Thursday, 4 October 2012

John Stuart Mill on Liberty

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was the son of James Mill, a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the political philosophy of Utilitarianism; being the theory that all actions should be judged solely by whether they promote “the greatest good of the greatest number”. John Stuart Mill (hereinafter referred to simply as “Mill”) was brought up according to his father’s unique educational theories, with the result that whilst still a teenager he was writing articles on economics for serious journals, and then at the age of 20 suffered a nervous breakdown which caused him to modify his beliefs. Before this, he had been arrested for distributing pamphlets on family planning and briefly imprisoned as a pornographer. In 1865 Mill was the only philosopher ever to be elected to Parliament, during which time he introduced a motion calling for votes for women, which attracted little support and much ridicule. His advocacy of this, and other deeply controversial matters such as easier divorce, resulted in him losing his seat in the 1868 general election. His most famous work, “On Liberty”, was written in 1859 as a tribute and memorial to his wife, Harriet, who had died the year before.

In this book, Mill advances a powerful plea in favour of a very wide degree of freedom, both of ideas and of lifestyle, but many of his arguments seem rather strange nowadays. Right at the start he announces that he will not attempt to argue that there is any “right” to freedom. “Human rights” was considered by the utilitarians to be a meaningless metaphysical concept (“Nonsense on stilts” according to Bentham): instead, Mill hopes to show that freedom is in the interests of man as a “progressive being”. The whole notion of “progress” is central to Mill’s thought: I shall deal with it at the end of this essay.

Mill shows his Victorian optimism by maintaining that there is no longer any need to defend freedom against a tyrannous government, but instead he detects new dangers in the more democratic society which was beginning to emerge, particularly what he calls “tyranny of the majority”. Society itself, he argues, now exerts powerful pressure upon us to make us conform to certain norms of behaviour, which are frequently mere prejudices without any rational base, thus fettering not only personal development but also changes in society. A democratic society, says Mill, has no more right to compel me to obey than does a single dictator. Mill’s other central tenet is that the only justification for coercing me is to prevent me from doing harm to others (what he calls “other-regarding actions“). “Self-regarding actions”, which affect only me (such as, what clothes I choose to wear) must be absolutely free. Coercing someone “for their own good” is justifiable only when dealing with children or lunatics; it is no way to treat civilized adults.

The second chapter of the book consists of a lengthy argument in favour of free speech and discussion. Nobody, says Mill, ever has the right to suppress new ideas, because that implies infallibility by the censor, and no-one should ever claim to be infallible. On the contrary, new ideas should always be welcomed, since without them there would be stagnation. There is, of course, no obligation to accept new ideas as true, but provided we give them serious consideration before deciding to reject them, something useful has been achieved, since we have been exercising our “mental muscles” in the process. Thus, even erroneous ideas can have an educative effect. Now this is all very well, but I do not see how it could be employed in an argument about, let us say, the censorship of pornography. Also, one will search in vain in Mill’s book for any discussion of how far the state may impose censorship in the interests of “national security”. The mid-Victorians felt so secure that they had no need for an Official Secrets Act!

Mill then moves on to discuss what we might call “liberty of lifestyle”, and which he calls “experiments in living”. He produces a number of different arguments in favour. Man, he says, is not a machine, but should be like a tree, allowed to develop and grow after his own nature. Pressure to conform to custom tends to produce mere “ape-like imitation”, and has no educative effect, whereas “genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom”. We should not therefore worry too much about what the neighbours think of us. He goes as far as to call the English middle classes “a collective mediocrity”. The main argument, of course, is that without people who dare to live their lives in an unconventional manner, society will tend to stagnate and progress will come to an end.

In the remaining chapters Mill discusses a number of specific problems, such as alcohol, gambling and even (rather tentatively) deviant sexual behaviour. In each instance he is against any outright prohibition. The argument about alcohol may stand as typical. Undoubtedly, drunkenness is a matter of public concern; it leads to crime and accidents; alcoholics may be unable to hold down a job and so their families will have to be supported from public funds. Does it therefore follow that alcohol should be totally prohibited, and I should be forbidden to have an occasional glass of beer? Certainly not! Most people who have an occasional drink do not become alcoholics, any more than most people who have a flutter on the Derby every year become compulsive gamblers. Perhaps confirmed alcoholics (or compulsive gamblers) should be treated differently from other people; but otherwise prohibition would be a gross interference with the freedom of the purchaser. We may wonder whether Mill’s arguments are applicable to modern concerns which he does not discuss, such as drugs or firearms. Mill also opposes the enforcement of Sunday Observance laws, and says that the Mormons should be allowed to live their own lives in Utah free of persecution. For deviant sexual behaviour, Mill would appear to side with the lady who said, according to legend, “Just as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!” He thinks anything should be permitted, provided it takes place in private and only freely consenting adults are involved. It is not easy to see how these freedoms can be defended without some postulation of “human rights”.

Finally Mill gets himself into a dilemma over the question of education. It is clearly highly utilitarian and conducive to progress that all children should go to school; but this will involve some coercion (since many parents would prefer their children to be out earning money), it will cost a great deal of money, which will have to be met from taxation, and will involve a massive extension of state power, which Mill always opposes. Furthermore he does not trust the state to run schools: no state could resist the opportunity this would provide for indoctrination through propaganda, and state schools would inevitably become “a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”. Mill would have had in mind the schools of France under the Emperor Napoleon III, but his fears can well be applied to later and more totalitarian dictatorships.

The central concept in Mill’s ideology is “Progress”, and this obsession he shared with many contemporary intellectuals, not least Karl Marx. The mid-Victorians were aware that the society they lived in had changed very fast over the previous half-century, and that it had developed unprecedented manufacturing power which was enabling them to take over the world. Other civilisations have been left far behind. How and why had this happened? And how to ensure that this progress continued? Mill believes he has the answer. Progress, he thinks, can only come through individuals who dare to think and act differently from the masses around them: conformity is likely to bring stagnation and an end to progress. He clearly has no faith in the ability of the state to plan and implement progress, and he specifically cites China of his day as a dreadful warning of how societies which are too dominated by tradition will fall behind their more dynamic neighbours. Marx in the “Communist Manifesto” sings a hymn of praise to capitalism, which has taken mankind onto a higher level of civilisation than anything seen before. But Marx believes that capitalism will soon form a drag on any further progress, and will be replaced by a superior form of civilisation, namely, “Communist society”. Forty years later, Marx’s friend Engels (in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”) outlined how after the revolution the new Communist state would plan progress. This was not a notion which would have met with Mill’s approval.

Mill's intention, I am sure, was to create a new basis for morality, which would not be founded on the traditional base of "God commands this." Like all Utilitarians, Mill was an unbeliever. The foundation of his moral code was that the only actions which can be proved to be wrong are those which injure other people - and do them actual harm; not simply offend their religious and moral standards. This is not a foolproof standard of judgement, but is probably better than any other.

In another book, "Considerations on Representative Government", Mill discusses the issue of democracy and freedom. In a democracy, "tyranny of the majority" takes on a political form. Mill argues that a democratic majority has no more right to restrict my personal liberty than does a single dictator. I hope to deal with this matter in a future essay.

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