Only A Personal Good
The central message sent by Mill to the modern democracies has been his insistence that we must be left free for “framing the plan of our life to suit our character” (1), and that “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way” (1), as long as we do not harm or impede others in the same pursuit. Volumes could be written on these distinctions. But let us cut to the chase. The modern democracies took this directive from Mill as a sanction for the supposedly “neutral” state, or “procedural republic,” in which a framework of law is established that is supposed to be neutral as to the ends of society. But as mentioned before, this has been a deception, for this supposedly neutral environment has unleashed an egalitarian-democratic war against traditional morality and civil society in the name of the progressive welfare state, as we shall see.
Even worse, if Mill meant something more than satisfying our appetites and desires, and it is certain he did, then he invites paradox. For the “good” John aims for beyond his simple pleasures in life may readily conflict with the “good” of Mary whenever their ideas are converted into actions. Further, how is it possible to have convictions to act for the good without having complementary convictions as to the bad? Can the good possibly mean anything without its opposite? And if we are to be free to “unite” in like-minded associations, and to “express” individually or together our ideas, is it possible to “pursue” these things without repudiating the bad in order to protect the good? Finally, if society is but a mass of freely-choosing men and women acting under the principle of utility, does this not mean they are required to safeguard the general happiness with force, if necessary? And if so, who decides what that happiness is?
“Multitudes of Promising Intellects”
Throughout On Liberty we sense an over-weaning and frankly irritating interest in “intellectuals,” “genius,” and the “higher” intellect, with Mill persistently asserting a direct connection between certain knowledge of the good, goodness itself, and higher intelligence (to be supplied by a lot more “education”). Notwithstanding his snobbism and obvious preference for the values of his own class and kind, however, it is clear that Mill was obliged to believe in the higher intellect of the authentic and free self in order to make his theory work, just as he was obliged to believe in higher, better, and more enlightened stages of society. More freedom leads to more expression of genius and this filters down to society (hence his preference for representative democracy, rather than the direct sort). He distrusted uneducated people. But more importantly, without a belief in intellectual, moral, and social “progress,” Mill would have deprived himself of any “good” for his newly freed individuals to “pursue.”
So he worried deeply about “the multitudes of promising intellects combined with timid characters who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought” (2) – lest they be accused of being “irreligious or immoral.” Of course we wonder how they can have bold and vigorous thoughts if they have such timid characters, poor things. No matter. Much is revealed in Mill’s concern. He despises the weight of religious and moral opinion on the free intellect, and so rejects such opinion out of hand, but he immediately replaces them with his own moral vision of the goods of natural reason, social and intellectual progress, and “truth,” all of which he believes spring into existence with freedom.
As for the connection between genius and politics? He asserts that no government of whatever sort could ever rise above mediocrity “except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided … by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few. The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honour and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond internally to wise and noble things [he means can “vibrate” with them, in the Romantic sense], and be led to them with his eyes open” (3). Implied in this opinion is Mill’s philosophy of democratic rule by chosen representatives, individuals who “stand on the higher eminences of thought,” who have experienced the stirring of the authentic self and have been led by nature and their own genius and eccentricity to lead others. This is the Romantic root of his democratic snobbism. He requires such individuals to be not morally “better” than the mass (which, awkwardly, would imply the imposition of their views on others), but different, nonconformist, and “eccentric,” which to him and all other Romantics is a code word for … better. He directly equates the amount of eccentricity in society with the amount of moral courage, revealing again his Gnostic view of reality. Mankind wallows in the darkness of ignorance, but individual freedom begins the process of enlightenment. Some are naturally brighter than others and once freed must lead society to ever higher levels of perfection. This is his secular version of Calvin’s Elect. Justice on earth arises spontaneously from the actual process of intellectual freedom in which false views are purged, life is simplified, and truth emerges victorious.
Mill’s Dialectic: Truth and Harmony From Dialogue
Many of the most moving and spirited passages in On Liberty are songs of faith in praise of “truth.” What truth? Mill cannot say. For him, truth is not eternal or established, or a moral ideal, or a settled custom or opinion, but a process that may yield any number of results according to the situation. He insists truth must arise from the process of his Talking Cure in which all positions, especially those of the minority are considered in their fullest diversity. Then truth will spontaneously appear, and not otherwise, because “wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument” (2). Thus did Mill clearly articulate the great secular dream of Western liberal democracy: “Truth in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites …” (2) [italics mine]. In short, truth is not established, nor fixed in advance, nor written in law or religion. Rather it is an ever fresh creation, and Mills’ faith is that it will always be found provided absolute individual freedom is present. He did not seek the truth of an abstract General Will, as did Rousseau, but a truth that arises as an original result of a dialogical balancing process, and cannot be known in advance. Needless to say, such a truth will always be “good” because of the freedom of the participants and its form of manufacture, and this is how Mill removes the need for any transcendent moral standards. Because we are free, then on all disputed questions “the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons” (2). Which is to say that truth is never absolute, but always a compromise. Combining? Balancing? Reconciling? Accordingly, Mill articulated the great modern liberal turn away from telos, or ends, to praxis, or process; from the goal sought, to the seeking; for at least at this present stage of “an imperfect state of the human mind” (2), there is no fixed destination for human beings, only a journey.
