"John Stuart Mill: Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations"

Gray, John N.
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First Pub. Date
April-June 1979
Literature of Liberty. Vol. ii, no. 2, pp. 7-37. Arlington, VA: Institute for Humane Studies
Pub. Date

The Traditional View of an Incoherent Mill ...
A "Two Mills" Thesis?


The traditional interpretation pictures John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) as one of history's paradigmatic transitional thinkers. Situated uncertainly in a no-man's land between the rival intellectual traditions of nineteenth-century England, Mill in his writings displays no settled or coherent doctrine on social and political questions. In Mill's work, the received view contends, competing sympathies and commitments are the subject matter of an ultimately unsuccessful eclectic method. This alleged hodgepodge produces a brittle conceptual framework which quickly disintegrates under any sustained critical pressure. Thus, Mill's utilitarianism seems at odds with his values of self-development and individuality; his democratic loyalties are in a tug-of-war with his elitist dread of majority tyranny; and his allegiance to laissez-faire principles is compromised by his concessions toward the socialist currents of his day. Some exponents of this traditional view have gone so far as to claim to discern in Mill's writings an intellectual schizophrenia: the lineaments of "two Mills," each with a distinctive expression and a coherent message.


There is, unfortunately, little agreement in identifying and describing these "two Mills," so that the vast secondary literature on the younger Mill contains a bewildering variety of pictures of him as at once a radical libertarian and a cautious, conservative, Whig trimmer; a moral totalitarian and a questing, open-minded skeptic; an unreconstructed empiricist and a free-wheeling epistemological pluralist. Whether they detect two (or more) Mills in John Mill's writings, or deny the presence of any integrated personality in his work, advocates of the received view all share the assumption that the promise of unity was not, and perhaps could never have been fulfilled in Mill's philosophy. A distinguished statement of the received view is that of John Plamenatz when he says of Mill's Utilitarianism, (1861, 1863), his Liberty (1859), and his Considerations on Representative Government (1861) that "These three essays written by a sick man in his premature old age, exhibit all his defects as a thinker, his lack of clarity, his inconsistency, and his inability either to accept whole-heartedly or to reject the principles inherited from his father and from Bentham."[1] Even Isaiah Berlin, one of Mill's more sympathetic interpreters, speaks of the "outdated psychology and lack of logical cogency" of On Liberty, and concludes that "Rigour in argument is not among Mill's accomplishments."[2]

The Revisionist View of Mill as a Consistent Thinker


It must be admitted at once that there is much in Mill's work and in his life that supports the standard interpretation. Mill's notorious ambivalence to the utilitarian intellectual tradition he inherited from his father and Jeremy Bentham; his receptive response to some aspects of a German Idealist conception of the mind which the conservative Coleridge transmitted to the English world; his many shifts of position and emphasis on the great issues of socialism, democracy, and private property; together with the still intensely controversial question of how important for the development of his thought was his relationship with Harriet Taylor—all these vacillations conspire to suggest the image of a man inwardly divided. Mill seems a man at once acutely sensitive to the limitations of the utilitarian world view (whose official exponent he remained) but yet unable to abandon it decisively.


In recent years, however, a wave of revisionist scholarship and interpretation has emerged, whose theme is that the judgment of J. S. Mill as a hopelessly muddled thinker may yet be ill-founded and certainly remains premature. This post-war revisionism argues that our assessment of Mill is distorted by an earlier generation of intellectual historians who caricatured the aims and doctrines of nineteenth-century English utilitarianism. Furthermore, our view of Mill has been badly obscured by the hasty and presumptuous judgment of Mill's substantive argument by the philosophers and social theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If the revisionist scholars are on the right track, the work of the younger Mill may be a natural development of his utilitarian predecessors' achievements. Mill's writings may contain a subtle and complex body of doctrine which may not be internally inconsistent.


Let us look, then, at the dialogue between traditional and revisionist interpretations of Mill. How convincingly does each interpretation deal with Mill on liberty, utility and morality, on private property, socialism and democracy, and on the scope and prospects of a science of society?

The Traditional View of J. S. Mill on Liberty, Morality, and Utility


The traditional accounts of Mill's doctrine of the limits of state interference interpret his enterprise in On Liberty (1859) as the impossible but perennially attractive one of squaring the circle: that of grounding a theory of the priority of liberty (itself part of a more comprehensive theory of justice and moral rights) in a utilitarian ethic. Mill, indeed, is clearly aware that some of his readers will see his enterprise as wholly misconceived. Thus, in the essay on Utilitarianism (1861, 1863) discussing the utilitarian foundation of his theory of moral rights he concedes: "To have a right, then, is I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of. If the objector goes on to ask, why it ought? I can give him no other reason than general utility."[3] But the traditional view insists that liberal utilitarianism is itself a weak, incoherent "reason," since it is an unstable compound of two incompatible elements: (1) a teleological or maximizing element, in which the only duty any man or any government ever has is to promote the greatest good, and (2) a deontological or "side-constraint" element in which individuals are recognized as possessing inviolable moral rights against unjust treatment by state or society. What if achieving the greatest social good seems to require sacrificing some individual? The incompatible elements in utilitarianism itself create this dilemma.

