Mill’s Contradictions – Only Apparent

Mill’s Contradictions – Only Apparent

The conflict between wholes (organic society: Rousseau, Humboldt) and parts (individual freedom: Locke, Kant, Mill) continues throughout Mill’s On Liberty, and has generated considerable unresolvable controversy about what exactly Mill meant. No wonder. He was trying to suck and blow at the same time. This often gives the impression, as one frustrated critic put it, of someone “bewildered by the intricacies of his own thought.”[i] For how could he be such a freedom-lover and also, by the end of his life, a self-admitted socialist (though of a very idealistic sort)?[ii] Are these not contradictions? Well, yes and no. The contradictions in his views are real enough at the surface. But they dissolve into a unified view once we understand his underlying assumptions. For Mill believed in absolute human freedom, as well as absolute human progress, or ‘civilization.” Now freedom implies the absence both of hard government coercion as well as the soft social and moral kind. But progress, which must be directed, implies lots of both to steer the course of civilization toward the good.

This irresolvable conflict has continued to perplex Mill’s admirers and critics alike. But I submit there is a solution to the puzzle of his ideals that lies in his sudden and unexpected embrace of Romantic poetry. Soon after he abandoned strict Utilitarianism (a theory that makes no comment on human evil or goodness) he derived from the popular poetry of his time a new secular faith in the inherent goodness and reasonableness of the unencumbered Self. But just as for Rousseau, whom Mill admired as a seer, and whose basic Nature-against-Society theme he echoes, this posed a problem. Man may be inherently good in theory, but he obviously does not live that way. The explanation therefore is that he is currently corrupted by a vicious and ignorant society that suppresses his true nature. So for Mill, the task was clear: continue to argue for the unencumbered Self, all the while actively reshaping society so that it would one day be a true and pure expression of freedom and reason. A polity structured this way would then progress spontaneously to higher levels of civilization through its own newly released “energy,” and would one day be the purest expression of truly free citizens. Heady stuff.

Most readers see On Liberty as a precisely constructed manifesto of libertarian freedom written in the cool and logical language of a political philosopher. But it is no such thing. It is fundamentally a religious document wearing a secular mask, a highly ideological and politically radical manifesto aiming to entrench the Romantic ideal of the naturally good authentic Self in the democratic language and institutions of the Western world. It has pretty much succeeded in doing so. And this is paradoxical coming from a man who described himself as one of the few who never had religion of any kind. But light and dark were opposed from the start. Despite his misgivings about the uneducated and uncivilized, Mill defended the freedom of the individual against “the tyranny of the majority,” or what he called “social tyranny,” in the name of “Social Liberty.” To make his argument work he had to present “public opinion” as an evil external coercive force as bad as political tyranny, that works by suffocating independence and individuality with unwritten “rules of conduct” and “penalties.” To an age longing for more “democratic” freedom, Mill’s little book – a pot-pourri of convictions and apparent contradictions nourished by what one writer aptly called his “inquisitorial certainty”[iii] – soon became the bible of the anti-big-government “classical liberal” movement of the Nineteenth century.

As that movement slowly betrayed its origins and transformed into the modern statist type of liberalism, however, Mill’s book got adopted by conservatives and libertarians eager to continue the protest against growing government power. Radicals adopted it as a manifesto of individualism in their struggle against any form of authority. Indeed, it became “the classic text of radicalism … carrying out … the goal of true liberation. It is, in short, something of an icon of modernity, giving intellectual authority and legitimacy to ideas and attitudes that dominate our society”[iv] (italics mine). Too bad so many of those ideas and attitudes are false, or at the least misleading conceits. For by now, On Liberty has taken on a peculiar life of its own, and although it “was radical enough in its own time … it is, in a sense, more radical in ours, because its seems to validate contemporary ideas about liberty which go well beyond what Mill intended.”[v] Indeed, modernity, I shall argue, clean ignored Mill’s caveats and shoplifted what it needed from his little manifesto to further its headlong embrace of hyperdemocracy.

