Together with Rousseau, John Stuart Mill (1806–73) supplied nearly all of the arguments and most of the emotional weather – the texture of sentiment – that have gone into defining the Left-liberal vision of the world.
Mill’s peculiar brand of utilitarianism – a cake of Benthamite hedonism glazed with Wordsworthian sentimentality – accounts for part of his appeal: it provides a perfect recipe for embellishing programmatic shallowness with a cosmetic patina of spirituality. It is a recipe that has proven irresistible to those infatuated with the spectacle of their own virtue.
Another large part of Mill’s appeal rests on his “feminism” – his conviction, put forward in The Subjection of Women, that differences between the sexes were accidental and that, as Leslie Stephen put it, “women could be turned into men by trifling changes in the law”. Both are indispensable elements in the intoxicating potion that constitutes Mill’s appeal and makes much of his thinking seem so contemporary.
Mill’s arguments and pronouncements about man as a “progressive being”, the extent of individual autonomy, the limits of acceptable moral and legal censure, the importance of innovation and (perhaps his most famous phrase) “experiments in living” are all familiar to the point of invisibility. Likewise his corollary insistence on the poverty of custom, prejudice and tradition. Mill’s contentions on these subjects are nowadays less objects of debate than of reverence. But the public success of Mill’s teaching (especially in his manifesto On Liberty) says nothing about the cogency of his arguments. In fact, Mill’s central arguments are open to – and have from the beginning been subjected to – serious criticism. Yet they have raged like wildfire through the Western world, consuming everything that stands in their path. Which means, among other things, that they exert an appeal quite distinct from any intellectual merit they may possess.
As for the nature of Mill’s arguments, consider, for example, his famous plea on behalf of moral, social and intellectual “experiments”. Throughout history, Mill argues, the authors of such innovations have been objects of ridicule, persecution and oppression; they have been ignored, silenced, exiled, imprisoned, even killed. But (Mill continues) we owe every step of progress, intellectual as well as moral, to the daring of innovators. “Without them,” he writes, “human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already exist.” Ergo, innovators – “developed human beings” is one phrase Mill uses for such paragons – should not merely be tolerated but positively be encouraged.
The philosopher David Stove called this the “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus” argument. The amazing thing about the success of the Columbus argument is that it depends on premises that are so obviously faulty. Indeed, as Stove observes, a moment’s reflection reveals that the Columbus argument is undermined by a downright glaring weakness.
Granted that every change for the better has depended on someone embarking on a new departure: well, so too has every change for the worse. And surely, Stove writes, there have been at least as many proposed innovations which “were or would have been for the worse as ones which were or would have been for the better”. This means that we have at least as much reason to discourage innovators as to encourage them, especially when their innovations bear on things as immensely complex as the organisation of society. In On Liberty, Mill presented himself as a prophet of individual liberty. But if liberty was always on Mill’s lips, a new orthodoxy was ever in his heart. There is an important sense in which the libertarian streak in On Liberty is little more than a prophylactic against the coerciveness that its assumption of virtuous rationality presupposes. Mill hoped that liberty would replace the reign of prejudice with the reign of reason. In fact, it has had the effect of camouflaging prejudices with rational-sounding rhetoric. The effort to unseat customary practice and belief has resulted not, as Mill predicted, in encouraging a drift towards unanimity but in increasing chaos.
Nor is this surprising. As Mill’s great critic James Fitzjames Stephen noted, “the notorious result of unlimited freedom of thought and discussion is to produce general scepticism on many subjects in the vast majority of minds”. Such “paradoxes” (to put it politely) show themselves wherever the constructive part of Mill’s doctrine is glimpsed through his cheerleading for freedom and eccentricity.
Mill claimed a monopoly on the word “rational”. So long as that monopoly remains unchallenged our paralysis will be complete. The antidote to the moral helplessness that Mill’s liberalism generates is not to be found by digging deeper in the trench of liberal rationalisation. On the contrary, it begins with the recognition that no “one very simple principle” can relieve us of the duties we owe to the inhabited world that we, for this brief while, share with many others.