Stephen's Analysis of Utility as Antiliberty and Proauthority


By far the most formidable of Mill's nineteenth-century English critics, the jurist James Fitzjames Stephen, criticizes Mill precisely because in On Liberty he illegitimately attempts to derive liberal conclusions supporting individual rights and liberty from a utilitarian outlook. Stephen, himself an avowed utilitarian, saw utilitarianism as having a natural antiliberal, authoritarian implication. In his great book, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (1873), surely one of the world's masterpieces of conservative political thought, Stephen argues against Mill: if the only thing that has intrinsic value for utilitarians is happiness, and we are bound to promote happiness by the most efficacious means, then a consistent utilitarian policy of social betterment will not be especially tender toward individual liberty. In its political agenda utilitarianism will grant no priority to the protection of the classical liberal freedoms. Mill's utilitarian ancestors, such as Hume and Bentham, agree with Stephen in ranking liberty as, in fact, only one (and not always the most important) among the means necessary to security and good government in promoting happiness. Stephen's most forceful objection to Mill at this point of his critique is that, if Mill is truly a utilitarian, then liberty can have no intrinsic or inviolable value whatever: its value or disvalue will depend wholly on its contingent consequences which, given the variety of human circumstances, will be complex. As Stephen puts it:

if the word 'liberty' has any definite sense attached to it, and if it is consistently used in that sense, it is almost impossible to make any true general assertion whatever about it, and quite impossible to regard it either as a good thing or a bad one. If, on the other hand, the word is used merely in a general popular way without attaching any distinct signification to it, it is easy to make almost any general assertion you please about it; but these assertions will be incapable of either proof or disproof as they will have no definite meaning. Thus the word is either a misleading appeal to passion, or else it embodies or rather hints at an exceedingly complicated assertion, the truth of which can be proved only by elaborate historical investigations."[4]


Traditional Critique of Mill's Utilitarianism: Its Unwarranted Optimism About Human Nature and Failure to Support the Priority of Liberty


It is Stephen's charge that, given a less charitable historical view of human nature than the one Mill endorses, utilitarian principles in many circumstances might very well dictate supporting the stability of a traditional society of hierarchy and authority. In other circumstances they would sanction even more regimented schemes, such as Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon prison (or, a later objector might add, the Webbs' admiration of Soviet Five-Year Plans and Stalin's collectivization program), which seek to promote aggregate social welfare by the morally monstrous expedient of inflicting great hardship on some or many members of a society. In modern terms, Stephen's argument might be reformulated in the following question: How can Mill as a utilitarian consistently object to the kind of authoritarian society depicted in Huxley's Brave New World or B. F. Skinner's Walden Two? Stephen's own intention was not, indeed, to give a utilitarian defense of the dystopian schemes of Bentham and his associates, but simply to affirm that nothing in the utilitarian tradition gave liberty any special importance, while much in human experience testified to the greater importance of security, order, and discipline as conditions of a happy life.


The traditional criticism of Mill's enterprise in On Liberty really has two prongs: (1) On the one hand, how can Mill possibly hope to defend what he calls "one very simple principle"[5] of giving liberty a privileged place among political values by invoking considerations of utility alone? Several of the critics discussed in J. C. Rees's classic study of Mill and his Early Critics (1956) highlight the incongruity in Mill's libertarian enterprise of defending this utilitarian principle "as entitled to govern absolutely" restrictions of liberty by society or state. However, as an avowed utilitarian, Mill is already committed to utility as yielding an absolute principle for determining the limits of state interference. (2) On the other hand, Mill's critics insist that, even supposing a successful utilitarian proof for liberty's priority over other political goods, its validity would hinge entirely on the accuracy of our conjectures about the effects on man and society of a regime of liberty. Such a utilitarian argument for liberty, in other words, is permanently defeasible and reversible. It yields antilibertarian results whenever particular predictions of the utility of liberty (or the picture of human nature on which such predictions depend) can be undermined by empirical investigation and argument.


Fitzjames Stephen, like many of Mill's Victorian critics, asserts vehemently that the utilitarian proof will work only on the basis of a wildly optimistic assessment of the prudence and virtue of the average sensual man and of his real moral psychology. Mill's account of human psychology, Mill's critics insist, is excessively and narrowly intellectualist, neglecting the central role of passion, prejudice, and sheer moral perversity in human life. As the writer in the London Review (1859) observes, ". . . the truth is, that intellectual independence, however theoretically desirable, is practically unattainable in the vast majority of cases."[6] Given this more somber view of human psychology, can free men be trusted to promote social utility?


