Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The unfortunate influence of John Stuart Mill

Roger Kimball contends that John Stuart Mill's On Liberty won the war of public opinion even though it had been effectively refuted by James Fitzjames Stephen. "Sifting and winnowing" doesn't always work.
.... Mill’s essay was ostensibly about the relation between individual freedom and society. Mill famously argued that the only grounds on which society was justified in exercising control over its members, whether that control be in the form of “legal penalties” or simply “the moral coercion of public opinion,” was to “prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
James Fitzjames Stephen

This part of Mill’s argument quickly attracted searching criticism. The British judge James Fitzjames Stephen, for example, went to the heart of the problem when he observed that Mill assumed that “some acts regard the agent only, and that some regard other people. In fact, by far the most important part of our conduct regards both ourselves and others.” As for withholding “the moral coercion of public opinion,” Stephen observed that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.”

Stephen’s criticisms of Mill were published in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which appeared about a decade after On Liberty. Many of the criticisms are devastating. Intellectually, Stephen made mincemeat of Mill. But that has hardly mattered. Mill’s doctrines have taken the world by storm, while Stephen has receded to become a footnote in intellectual history.

Why? One reason is that Mill said things that people wanted to hear. Mill seemed to be giving people a permanent vacation from the moral dictates of society. How often have you heard the argument “It’s not hurting anyone else” put forward as a justification for self-indulgence?

But it was not simply what he said about the relation between individual freedom and social control that made On Liberty such an influential tract. Much more important was the attitude, the emotional weather, of the book.

On Liberty is only incidentally a defense of individual freedom. Its deeper purpose is to transform the way we regard established morality and conventional behavior as such. In brief, Mill taught us to be suspicious of established morality not because what it says is wrong (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t) but simply because it is established.

Think about that. The tradition that Mill opposed celebrated custom and established morality precisely because they had prevailed and given good service through the vicissitudes of time and change; their longevity was an important token of their worthiness.

John Stuart Mill
Mill overturned this traditional view. Henceforth, the customary, the conventional was suspect not because it had failed but simply because if was customary and conventional. Consider, to take but one example, what has happened to the word “prejudice.” When was the last time you heard it used in a neutral or positive sense? And yet originally “prejudice” simply meant to prejudge something according to conventional wisdom. It was in this sense, for example, that Edmund Burke extolled prejudice, writing that “prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit. . . . Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.”

Mill was instrumental in getting us to associate “prejudice” indelibly with “bigotry.” He wanted to take the wisdom out of the phrase “conventional wisdom.” He repeatedly argued against the “despotism of custom” — not because it was despotic, but simply because it was customary. ....

The fate of Mill’s teaching harbors a number of important lessons. One lesson concerns the relative weakness of reasoned arguments when they are pitted against a doctrine that exercises great emotional appeal. Critics like James Fitzjames Stephen and David Stove pointed out fatal weaknesses in Mill’s teaching about freedom. By any disinterested standard, Mill lost the argument. But he won the battle for our hearts and allegiance. If you think that is a merely academic phenomenon, consider the recent career of the phrase “hope and change.” .... [more]