by Pedro Schwartz
John Stuart Mill was my companion for more than three years, while I was writing my dissertation on what I called his New Political Economy (1965, 1972). Every generation, every school of economists, has the ambition to rewrite economics. The case of Mill was a special one. Analytically speaking he was the last of the great English classics, but as a political economist he was the first of the moderate socialists. His Principles of Political Economy (1848) made reformist socialism respectable in his country. In American terms, he was a ‘liberal’ economist of the best kind, theoretically precise and politically radical.
However, Mill cannot be understood merely as an economist. It is enough to pick some of his principal writings in the different fields of philosophy to see that an evaluation of his legacy must take a wider perspective. Thus, his System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive (1843) was a polemic against the kind of metaphysical and intuitive philosophy that was being imported from Germany. His three great essays, On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1861) and Representative Government (1865), dealt with individualism, ethics, and political theory. And The Subjection of Women (1869) dramatically linked the inequality of women in Victorian society with the great question of the emancipation of slaves, in which Mill was prominently engaged.
What I want to do in this limited space is to review Mill, the social-liberal thinker, from the point of view of a classical liberal, which is what I am today. I will do so without regard to chronology, as if I were discussing Millian philosophy with a young person who was asking advice on how to approach that great thinker.
John Stuart Mill’s greatest contribution to political philosophy is without doubt what he had to say about the freedom of the individual in his 1859 essay On Liberty. This essay starts from two principles: the first one is that the free discussion of all doctrines and ideas is essential for the discovery of error or the reassertion of truth; the second is that adults should be able to act according to their wishes and convictions in all that concerns only themselves. These two principles are in a way equivalent: freedom of opinion and discussion is essential in the search for truth; and freedom to act in all self-regarding matters and bearing the consequences is essential for character building and the flourishing of personality.
As regards the liberty of thought and expression, Mill’s doctrine is the canonical liberal position. He defends it with three reasons: (1) an opinion forcibly silenced may be the truth, even if we cannot eo ipso know it; (2) even if a silenced opinion may be wrong, it may contain a parcel of truth and normally does; (3) even if a received opinion is wholly true, it may, unless seriously challenged, become mere prejudice and those who hold it may not be aware of the reasons that back it. What could be missing here is the argument from corruption: the spreading of false or wicked opinions may smother the truth, unless we think that truth will in the end always prevail. Mill himself accepted the fact that prison and the stake could repeatedly smother new truths but he used this argument a contrario by stressing the importance of allowing free discussion and rejecting the use of force to defend any doctrine. These three reasons are for me incontestable. In any case I think Mill’s arguments for freedom of opinion and expression in the end have the day.
Mill then widened the argument as he proceeded to defend more than freedom of opinion: full personal autonomy in “Individuality” and in “On the Limits of the Authority of Society over the Individual.” The tradition going back to the common law, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment of the American Constitution was the defence of individual freedom against unlawful interference. But Mill went further, by defending the freedom of “experiments in living.” He argued not only against legal and political interference with individual autonomy but against “the tyranny of public opinion”.
We classical liberals are usually more restrained in our defence of individual freedom. We dare not go further than defending “negative freedom”, as Isaiah Berlin called it and do not back our claims by alluding to the wondrous things individuals would do with their self-government. Mill and his beloved friend Harriet Taylor showed more ambition. Personal liberty was for them (and I say ‘them’ intentionally) a crucial factor in the formation of character and the flourishing of the individual. Personal flourishing was something he deeply prized after rebelling against his utilitarian education and cultivating his friendship with Harriet Taylor.
Frederic Rosen (2013) rightly stresses the odd expression used by Mill in the introduction of the essay: he says that the subject of On Liberty is “civil, or social Liberty”. This expression indicated his wish to criticise “the idea of society exercising power, presumably through social or public opinion.” All this indicates that Mill was not exaggerating when he presented the essay as a joint effort; and social oppression was heavily felt by both during their fifteen year friendship and three year marriage. Harriet Taylor died before the work was finished.
Of course today we think mainly of the unacceptable rejection of different forms of sexuality in Victorian times. Here it is enough to apply the rule that self-regarding actions are to be fully permissible, while focussing on the character and feelings of the people involved in marriage or personal relationships to value forms of life in each case.
One of Mill’s lifelong battles was the one he waged against metaphysics in the theory of knowledge and against intuitionism in ethics. In this battle he clearly followed in the tradition of Jeremy Bentham’s positivism and James Mill’s associationism and added a historicist bent taken from Auguste Comte. Bentham always insisted on reducing abstractions to their observable material parts—witness his rejection of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts”. James Mill was the author of a detailed book on association theory, the basis of his rejection of the influence of innate qualities compared with environment and education—the best instance of which was the relentless upbringing of his son John. Comte for his part thought he had discovered the sociological laws of evolution of society, so that he tried to convince his friend Mill of the uselessness of a merely static analysis of logic, psychology, and economics in favour of dynamic historicism.
The 1842 book published under the title A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductivemakes one marvel at the intellectual power of its author. It is on the same plane of achievement as his Principles of Political Economy, which appeared in 1848 and then many times was republished. Mill’s other productions are shorter or more specialised and given to the application of one central idea to a particular question. They are no small achievements. However, the sheer width of treatment and the integral connection of the Logic and the Principles makes one wonder at the power of his fine mind. It is no surprise that he suffered from repeated depressions along the years. I say this to put my critical reflections in context. It is very rare to see one person produce such major works and in such a limited span of years, and all this while he was occupied at India House. Mill continued to be a prodigy long after he had long left infancy.
I see from the marks in my copy of the Logic that I read and tried to digest the book in my younger years, though it would take me now long hours of study and much reference to other writers to make intelligent comments on so abstruse a topic. The first thing to be said is that it is a positivistic treatise, where abstract concepts are rooted in sense data, observable fact, and material verification. Even numbers were sublimations of material things, got from counting and operating with actual phenomena. It seems clear that this view of logic and scientific discovery was inductive to the core, starting from, and validated by, sense data. It was meant to present an empiricist view of knowledge, in the tradition of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and in direct opposition to the intuitionist and metaphysical philosophy coming from Germany. During the composition of the Logic Mill was in constant correspondence with Auguste Comte. They both approved of the destruction of the mediaeval metaphysics wrought by the likes of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill in the 19th century. But they wanted to proceed to a positivistic philosophy to counteract the new Tory intuitionism of those who rejected analytic criticism of traditional institutions.