Mill was defended against Stephen by disciples such as John Morley, Viscount of Blackburn, Liberal statesman, and editor of the Fortnightly Review (1861-1882), and by writers such as the positivist Frederic Harrison. But the general reaction to On Liberty was by no means so generally favorable as much secondhand intellectual history has led generations of students to suppose. Principled argumentative defense of the doctrine of On Liberty was, in fact, a minority position throughout most of nineteenth-century English thought and letters. Probably the best available study of the whole period, apart from Rees's book, is John Roach's essay, "Liberalism and the Victorian Intelligentsia." B. E. Lippincott's broader study of conservative and liberal thought in Victorian times, Victorian Critics of Democracy (1938), should also be consulted for its chapter on J. F. Stephen and its sensible treatment of the antidemocratic liberal and conservative reaction. F. W. Knickerbocker's Free Minds-John Morley and his Friends (1943) is also useful as a source for information on such Liberals as Frederic Harrison.

The Revisionist View of Mill on Liberty, Morality, and Utility


Much of the best recent work on Mill's liberalism asserts that critics have misconstrued both of Mill's central principles of utility and of liberty. Mill's views on utility and liberty can be properly stated only with terms and distinctions taken from his own general theory of human nature and of practical reasoning.


As stated in the crucially important writings of Ryan[7], Brown[8], Dryer [9], and Lyons[10], the revisionist position begins by clarifying Mill's utility principle. It is neither a classical aggregative (i.e., average utility) principle, or a substantive moral principle. Whatever their differences in other areas of Mill scholarship, the revisionists agree that Mill saw the principle of utility as a very abstract principle, specifying that happiness alone was valuable for its own sake. Happiness governed not just morality but all the areas of practice identified in the theory of the "Art of Life" expounded in Mill's System of Logic (1843).

The Utility Principle, the Art of Life, and the Theory of Morality


In his System of Logic, Mill speaks of the three departments of the Art of Life as being "Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Aesthetics; the Right, the Expedient, and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct as works." The doctrine of the Art of Life (now widely seen as incorporating one of Mill's most valuable, original, and neglected insights) distinguishes between judgments of a properly moral character and judgments which appraise actions (or human characters) in terms of their prudence or of their nobility. As Alan Ryan intimates in his path-breaking explorations of these aspects of Mill's thought, the arguments of Utilitarianism and of On Liberty presuppose an understanding of the Art of Life defended in the System of Logic (1843). The plausibility of the substantive doctrines defended in these two essays thus depends in part upon the cogency of the conceptual analysis in Mill's Logic. It is the argument of Utilitarianism that the principle of utility does not allow judgments about men's moral obligation or rights to be derived in any very direct way. Indeed, the subject matter of utility is not the moral rightness or wrongness of actions at all. Rather as an axiological principle specifying happiness as the only desirable end, quite distinct from any substantive moral principle, Mill's utility principle is conceived as "the test of all conduct." As the revisionists understand it, the utility principle does not impose on anyone a moral obligation to maximize utility, and it does not condemn as a moral wrong any failure to do so. It follows from this that a utilitarian is not necessarily inconsistent if he knowingly sacrifices some utility for the sake of an equitable distribution of the utility that remains.


If the utility principle does not condemn as a moral wrong any discussion to maximize utility, what claims does it make on action, and how is it related to morality?


First, in specifying happiness as the only intrinsic value, the utility principle entails that all reasons for or against any act, policy, or practice must relate to and weigh its contribution to happiness. The principle of utility actually entails another principle, invoked by Mill but not named by him, which (following Brown and Lyons) I shall call the "Principle of Expediency." An act (for example) is expedient if it brings about a net utility benefit, and it is maximally expedient if it brings about greater utility than any available alternative. An avowed utilitarian violates consistency if he knowingly acts inexpediently, but Mill's theory of morality and of moral obligation insists that the man who acts inexpediently need not thereby commit any moral wrong. As Mill puts it in Utilitarianism:

We do not call anything wrong, unless we mean to imply that a person ought to be punished in some way or other for doing it; if not by law, then by the opinion of his fellow-creatures; if not by opinion, by the reproaches of his own conscience. This seems the real turning point of the distinction between morality and simple expediency. It is part of the notion of Duty in every one of its forms, that a person may rightfully be compelled to fulfill it. Duty is a thing that may be exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt. Unless we think that it may be exacted from him, we do not call it his duty.[11]

Mill's theory of morality and of moral obligation has here two levels—one conceptual, the other substantive. At the conceptual level, Mill proposes that we judge something morally right or wrong, only if its performance can be enforced, and its omission punished. There is a necessary conceptual connection, according to Mill, between the idea of a moral judgment and the legitimacy of its enforcement. Contrary to countless interpreters and historians, then, Mill believes in the Enforcement of Morality. But the morality in question is not necessarily the popular or positive morality of prejudice and tradition, but rather the utilitarianly-sanctioned "critical" morality which is the subject matter of Utilitarianism and On Liberty.