Yet at the end of this process, in what history must judge as an astonishingly naive passage in view of the horrors of the following liberal-democratic age, Mill sees his own vision of the New Jerusalem, for “as mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested” (2) [italics mine]. Here, progress and truth march arm in arm toward final social harmony, simplicity, and human well-being. Then, in a movement of mind that again reveals the underlying dualistic framework animating him, he warns us that “the cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinion, as it is dangerous and noxious when opinions are erroneous”(2) [italics mine]. For Mill, then, truth springs solely from the right process, and error from obstructing that process. It is the revelation of individual liberty that opens the door to authenticity and true choice-making. This necessitates the repudiation of all prior custom, opinion, and religious or moral standards, which leaves us with the collision, balancing, and reconciling of authentic personal views. This process of its very nature produces human progress, well-being, and the blessed cessation of conflict. Though he is very careful to add that even progress does not produce a final truth. It only subsititutes one incomplete truth for another that is “more wanted” in the circumstances. So in short form, the process is as follows:
individual freedom > authenticity > choice-making > collision of opinions > purgation of error > situational truth > a higher individual freedom (and around again).
Having said all this, if Mill were ever to return, he would surely flee in terror from the results of his handiwork: the modern view, first that all “values” are equally “true,” and then (its certain consequence) the repudiation of the basic concept of truth itself as oppressive and “hegemonic.” He would especially have reviled the way so-called post-modern intellectuals depict all truth-claims as a camouflage for personal or class tyranny. In this sense he was the last liberal thinker.
The “Choice” Mantra
The rejection of transcendent truth, custom, and tradition as unitary sources of value in favour of the Romantic ideal of the authentic and spontaneous Self meant that meaning would no longer have a discoverable source outside us, but millions of internal sources in the individual choices of free, truth-creating human beings. In a striking sentence Mill dictates the terms of such a world, in which “the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals” (3). In this sense Mill was a type of existentialist thinker. Man’s essence does not precede him, is the implication; the meaning of life and of the universe is not, as most classical thinkers and Christian theologians have taught, something external to be discovered by patient searching. Rather, it is created by ourselves: for “the human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice” (3). This he feels so extremely that he actually says that “he who does anything because it is custom, makes no choice … he who lets the world … choose his own plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation” (3).
The strength and vituperation of Mill’s objections to any form of imitation – which we saw above in his dislike of Classical poetry and art – touches his every judgement on politics and morality. The bitterly emotional force of his arguments against Custom are likely rooted in a personal rejection of his own robotic education at the hands of his domineering father. As a result of his crisis he turned away from the power of all received opinion to the power of the Self and free choice. The Self became his new lamp and source of truth, and the foundation of all social perfection, the most important focus of which is man himself. For, he says, “it really is of importance not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance is surely man himself” (3) [italics mine]. Now this is the sort of comment for which Mill has been faulted as contradicting himself. For if we are to be absolutely free as individuals, why would we be constrained to perfect anything at all, whether ourselves, or “man himself?” Nevertheless, Mill insists on the evil of all imitative men, whom he labels derisively, as “automatons in human form” – and on the spontaneous goodness of the free chooser. His core belief is that a society of free choosers will progressively become perfect of its own accord. It is difficult to imagine a more euphoric, utopian, and essentially rudderless vision.
Needless to say, the ideal of free choice as the sole foundation of human authenticity and goodness is a potentially dangerous ideal because merely choosing something cannot make it good. For example, we may choose to lie, steal, and cheat. Whole societies may and do choose to oppress, liquidate, or make unjustifiable war on other human beings. There is obviously no necessary connection between choosing and goodness.
The contrasting, and deeply conservative view of freedom is that we are fortunate to learn from the wisest and best of our kind. The history of any civilization is a kind of process of filtration through which cumulative wisdom is available in the form of useful customs, laws, and traditions that constrain us to act in a civilized fashion, and what makes us civilized ought not to be subjected to re-examination every minute. Automated behaviours such as shaking hands, apologizing when we sneeze, getting up to help the elderly or weak, expressing gratitude for kindness, and the like, are things without which even the simplest daily transactions would be impossible. It is largely the inherited and predictable decencies that enable us to behave freely as a people by avoiding constant friction and bewilderment, or second-guessing every motive, and not the ridiculous and impractical idea that we should re-examine and then choose or reject each act anew as an original personal invention. In short, the civilizing process is indelibly historical. Despite this, a jaded and seemingly resentful Mill argues that “the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement” (3:595, italics mine). We see again that Mill’s case advances only by a relentless combination of abstractness with the euphoric hope of perfection.
