Sham Morality: Mill’s Two Fibs and The New Golden Rule
His assault began with the bold announcement that the object of his essay was “to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is 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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[i] [italics mine]. This is referred to as Mill’s “harm principle.” I am assuming he cribbed it from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, the infamous Article 4 of which said that “liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not injure another.”
With respect to the tyrannies of governments, all of which have a monopoly on legal coercion, this at first has a stirring ring. But we must take close note of what he actually wrote. Remember, Mill was a snob. His new principle was reserved for “civilized” nations and educated people only. All others should be governed sternly. What is remarkable about this elite principle is that it inverts the Christian Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that has been central to our civilization. That was a positive rule, rather than a negative one, and altruistic in its ambition, enjoining us to set a moral standard for the community based on what we agree is good. The underlying Commandment, “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” I would add, is its source. That Commandment is incorporative, implying a merging of identical beings in love. We are not asked to love our neighbour as if he or she were us; that is, to fake the love, or imagine it, but rather, as ourselves, without difference from us. But Mill’s new Golden Rule is manifestly negative. It invokes a strictly inward-looking personal vision that creates a private Star Wars zone of privacy around each one of us and defines morality not by any inclusive standard of good, but by an exclusive standard of bad.
Mill manages to make this seem logical with his first fib, suggesting that “physical force,” “legal penalties,” and “moral coercion of public opinion,” have the same legitimacy and an equal power over our lives. This is plainly false and misleading. A policeman has a lot more power over our conduct than do our neighbours gossiping over the back fence. But he got away with equating these things and triggered a war against society in the name of personal freedom, mainly because so few critics have ever taken him to task for a deliberate confusion that ought to have disqualified his principle from the start. The force of public opinion and manners is of course very powerful, but it is not legally binding, and it has no physically coercive power whatsoever. Social coercion is only possible by our consent. It may scare, persuade, ridicule, lecture, hector, intimidate, and the like, just as it can praise, encourage, soothe, and embolden; but it can in no way coerce. Just because so many people behave as if they cannot resist, or cower before opinion, suggests more of cowardice than coercion.
The second fib follows from the first. For if we accept his equation and say that moral coercion is indeed the same as “power,” then his statement that the only reason it may be used is “to prevent harm to others,” is simply not true. Throughout the history of civilization the main use of moral coercion has been to create and sustain a sense of community and social order that would otherwise have to be supplied by bureaucrats and police. Public morality thus serves as an inexpensive form of crowd control. When it is delegitimized, chaos quickens, and governments step in to supply the missing control. Ironically, it is precisely a strong sense of moral coercion that prevents harm to others by keeping people off each other’s necks, and governments at bay. The eloquent Edmund Burke summed the matter up in one of his famous phrases, to wit, that “society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”[ii] Perhaps this explains why precisely in a time of rampant and preening individual self-indulgence there have arisen such massive regulatory welfare states. At any rate, Mill did not seem unduly bothered by the surface ambiguities of his general argument, likely because they disappear when seen in the context of his overall theory of the Self.
The Harm Principle Is Harmful
One cannot grant in the first place that any such sharp division between
the altruistic and the self-regarding elements in human nature is possible;
and even if one did grant it, one should have to insist that the self-regarding
virtues are the most important even from the point of view of society; for it
is only by the exercise of these virtues that one becomes exemplary and so
… truly helpful to others.
~ Irving Babbitt, on J.S. Mill, in Democracy and Leadership, 1924
Mill’s harm principle is open to wide interpretation from the start. In the mostly unread Chapter Four of On Liberty he dilutes its absoluteness by offering a highly interpretable and flexible guideline; namely, 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.” But there are no guidelines as to which is which. He seems to struggle with the fact that humans are social beings from birth and hence the great difficulty with his principle lies in figuring out exactly what it is we might do that truly only effects ourselves. Can there be anything?
One thinks of the “Butterfly Effect” developed in the Chaos Theory of modern physics. It says that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Peking today it can transform storm systems in New York next month. That takes a bit of imagining, or one very large butterfly. On the other hand, if measurements or models are actually fine enough, there is some consequence calculable. Indeed, most of the prestigious edifice of modern physics is based on the fact that outcomes are incredibly sensitive to, and dependent on tiny alterations in “initial conditions.” Small differences in input become overwhelming differences in output. The folk-awareness of this truth is summed up in chants such as
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of a horse, the rider was lost,
For want of a rider, the battle was lost,
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!” [iii]
Accordingly, we can argue quite plausibly that the slightest human actions and opinions ultimately affect everyone else in the world in some way; that there is hence no firm dividing line between most public and private behaviour, and that in moral matters there is no fixed line at all – though for practical convenience we accept the fiction of a line. What Mill did was radically shift the line so far as almost to remove the whole idea of morality. So against Mill, my argument would be that there can never be anything such as wholly individual, or “self-regarding” behaviour in a human social environment. If we can agree that all of us are engaged in a lifelong seeking of our own good (even when we are wrong-headed), then the sum of all human choosing is modified by every choice.
