Thoroughly Modern Mill: A utilitarian who became a liberal--but never understood the limits of reason. BY ROGER SCRUTON Friday, May 19, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
May 20 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, the greatest exponent of 19th-century liberalism, whose philosophy still dominates jurisprudence in the English-speaking world. Mill was a many-faceted intellectual who wrote on all aspects of philosophy, on law and morals, on political economy, and on poetry and the arts. His home-schooling at the hands of his father, the economist and historian James Mill, was a model of rigor, causing him to read and write Greek aged 6, to master Latin aged 9, and to have acquired a thorough grounding in history and mathematics aged 10, when he began work on a history of Roman government. Mill later developed a taste for poetry, acquired a perfect knowledge of French, and, despite his agnostic upbringing, read deeply in the Bible, which he believed to be one of the two Great Books, the other being Homer.
Mill was never a member of a university, but devoted his life to self-education while holding lucrative posts at the India Office. He suffered a serious nervous breakdown in 1836. This breakdown, described in Mill's remarkable "Autobiography," was in part a response to the hard-headed utilitarianism of his father and his circle of "Philosophical Radicals." The cost-benefit morality that James Mill had inherited from Jeremy Bentham, and which he had instilled into his son, left Mill bereft of all emotional succor.
Utilitarianism ("that action is right which promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number") was a philosophy of the head which seemed to make no room for the heart. Mill recovered through reading Wordsworth, found consolation with Harriet Taylor, the wife of a tolerant gentleman who no doubt had good grounds for trusting in his wife's chastity, and subsequently married the widowed Mrs. Taylor to continue in an apparently sexless union.
Mill's rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defense of it, and his "Utilitarianism" is acknowledged today as one of the few readable accounts of a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime. Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia. As Mill recognized, the "greatest happiness principle" must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant. In response to his own wavering discipleship, therefore, he wrote "On Liberty," perhaps his most influential, though by no means his best, production. At the time, Benthamite ways of thinking were influencing jurisprudence, and arguments based on the "general good" and the "good of society" appealed to the conservative imagination of the Victorian middle classes. It seemed right to control the forms of public worship, to forbid the expression of heretical opinions, or to criminalize adultery, for the sake of a "public morality" which exists for the general good. If individual freedom suffers, then that, according to the utilitarians, is the price we must pay.
According to Mill's argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny--including the "tyranny of the majority." Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it--for in such circumstances one person's gain in freedom is another person's loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual's right to act and speak as he chooses.
This principle has a profound significance: It is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the "sovereignty of the individual." The problem lies in the concept of harm.
- How can I prove that one person's action does not harm another?
- How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs--beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability?
- How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life's meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms?
These questions are as significant for us as they were for Mill; the difference is that radical Islam has now replaced Scottish puritanism as the enemy of liberal values.