Politics and Morality: John Stewart Mill


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was son of James Mill, who was a friend of Jeremy Bentham’s, and a true believer in utilitarianism. To achieve maximum utility, James was very concerned to provide his son the most efficient possible education.

Tutors were brought to his home and in fact, John turned out to be a brilliant child, doing differential calculus at a young age and reading Latin and Greek in his teens. His ramped-up education no doubt contributed to a nervous breakdown at age 21.

Although John never quite got over his turbo-educational stresses, he did endorse utilitarianism-with reservations. In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he says categorically, “The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Thus utilitarianism’s claim that whatever brings the most happiness to the greatest number is good is disputed by Mill. Some things are just wrong, Mill says, such as using force on others just to achieve your own happiness.

Mill thought it was all right to persuade or reason with someone, but the only justification for force was if that person intended to cause harm to someone else. A person’s autonomy must be respected, Mill said, in contradiction to Bentham. How a person’s intentions were to be judged, Mill did not clarify. Mill further parted company with Bentham by asserting that humans are too complex to fit into equations. Who is to say what will make an individual “happy?” Mill answers: only the individual him self.

Mill was a big proponent of free thought and speech because he thought it was the path to truth. He had a more modern view than Locke or Bentham: he admitted that science was fallible. Like Karl Popper, he admitted that our knowledge claims might be wrong and the scientific attitude is to admit that and keep seeking the truth. Mill believed that argument was essential to a healthy political system.

Since we do NOT know with certainty, Mill said:

1) If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion, for all we might know, might be true.

2) Though a silenced opinion be wrong, it may, and often does, contain a portion of the truth that is valuable.

3) Even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is vigorously and earnestly contested, it will be held merely in the manner of a prejudice.

So Mill believed the state should perform the minimal function of protecting us from interference by others with harmful intentions. This is similar to the American libertarian view of negative freedom; that is, the freedom to be left alone.

What happens if, in the individual pursuit of flourishing, some are harmed? Should the state interfere or let nature take its course? Mill said, “But it is, by common admission, better for the general interest of mankind, that persons should pursue their objects undeterred by this sort of consequences, in other words, society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors, to immunity from this kind of suffering…” The only interference that is justified is if advantage is gained through force or fraud.

But didn’t Mill say earlier that “common admission” was an unreliable benchmark? Does this imply an Invisible Hand, as in the Free Trade argument that the best result comes from non-interference? What if there is no Invisible Hand? How much government would be required to insure no one was being forced or defrauded?

What do you think?

Moral Basis of Government, Yale Open Courses: Politics and Morality http://oyc.yale.edu/political-science/plsc-118

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