Two Hundred Years Later: The State of Liberalism After Mill

Joe Miller is a professor of philosophy at University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He maintains a blog at Bellum et Mores.

At the John Stuart Mill Bicentennial Conference in London last month, Peter Singer, in his keynote address, made a few comparisons between his own work and Mill. Such a talk may smack of hubris (it’s not, really, as one of the conference organizers specifically requested the topic), but the comparison may well be apt. We’ll know more in another 200 years. Regardless, it’s safe to say that Singer’s influence on contemporary moral and political philosophy is probably at least as great as was Mill’s influence on his own contemporaries.

Now I am far from playing in the same league as Mill—or Singer’s either, for that matter. But I’m going to go out on a limb and offer my own small connections to Mill: after spending more years than I like to admit writing a dissertation on Mill’s moral and political philosophy, in one of those great cosmic coincidences, I received my Ph.D. on 20 May 2001, Mill’s 195th birthday. Oh, and my first name is also John. That’s all I’ve got. But enough about me. This is Mill’s big day. Well, I guess it’s not so much his big day, what with him being dead and all. Still, we’re here to read about Mill.

So what, then, is the legacy of John Stuart Mill? That’s really hard to say. He’s claimed by nearly everyone—or at least by nearly everyone in the liberal camp. Isaiah Berlin offers remarkably sympathetic readings of Mill, while hugely influential liberals such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin incorporate (or import wholesale) portions of On Liberty into their own work. Joel Feinberg, in fact, has made the Harm Principle the centerpiece of his magnum opus, the four-volume set on the moral limits of criminal law (Harm to Others, Offense to Others, Harm to Self, and Harmless Wrongdoing).

It is not only contemporary liberals who claim Mill; indeed many interpreters see him more as the spiritual father of libertarianism. Hayek (at least the Hayek of the ‘40s and ‘50s) wrote somewhat approvingly of Mill. More recently, Nick Capaldi argues that Mill is best understood as a libertarian. Aeon Skoble offers a similar reading here. Or, if you’re not up for reading long academic papers, see here for a more concise summary of Mill’s claims to libertarian credentials.

Now I’ll be upfront with you. I don’t think that Mill was a libertarian. Not even remotely. Yes, he wrote one of the clearest and most systematic accounts of classical economics. And yes, the harm principle sounds as if it is a defense of negative freedom. But let us also not forget that Mill’s posthumous Chapters on Socialism is sort of sympathetic to some socialist claims about the virtues of collective ownership, and that a number of passages in On Liberty itself suggest an account of freedom that looks far more like Kantian autonomy than it does simple non-interference. But I don’t want to argue this claim here today. Hey, this is a celebration, and we’re supposed to be enjoying our agreements, not rolling around in the mud arguing over our differences. So what I want to offer instead is a (very brief) defense of a fairly permissive version of the Harm Principle.

I want to begin that defense by first looking at an objection (or rather a set of objections) to the sort of permissive reading that I have in mind. In Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, Gertrude Himmelfarb complains that OL encourages individuals to

prize and cultivate their personal desires, impulses, inclinations, and wills, to see these as the source of all good, the force behind individual and social well-being

She continues, claiming that the book supports a philosophy

which recognized no higher, no more worthy subject than the individual, which made the individual the repository of wisdom and virtue, and which made the freedom of the individual the sole aim of social policy.

Himmelfarb goes on to complain that Mill’s permissiveness results in social corruption, as evidenced by loosening restrictions on homosexuality, showing pornography in public, and decreasing modesty in public dress (the book was written in the 1974; some things don’t change all that much).

Himmelfarb’s concerns have hardly gone away. Consider, for instance, this argument from Tom Anger at Liberty Corner:

Many proponents of the harm principle read it narrowly, as if the only harm that one may do to another is immediate or predictable (as in the case of pollution, for example). But there is more to liberty than allowing everyone to do his or her "own thing" as long as it doesn't result in immediate or predictable harm to others.

We must take account of the harm that might result in the longer run from actions that are likely to strain and sunder the bonds of trust that make it possible for a people to coexist civilly. It is those bonds of trust -- forged by shared customs and moral principles -- that enable the members of society to pursue happiness with little or no fear of -- or the need to prepare for and defend against -- predations by their fellows.

Himmelfarb and Anger approach Mill from slightly different perspectives (Tom is a libertarian while Himmelfarb is a conservative with communitarian leanings), but both reach similar conclusions: individual liberty is all well and good, but it cannot be allowed to conflict with important social institutions. The argument here is important, particularly in that it is one that has persisted through the 200 years since Mill’s birth. I want to reject (briefly—it is a blog post) that argument. First, though, a general point. While Himmelfarb straightforwardly rejects the Mill of On Liberty, Anger simply reinterprets the Harm Principle into something more consistent with his own consequentialist assumptions about harm to society (if I were being controversial here, I’d call Tom a communitarian and not a libertarian at all, but it’s a party, so no name-calling allowed). The problem with this move, though, is that Anger reads the Harm Principle as supporting the very thing that Mill meant to reject. Here, in fact, is Mill's own definition of freedom (and the only one that he offers in OL):

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 or 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.