For example, a man who makes a private decision tomorrow to leave his religion and become a lustful consumer of pornography, thereby alters the world for all by altering his way of seeing and acting towards others and himself. The world is minus one abstaining religious person and plus one pornography nut. He alters his personal notion of what is good and desirable, but in doing so also alters the total public good. He spurs the pornography market with his purchase, which spurs some procurer to lure young girls to his camera for more pictures to sell at a higher price, and so on, in a kind of social butterfly effect. No, the great appeal and danger of Mill’s principle is that it offers the gullible and selfish a moral disconnection from society, freeing them from all constraint so long as their behaviour does not include physical harm to others. This ideal has been terribly seductive to a Western world still working out – I should say still suffering from – the consequences of the moral downloading that began with the Reformation and that still promises, alluringly, to free the Self from any need of external discipline or moral oversight.
It is not an original observation to point out that most human beings in most civilizations in history would have considered this an impoverished idea, if only because there are so many other senses to the meaning of freedom, as we have seen, and because all our actions obviously and inevitably affect others, and therefore the quality and ends of society, whether we wish them to or not. In his wide-ranging book Freedom, Orlando Patterson shows how for many traditional civilizations, ancient and modern, our current liberal ideal of freedom as autonomy would have been viewed as a kind of ostracism, or “social death,” and that what people in every previous society in history have yearned for is quite the opposite. They want freedom as inclusion in a moral community and full and active participation in its common rights, strictures, and obligations. That’s why for the ancients, the worst punishment was not imprisonment – a very modern idea – but ostracism or banishment. Even now many modern native communities use banishment of juvenile delinquents as a form of correction. Personal freedom as autonomy, as an ideal, had no place in such societies. The force of this truth is considerable. In many past slave-holding societies, for example, liberated slaves often turned right around and asked for legal adoption by their former owners. What they desired most was “the condition of the complete insider” in a kin group. The mere idea of being released from all obligation, “far from being a desired state, was equated with one of the saddest conditions known to human beings, that of being deprived of one’s parents.” Personal freedom, for such cultures, such as we value it, was “a despised value.” [iv]
In this vein, James Stephen, a critic and contemporary of Mill, aptly skewered his famously simplistic idea when he described it as “Let every man please himself without hurting his neighbour.”[v] He correctly observed that in practice, Mill’s liberty principle would destroy all systems of religion and morals, the whole point of which is precisely to interfere with and restrain liberty for the good of the individual as well as the community. In essence, the only aim of these systems is to serve as forms of moral coercion. Stephen argued that freedom is neither good nor bad. It is an instrument. Like fire, it’s value depends on its use. Fire can heat your supper or burn down your house. To him, humans are “like a pack of hounds all coupled together and wanting to go different ways,” and it is only the restraint of morality that keeps them running in the same path. But “Mr. Mill would like each to take his own way.” He observed wisely that “complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other – that is to say, when society is at an end.”[vi]
At any rate, with his two fibs, Mill set modern liberalism – and democracy – on a new course that began dissolving their original connection to the greater good of society – a process still underway. His principle has caused much confusion ever since for the simple reason that most people are absolutely certain that everything of which they happen to disapprove that is done by others grievously affects all of society, while everything they like to do is their own business whether others like it or not. This truth just demonstrates that the only possible and workable line between private and public behaviour must be defined morally, and not personally. This Mill was desperate to change, or lose his case for natural social progress.
His sudden turn to the absolutism of the Self was triggered by the influence of his beloved socialist-leaning wife Harriet Taylor, with whom he worked out many of the notions for On Liberty, and to whom it was movingly dedicated. Actually, he wrote that it is impossible to distinguish her ideas from his own – which makes us wonder why her name isn’t on the title page with his? At any rate, she took much pleasure in introducing this icy rationalist to the emotional delights and mysteries of Romantic poetry. That he was influenced so deeply by Harriet and her poetry is common knowledge. But the profound influence of the Romantic ideal of the Self on the development of his political thought is rarely explored. This is a pity, for Mill indulged it as a kind of secret rebellion both against religious morality, the Sinful Man Model, and the Utilitarian and rationalist conceptions he had once so eagerly incorporated from his own father’s teachings. So I will be making what I suppose is an unusual case here. Namely, that the widely accepted view of Mill as a political rationalist and logician is quite wrong. His rationalism was mostly just a vehicle for introducing politcal ideas that were mystical in the deepest sense of the word. It was this latter strain, and not his rationalism that was to so influence the changing Western sense of democracy. The background for this new political mysticism was the inherited mixture of beliefs he was rejecting.
