, continues)
*!* The Case Against Democracy
If most voters are uninformed, who should make decisions about the public’s welfare?
By Caleb Crain
Voter ignorance has worried political philosophers since Plato.
Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.

Democracy is other people, and the ignorance of the many has long galled the few, especially the few who consider themselves intellectuals. Plato, one of the earliest to see democracy as a problem, saw its typical citizen as shiftless and flighty:
Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy.
It would be much safer, Plato thought, to entrust power to carefully educated guardians. To keep their minds pure of distractions—such as family, money, and the inherent pleasures of naughtiness—he proposed housing them in a eugenically supervised free-love compound where they could be taught to fear the touch of gold and prevented from reading any literature in which the characters have speaking parts, which might lead them to forget themselves. The scheme was so byzantine and cockamamie that many suspect Plato couldn’t have been serious; Hobbes, for one, called the idea “useless.”

A more practical suggestion came from J. S. Mill, in the nineteenth century: give extra votes to citizens with university degrees or intellectually demanding jobs. (In fact, in Mill’s day, select universities had had their own constituencies for centuries, allowing someone with a degree from, say, Oxford to vote both in his university constituency and wherever he lived. The system wasn’t abolished until 1950.) Mill’s larger project—at a time when no more than nine per cent of British adults could vote—was for the franchise to expand and to include women. But he worried that new voters would lack knowledge and judgment, and fixed on supplementary votes as a defense against ignorance... (continues)

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great nineteenth century political philosopher John Stuart Mill. He believed that, 'The true philosophy is the marriage of poetry and logic'. He was one of the first thinkers to argue that a social theory must engage with ideas of culture and the internal life. He used Wordsworth to inform his social theory, he was a proto feminist and his treatise On Liberty is one of the sacred texts of liberalism. J S Mill believed that action was the natural articulation of thought. He battled throughout his life for social reform and individual freedom and was hugely influential in the extension of the vote. Few modern discussions on race, birth control, the state and human rights have not been influenced by Mill's theories. How did Mill's utilitarian background shape his political ideas? Why did he think Romantic literature was significant to the rational structure of society? On what grounds did he argue for women's equality? And how did his notions of the individual become central to modern social theory? With A C Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London; Janet Radcliffe Richards, Reader in Bioethics at University College London; Alan Ryan, Professor of Politics at Oxford University. Listen here

An old post on Mill & Darwin... the podcast version

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