That, it seems to me, would imply that Mill is not such a big fan of shared customs and morals. What I ought to do, rather, is to follow that plan of life that seems to me to be best. Still, though, the question remains: even if Mill’s Harm Principle really does imply that individual liberty trumps social mores (however important those mores), why isn’t that just a reason for rejecting the Harm Principle?

To answer this question, we must first consider briefly Mill’s arguments for the Harm Principle. Mill, of course, is a utilitarian, and as such, his most important arguments for the principle are consequentialist. Here’s Mill:

But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being, the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without.

For Mill, the Harm Principle is a secondary rule, one that is justified by a general appeal to utilitarian principles (namely, that allowing people individual freedom will be most likely to maximize happiness). Importantly, the Principle is presented as an absolute; it is to be followed in all cases and without exception. Thus, for Mill, we use utilitarian reasoning to justify the Harm Principle, but then use the Harm Principle itself (rather than a direct appeal to utility) to judge particular actions.

A utilitarian who appeals to secondary rules of this sort is open to a particular line of objection: What ought one to do when the secondary rule conflicts with the principle of utility? That is, what is the right response when our secondary rule picks out an action that fails to maximize utility? Does one abandon the secondary rule in favor of a direct appeal to utility? If so, then what real work was the secondary rule doing in the first place? And if not, then haven’t you just become a rule-fetishist who obeys the rule just because it’s a rule?

I think, however, that this sort of objection misses the force of Mill’s utilitarian argument for the Harm Principle as a secondary principle. Recall that Mill argues that even if society is right and the individual is wrong, we ought still to abide by the Harm Principle. Why? Because society is likely to screw up once it is given license to interfere with individual liberty. The argument is that we ought not allow interference in anycase because allowing interference at all will result in more wrong decisions than it will right decisions. In other words, because society is generally pretty bad at interfering, the net loss in utility that will result from a policy that allows for exceptions to the Harm Principle will outweigh any gains that we might get from allowing correct exceptions here and there. Mill gives us a utilitarian argument for treating the rules as absolutes.

More significantly, though, the sorts of things that both Himmelfarb and Anger point to as the dangers of permissive individual liberty are not at all obviously bad. Maybe it’s true that horny teenagers looking at pictures of naked women and dudes marrying dudes will destroy society. More likely, though, is that allowing pornography and gay marriage will undermine one possible society, not the very possibility of society. But whether that one possible society is the one at which we all ought to aim is a matter of debate. Here’s Mill again:

On questions of social morality, of duty to others, the opinion of the public, that is, of an overruling majority, though often wrong, is likely to be still oftener right; because on such questions they are only required to judge of their own interests; of the manner in which some mode of conduct, if allowed to be practised, would affect themselves. But the opinion of a similar majority, imposed as a law on the minority, on questions of self-regarding conduct, is quite as likely to be wrong as right; for in these cases public opinion means, at the best, some people's opinion of what is good or bad for other people; while very often it does not even mean that; the public, with the most perfect indifference, passing over the pleasure or convenience of those whose conduct they censure, and considering only their own preference.

It’s hard to imagine what could possible be more self-regarding than whom one marries or what one looks at while…ahem…becoming better acquainted with oneself. This brings us to Mill’s “experiments in living,” the subject of Matt’s post. I don’t want to steal his thunder, so I’ll merely note here that Mill would, at the very least, probably endorse something like the Massachusetts experiment with legalized gay marriage. If Massachusetts collapses as a result, then we’ll know better than to repeat that particular experiment. When, as I think likely, the great Massachusetts experiment ends with lots of gays and lesbians living happily together (and, more than likely, an almost equal number divorcing and living happily with someone else), well then there won’t be all that much reason for other states to resist following suit.

So, then, what’s the state of liberalism 200 years after Mill’s birth? I hate to resort to cliché, but it seems apt here: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Don’t get me wrong; we’ve made a lot of progress in the past 200 years. At the same time, we still face almost precisely the same objections to liberty that Mill faced in Victorian London. I strongly suspect that young Mill scholars writing at Mill’s tri-centennial will say much the same sorts of things. Unless, of course, the Rothbardians get hold of that Magic End-the-State-Overnight Button. Then we’re just all screwed. (Yeah, I know I promised to play nice. But it’s Mill’s birthday. A swipe at deontologists is pretty much obligatory.)

Return to Mill-Fest: The Bicentennial Edition

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I don't suppose that anyone

I don't suppose that anyone will ever believe that I didn't actually leave that comment.

Oh Joe Miller you are a

Oh Joe Miller you are a brilliant philosopher :shock: