'Pushpin or poetry?'
One of the most famous liberal philosophers is John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). His On Liberty (1859) is still often quoted as the basis for liberal thinking and discusses how people achieve “happiness” through liberty.
This article can be found in the idee
nr. 6, 2013.
By Herman Beun
Could it be that the adult John Stuart Mill’s (1806-1873) passion for liberty as the guiding principle in life, “the single truth” as he called it, stemmed from his not having known much liberty as a child? The conclusion does not seem far-fetched when you try to imagine what his childhood must have been like. It is well documented that he could read Greek at the age of three, had read and understood more classical and historical works by the age of eight than most of us do in a lifetime, and knew all about philosophy, political economy and mathematics by the time he was twelve. However it seems unlikely that any of this was a great burden for the child prodigy that he was. No, it was likely a much more common cause, the imposing presence of his rigidly thinking father, and his father’s similarly minded friends, which led to his nervous breakdown, and his subsequent intellectual rebirth as the author of On Liberty
(1859), his libertarian masterpiece.
Yet Mill’s father, the Scottish philosopher, historian and economist James Mill (1773-1836) was not what you would at first think of as a suppressor of freethinking. James shared many ideas with his good friend, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a man of progressive ideals favouring, among other things, freedom of expression, women’s rights, animal rights, the decriminalisation of homosexual acts, and the abolition of slavery and the death penalty. Bentham was also the main founder of utilitarianism, the ethical theory that says that the right action is the one that creates the greatest amount of “utility” for people, usually in the form of happiness. In line with Enlightenment thinking, Bentham’s view of what this entailed was extremely mechanistic. Happiness, he thought, was the result of pleasure minus pain: more pleasure or less pain (or both) meant more utility because it made people happier. Therefore, the single moral principle of utilitarianism was to pursue happiness for the greatest number.
With this theory in mind, James Mill and Jeremy Bentham worked together in an educational experiment that was to provide the younger Mill with the ideal utilitarian upbringing, and make a perfectly rational man of him. Mill wrote extensively in his Autobiography
(1873) about his education (he was home-schooled) and upbringing (he helped his father edit and write his major works from a young age). In addition to the job he took at the East India Office as an assistant to his father, the young man became a regular contributor to a Benthamite journal, the Westminster Review
, and an active participant in the Utilitarian Society, a debating club he had founded.
In the autumn of 1826, however, when he was twenty years old, Mill suffered a crisis of faith that kept him in a state of depression for months, as he suddenly realised that his continual and diligent endeavour to be a reformer of the world according to rational principles was not the thing that made him love life, not the thing that made him happy. According to his autobiography: “At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.” Because it was not only in providing for his own happiness that utilitarianism failed to be successful, it was also that there was a fundamental problem with the utilitarian definition of happiness as a summation of pain and pleasure itself.
Bentham had famously contended that a “pushpin is as good as poetry”, but Mill now realised that happiness was not to be found by pursuing just any pleasure or by minimising just any pain or inconvenience. His depression disappeared whilst reading the works of romantic poets and philosophers like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Von Humboldt and Goethe. Passions and emotions, individual growth and fulfilment turned out to be important contributors to happiness that Bentham had disregarded. A sadder and a wiser man (the expression originates from Coleridge), Mill spent the rest of his life trying to reconcile the rigid disengaged reason he had inherited from his father and Bentham with the expressivist conceptions of life he had found in the romantic poets and philosophers.
But perhaps it was simply love that was missing in his life. Enter Harriet Taylor, wife of John Taylor, a merchant. They met for the first time in 1830, four years after his mental breakdown. Harriet was an independent mind, an ardent romantic, who held progressive views on love, marriage and the position of women. In fact, she represented everything in person that Mill had been looking for in the romantic poets and philosophers, and the attraction between them was immediate. For almost twenty years they maintained an intimate friendship, with the disgruntled consent of Mr. Taylor. This continued until he died in 1849, after which they waited another two years out of respect before they finally got married. Following the wedding, the couple withdrew almost entirely from society. Friends and relatives kept their distance, either pushed away by the couple itself, or because they felt embarrassed by the now official status of a relationship that they had pretended did not exist for so long.