This is precisely the revolutionary implication of modern ethics that underlies our democratic politics. The individual as the ultimate source of value has become the common standard since Mill. Modern hyperdemocracy , by which activist courts commonly read meanings into abstract Bills of Rights and Charters in favour of a hypothetical individual deemed to possess democratic “rights,” with nary a mention of any obligations, rests on this notion. And yet we know that the use of the word “ethics” is absurd if there is no social or morally constraining context, and that the moral ends of society cannot be decided by individuals acting alone. Mill was also clearly aware of this conundrum, and so in place of traditional ethics he substituted the naturally good freely-choosing individual, investing him with ideals of an abstract “liberty” and “progress” which combine to act as a continuous and inexhaustible moral horizon.
Mill’s Moralism and The “Inconveniences”
Despite everything he claims, in Chapter I of On Liberty, Mill seems to recant in Chapter IV, or at least offers so many caveats that he well earns his reputation as a sometimes contradictory and confusing thinker. He once again attempts to draw an imaginary line between individual and social behaviour, stating that “to individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society the part which chiefly interests society” (4). This phrasing sets up a tug-of-war between the individual and society because it leaves the definition of each sphere of interest to each party. So we expect him to propose a contractual arrangement to define the spheres and how they relate. Instead, Mill surprises us by rejecting the Lockean notion that society is based on a contract, declaring that we all owe society a return for the benefits received, that we are all “bound to observe a certain line of conduct” toward each other, vaguely defined as avoiding injury to each other’s interests (which by “tacit understanding” may be considered rights), must bear our share in defending society, and so on. Then, in what seems an abrupt about-face after so many pages spent scorning coercive social and moral opinion, he says that if the acts of an individual are “hurtful” to others or lack “due consideration for their welfare,” the offender “may be justly punished by opinion,” though not by law (4).
Now here is Mill saying that public opinion is in fact a useful coercive moral force, and warns that we utterly misunderstand his book if we think he means “that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing, or the well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved” (4). Then, again seemingly in contradiction to his strict prohibition of moral meddling in the lives of others, he adds, “there is a need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others” (4) [italics mine]. The essence of his message is that to get the horse to water we may use lots of carrots, but no sticks, and he calls this “disinterested benevolence.” What is interesting, of course, is to know how we can promote the good of another unless we have a pretty firm idea of what it is, and therefore of the bad that threatens to prevent us from obtaining it. Mill then informs us that “human beings owe each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.” People should, he feels, be “ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations” (4) [italics mine].
Clearly Mill proposes a moral community in which we all have a duty to encourage the good and discourage the bad, but in which all are nevertheless free to choose their own plan of life and must be left alone in things that concern only themselves. Having said this, he allows that without oppressing another’s individuality, we may nevertheless openly avoid his company and advise others to do the same if we think he will have a pernicious effect on them; we may give preference to others over him (that is, actively discriminate against him) in his job-seeking (though should not do so if a job might help him). A bad person, in short, might “suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others for faults which directly concern only himself ,” but Mill assures us he suffers penalties only as “spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves,” and not because they are “purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment.” Then, in a most extraordinary passage, he reveals his personal moral requirements of others. He warns that “a person who shows rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit – who cannot live within moderate means – who cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgences – who pursues animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect – must expect to be lowered in the opinion of others …” (4). He calls these moral punishments “the inconveniences” of such bad behaviour (all of them rooted in Christian morality, we might add) and says that they are “inseparable from the unfavourable judgement of others.” Now I ask, what is public opinion, and the social and moral coercion against which Mill has spoken so sternly, if not a set of attitudes “inseparable from the unfavourable judgement of others”?
As if now squeezed by his own retractions, Mill closes by giving a number of petty examples of behaviour in which we ought not to interfere because they purportedly concern only the individual. Gambling, drunkenness, incontinence (inability to control oneself or one’s appetites), idleness, and uncleanliness are foremost. Mill agrees that such behaviours may affect society in a minor degree, but a person may only be restrained from these things if he has violated a “distinct and assignable obligation” to someone else, or to society at large. Otherwise, let him live as he chooses.
It is extraordinary how we may want to agree with Mill in order to defend our freedom, and yet how easily we may find arguments against the cases he gives. Gambling in one’s own home or that of a friend, he says, is fine, but public gambling must never be allowed. Those pursuing such vices ought to be “compelled to conduct their operations with a certain degree of mystery and secrecy” (5) so that no one knows about them except the users. That is the best society can do. Drunkenness must be allowed, but never in a person who has been an unruly drunk. Idleness is no one’s concern, of course, unless the idler falls onto the welfare rolls and takes our money. Uncleanliness is not a problem either, we may suppose, unless the rats in your neighbour’s uncollected garbage visit your home or the drunk asleep on the bus-seat beside you reeks of vomit.
Mill covers off objections to his liberty principle by admitting that “whenever there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual, or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law” (4:italics mine). But it would seem that in permitting society (or a majority?) to assess the risk of damage as a criterion he destroys most of his prior argument, and indeed he does say that “if society is of the opinion” that social or legal punishment is necessary for its protection, then it is legitimate (5). In this vein, and somewhat surprisingly given the general nature of the topic, Mill includes as offenses against others, everything which is a “violation of good manners,” such as the many “offenses against decency” on which he says “it is unnecessary to dwell” (5) – because all may be rightfully prohibited.