For me, Mill’s wide-ranging legacy to Western political and moral life is a problem. True conservatives, as I argue, must praise his warnings against government coercion, interference, and regulation, because they want people to be free to form themselves spontaneously into a civil society. In this sense only, Mill can rightly be classifed as a great defender of freedom against the State. In On Liberty, however, he argued powerfully not for the freedom of individuals to bind themselves together in a society free from government interference, but for individual freedom from society as well. In doing so, he pushed the idea too far by falsely equating State and society. He did this with an unsubtle, chopping-cleaver logic that has had the continuous effect of slowly dismembering traditional society according to a principle of freedom that radically privatized morality and behaviour. Now that was an appealing but very dangerous thing to do, simply because there is nothing most people would secretly like better than to escape moral judgement and indulge their appetites and fantasies at will without regard to others. Mill asked us to deny the fact that morality must always be a public matter or be reduced to a war of individual choices. Just so, his privatization of morality easily fed all the conceits of the modern ego and the contemporary notion of individual (as distinct from societal) democratic rights. In this respect I count him as a great destroyer of spontaneous community in the name of freedom and individualism, and the author of so many modern woes.

We tend to forget, until the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb reminds us that Mill’s definition of liberty defied all precedent. Not a single one of Mill’s famous liberal predecessors had imagined for a moment the sort of extreme privatization of freedom and morality that On Liberty has somehow made central to the contemporary tradition. For example, Spinoza advocated liberty of speech but “not out of anger, hatred, or a desire to introduce any change in the state on his own authority;” Locke called for liberty but “not for opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society;” Montesquieu spoke for a limited liberty to do “what we ought to will;” and Kant called for liberty of speech, but not of action. The two key American liberals, Jefferson and Paine, pushed for liberty of the individual against government, certainly, but not against “public opinion” or “society, ” while the great Tocqueville famously called for liberty, but “not without morality, nor morality without faith.”[vi]

If these political and moral philosophers wanted democracy at all, it was always what might be called a communal democracy of the whole people, and they certainly never imagined a separation between thoughtful democratic opinion and moral opinion. Before Mill’s outburst, all human behaviour was assumed to have some moral consequence, however small or large, however direct or indirect. Then here comes a brilliant logician to argue that personal and private behaviour was out of bounds to moral judgement unless it harmed someone else. This was akin to saying there is no light from fire unless it burns you. Anti-authoritarian intellectuals and ordinary freedom-lovers everywhere in the democratic West soon interpreted him to mean that individuals alone could now determine the “morality” of their behaviour; or that morality was something created within the self and asserted in the name of freedom against the “opinion” of society. Mill did not necessarily mean that – he actully had very strict ideas about virtue and behaviour. But he put his freedom principle in a way that this conclusion was unavoidable. In this way Mill almost singlehandedly shifted the locus of morality from society to the individual, and started us on the road to hyperdemocracy.

From a macrohistory point of view, he was legitimizing the ancient Gnostic urge to repudiate society and the moral law in the name of individual (self) knowledge. This was all the more strange because before and after On Liberty, and even in many sections of that work, he was far from a moral relativist. Mill believed that the truth actually exists and may be found, but only by first encouraging the widest range of free opinions, some of which may be temporarily wrong. But he imagined truth would eventually arise spontaneously from a mass of truly free and intellectually-engaged autonomous individuals. In other words, for him, liberty is prior to truth, but is also its efficient and final cause. But we are not free most of the time because whenever society (or religion, or the state) decides it knows best what is once and for all true, it immediately oppresses what he saw as the essential freedom and truth-finding function of humanity.

Mill’s notion is a stirring one that can be defended – but only if his opening assumption about natural human goodness is true. Alas, experience confirms it is far from proven, and his gambit has had an opposite effect. By equating freedom and truth, Mill’s little book seems to deny priority to any standard of action and in the minds of his followers has relativized and privatized morality. In this respect Mill is responsible for the damaging idea that both society and the state must be morally “neutral” with respect to the private lives and choices of individuals. However we will see later that modern liberalism, which publicly proclaims this very ideal, is in fact anything but neutral. This no surprise, for on reflection it is clear that there can be no such thing as a “morally neutral” society or state. That is because even neutrality is a firm position taken against an alternative seen as bad. Furthermore, as its very condition, all collective action must assume some moral direction, or choice for the good over the bad (what is rejected). The question is only whether that morality is articulate and publicly defensible, or carries on as a kind of sham morality, as I suggest is the case for modern liberal democratic regimes.

[i] J. Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), p.122, cited in in Cosmas Ekwutosi, Freedom To do Evil in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Rome: Thesis for the Doctorate of the Pontifico Ateneo Della Santa Croce, 1998), p.171.

[ii] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p.175.

[iii] Maurice Cowling, cited in Paul Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State ( New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999). page 48.

[iv] Himmelfarb, Op. Cit., p.75.

[v] Ibid., p.82.

[vi] Ibid., p.81.

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