It was during these years of isolated togetherness that John Stuart and Harriet Mill wrote On Liberty
(1859). The book was very much a joint project that had to contain the best thoughts of both minds, and Mill went to great lengths afterwards to emphasise the importance of Harriet’s contribution. An early, unpublished essay by Harriet shows, for instance, that it was she who first expressed the central theme of On Liberty
, which is that "one very simple principle” is “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."
This principle is that the only valid reason to interfere with an individual's liberty of action is to prevent harm to others: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” The book also argues for complete freedom of expression and thought, because only free exchange of arguments, even arguments that were clearly wrong or misguided, would bring us closer to the truth. Note that Mill’s romantic era tolerance for individual morality is much more radical than that of earlier Enlightenment liberals like John Locke (1632-1704), who believed that atheists should be put to death.
There are a few other interesting things in On Liberty
. First of all, there is the emphasis that is put on individual freedom from any sort of coercion, not only from the State but even from public opinion. It seems likely that the Mills’ contemporaries did not always approve of their progressive values and life, and this may even explain their prolonged withdrawal from society. In any case, the couple must have genuinely loathed the oppressive morality of their Victorian days:
Christian morality (so called) has all the characters of a reaction; it is, in great part, a protest against Paganism. Its ideal is negative rather than positive; passive rather than active; Innocence rather than Nobleness; Abstinence from Evil, rather than energetic Pursuit of Good: in its precepts (as has been well said) ‘thou shalt not’ predominates unduly over ‘thou shalt.’ In its horror of sensuality, it made an idol of asceticism, which has been gradually compromised away into one of legality.
With all this emphasis on liberty as the guiding principle however, On Liberty
is not a utilitarian book. In that case happiness would have been the single principle, as it is in Mill’s Utilitarianism
, and the book would not have argued against society’s intervention in the individual’s life “to make him happier”. Bentham had nothing but contempt for the idea of liberty, precisely for this reason. But the fact that Mill replaced Bentham’s single principle, happiness, with another single principle in On Liberty
is remarkable in itself. Is one moral principle really enough to guide us through the complexity and richness of life, both at the individual and at the political level? Many liberals would perhaps answer that yes, liberty is a much better basis for a political ideology than happiness, which seems more suitable as a principle to guide socialists with their “we know what’s good for you” attitude. Liberals tend to be wary of imposing values from above. And it is good to take claims of moral universalism with a sensible dose of scepticism, as long as we avoid falling into the trap of moral relativism in cases where it really matters. The problem is that for politicians, there are not really any other cases worth occupying themselves with.
Art & Music
Mill, despite his insistence on individual liberty and his radicalism in that regard, does not sound like a moral relativist. He had very clear views of what was worthwhile in life (poetry, feelings, passion, self-development, education, equality, taking responsibility for oneself and for society - the list goes on) and of what a progressive society should look like. Especially in Utilitarianism
(1863), his other main work, published four years after On Liberty
, he tried to include those elements in his philosophy by refining and improving the happiness principle. He does this mainly by distinguishing between higher pleasures (the more intellectual ones, such as enjoying art and music), and lower pleasures that appeal to the senses. He had a strong belief that people, once they had experienced the higher pleasures, would prefer them to the lower ones. In other words, not only was it "better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied" from a moral point of view, but free individuals living in a society based on liberty would actually choose the morally better life of their own free will. Liberty would produce happiness.
This is where, perhaps, the liberty principle bites its own tail. It suggests that deep down, not even the sceptic and secularist Mill had succeeded in shedding the old theist notion of a perfect universe automatically producing moral results like a giant clockwork designed by an almighty watchmaker. Mill’s writings show him struggling with that cursed machine in an almost Faustian way, trying to get grip on it by isolating two of its main elements, and embracing them in separate in-depth investigations. Whether his attempts to put them back together and produce a synthesis are consistent is another issue, but the result is admirable and still fascinating, modern and thought provoking even today. And yes, sometimes it reads as if there were two Mills, ach!, struggling within the old Goethe reader. But then in a sense there were.
works as a staff member in the Dutch Parliament on European Affairs. He is a speaker for the Van Mierlo Foundation.
Article in idee
(2013), vol. 34, no. 6: pp. 28-32.
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