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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.

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June 29th, 2009
4:06 PM
This is a genuinely very interesting web site. I do find it quite odd, though, how you (in my view rightly) castigate socialists and their fellow travellers for their reverence to states and abstract collectives, and you castigate liberals (in the old sense) for 'individualism'. Is it a case of 'tyranny is just great, but only when the tyrant agrees with me'?

Michael B
December 24th, 2008
1:12 AM
Mill's is a hyper-individualism and he needs to be subject to a thoroughgoing disciplined review - broadly considered, under the rubric of "the individual and society" and all the existential dialectics that inform that general heading. Still, Mill's instincts are invoked more passionately than his arguments, more strictly or formally understood, and those instincts are reflective of a certain, qualitative irrationalism, the type of irrationalism that can be found in a Kierkegaard, a Shestov, a Nietzsche, et al. So, that terrain is extremely difficult to navigate and arguably becomes almost impassable in the type of late-modern, multi-culti, hyper-individual and relativism-qua-absolutism regimes that have successfully implanted themselves in the western sphere. It needs to be done, but, no small task.

December 22nd, 2008
11:12 PM
Your argument against experimentation has its own glaring weakness, in that it makes no allowance for our being able to identify and retain good experiments.

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