When Mill was young he was dreaming more of logical, moral, and political systems than of poetry, and his young life was easily shaped as “a mere reasoning machine” by the stern rationalism of his father James. Among his precocious achievements, Mill had read most of the classics of Greek and Roman literature and science in their original languages by the age of nine! After a time, his father instructed him in the “Utilitarian” philosophy of his friend Jeremy Bentham, whom the younger Mill later served briefly as personal secretary. This was a complicated but truly impoverished system (a “felicific calculus”) for arriving at moral judgements. It enabled people without any moral sense of their own to make difficult life decisions based on weighted numbers assigned to the various choice-possibilities they faced. It was an incredibly shallow pseudo-system that the clever Bentham and his followers had invented in an effort to avoid the moral and political conflicts that for centuries had erupted from opposing religious convictions. The asininity of it has been oft-exposed.[vii] Nevertheless Mill was drawn to its simplicity so strongly he considered it “a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life.”[viii] Indeed, his own father wanted to turn him into a “utilitarian messiah.” He took to Utilitarianism with the fever of religion because it offered him a neat way of making “ethical” decisions on a quantitative basis. Well, actually, it was a method for avoiding ethics altogether. Instead of judging the goodness or badness of an action based on a moral or religious ideal or standard, you consider only the many actual consequences of the action and add up the pluses and minuses to see if it produces “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”
This is sometimes called “consequentialism” because it attempts to weigh the various positive and negative consequences of human actions. It is easily defeated by the simple observations that large numbers of people can be as easily deceived as can an individual by their own fleeting happiness. Also, the system could not deal with the fact that unhappy choices today may produce the greatest happiness tomorrow, or with the fact that there is no permanent connection between immediate happiness, the number made happy, and wise choosing. It was the very fact that utilitarianism aimed to secularize and instrumentalize moral questions by removing all good and bad from the calculation that left it open to ideological manipulation. But the chief utilitarian aim of Bentham and the two Mills was to remove the Christian God from the public square.
The young Mill worshipped at the shrine of Bentham (and his own father) for a long time. But as he was a moralist at heart, who believed that only a person of confirmed virtue could be completely free. In his world of “unbounded freedom,” all would have “convictions as to what is right and wrong, useful and pernicious, deeply engraved on the feelings by early education.”[ix] What bothered him in Utilitarianism was the idea that the greatest number of people could easily be made happy by the most vulgar choices. In other words, freedom could lead to debasement of self and society. Here was an irresolvable conflict between the two opposing ideals of the greatest good for the greatest number, and individual freedom. The principle of the good of the majority could be used to suffocate the freedom of the minority, and the good itself. From this he concluded that happiness is the wrong goal. Happiness should be a by-product of right living, and not the main objective. By 1826, at the age of twenty his confusion over these questions led to a personal breakdown or crisis of faith in his “creed.”
But he refused to turn upward to religion proper to find his way out, for he remained convinced that religion was a chief cause of human conflict. Anything transcendent smacked of authority to him. So much so that On Liberty became a lightly-veiled screed against Christianity, especially of the Calvinist variety, which he accused of killing human nature.[x] So in place of religion he turned for truth and a new standard of conduct to the poetry of Wordsworth and his friends. Romantic poetry gave him a new starting point from which he was to spin an informal but astonishing theory about the upward progress of civilization. In this way the Romantic ideal of the Self became his next religion. Such a conversion must have been very difficult for him as his father’s and Bentham’s attitudes toward poetry were rather blunt, like Plato’s: poets are deceivers and therefore enemies of truth. Bentham said “all poetry is misrepresentation.” Yet despite these discouragements, he plunged into the job of making the autonomous human Self the new source of value in Western political philosophy. This remains the standard liberal belief-system of our time, by any number of fashionable names. Ironically, however, Mill’s faith in the natural Self had quite a different objective from our own. He wanted us to be morally free individuals so that we could improve ourselves and therefore all civilization, whereas modern liberals want freedom mostly to enjoy themselves. I would go further and say that modern liberalism denies that any one ideal of human improvement can be agreed upon. It sees the absence of external moral purpose and authority as a mark of freedom.
[i] Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.68.
[ii] Edmund Burke, “A Letter To a Member of the National Assembly,” in Further Reflection on the Revolution in France, (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1992), Daniel E. Ritchie, Ed., p.69.
[iii] See especially the fascinating and admirably written book by James Gleick, Chaos: Making A New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), whom I thank for the reminder of this little ditty.
[iv] Orlando Patterson, Freedom (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), pp.34ff.
[v] James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), p.9
[vi] Op. Cit., p.95.
[vii] An early and impassioned critique published in 1873 was the whole of Stephen, Op. Cit. Stephen was initially an enthusiastic supporter of Mill’s On Liberty, and reviewed it positively when it first appearedbut subsequently changed his mind. A brief and trenchant recent critique of Mill’s logic of liberty may be found in Jay Budziszewski, Written On The Heart (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1997).
[viii] John M. Robson, Ed., John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 68.
[ix] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p.133.
[x] On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.126. For his most sustained and vicious tirade against Christianity, see Chapter Two, pp. 111ff.