How, then, can we know the area of morality and of moral obligation? First of all, by applying the Principle of Expediency to the question of enforcement and punishability. An act is morally right, not if it is maximally expedient that it be done, but only if it is maximally expedient that its performance be enforced by penalties for noncompliance. It is worth noting that this aspect of Mill's theory of morality shows that his theory is not a species of act-utilitarianism.[12] Mill cannot be an act-utilitarian, since his theory explicitly denies that an act's being maximally expedient generates any moral reason to do it. Nor, contrary to an influential current of interpretation begun by Urmson,[13] can Mill be regarded as any sort of rule-utilitarian. Firstly, Mill's principle of utility, like the principle of expediency which it entails, does not mention either acts or rules, and, in fact, applies to things apart from acts and rules. Also, an act may be morally wrong, provided it is maximally expedient for the agent to suffer the penalties of conscience from it (regardless of whether any rule exists or might exist whose violation would be similarly wrong). Mill's moral theory, in short, is not accurately described in the traditional terms of act- and rule-utilitarianism. It remains recognizably utilitarian, nonetheless, in virtue of its clearly teleological orientation.

What Constitutes Moral Wrong: Mill's Harm Principle or Principle of Liberty


We have seen that for Mill moral wrongs are to be distinguished from merely inexpedient actions, and that a necessary condition of something being morally wrong is that punishing it would be maximally expedient. We have yet to discover what, according to Mill, is in fact morally wrong, and we can do this only by looking at the relationship between liberty and morality developed in the essay On Liberty. For it is there that Mill states his famous principle of liberty, sometimes called the self-protection or noninterference principle. This principle of liberty stipulates

that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.


We need to clarify several important points about Mill's statement of this principle of liberty. Mill clearly means that unless "harm to others" can be prevented, there is no reason at all for any limitation of liberty. As Brown puts it, "By giving this necessary condition for the existence of a reason for restriction, it rules out as irrelevant absolutely everything but the prevention of harm to others. This sharp and unequivocal denial," as Brown rightly continues, "is the cutting edge of Mill's essay."[14]


Among the reasons which Mill's liberty principle rules out as irrelevant to justifying liberty-limiting acts, policies, and institutions are: (1) paternalist considerations, reasons having to do with preventing a person from harming himself, or with forcing him to benefit himself, and (2) moralist reasons, reasons to do with the enforcement of the positive or popular moral sentiments of a person's community. Mill also dismisses as legitimate reasons for limiting liberty: (3) welfarist considerations, reasons that favor restricting a person's liberty for the benefit of others.


Mill's liberty principle is, at first sight at least, a very stringent test of the legitimacy of state interference, one which should appeal strongly to economic and civil libertarians. For it condemns as illegitimate any restriction of liberty by state or society which is not designed to prevent men from harming one another. And, further, taken together with Mill's principles about enforcing morality, it yields a substantive criterion or moral wrongness. An act (or whatever) is morally wrong, if and only if punishing it both would prevent harm to others and would be maximally expedient. (We must always remember here that "punishment," for Mill, includes the sanctions of public opinion and the goads of conscience as well as legal penalties.) Mill's doctrine of liberty claims that the requirements of morality will be maximally expedient if they are themselves minimalist: we maximize utility if we restrict morality to questions of harm-prevention.

Traditional Objections to Mill's Harm Principle


At this point in stating Mill's doctrine, however, we may profitably raise a number of traditional objections. What, after all, are we to understand by the expression "harm to others"? Judgments about harm are often controversial (think of recent debates about the harmful effects of hallucinogenic drugs): how can we resolve such controversies? Does "harm" designate damage only to a person or property, or is there a class of moral harms, or harms to character, which may legitimately affect the liberty principle? Again, does the liberty principle license us to restrict liberty only where the conduct affected causes or threatens harm to others? Or does the harm principle sanction restrictions of liberty in all cases where harm to others can thereby be prevented? Further, is there really a category of actions which harm only the agent himself but not others? Is there in fact a class of self-regarding acts, whose primary effects are on the agent himself? If not, if all acts affect others through their effects on the agent, then the class of acts protected by the liberty principle would seem to be empty. Finally, even supposing these difficulties are solvable, it is far from obvious that Mill's liberty principle in fact expands liberty in its operations. Making "harm to others" the only good reason for interference, far from curtailing the legitimate powers of the state, might (because we all harm each other all the time in so many ways) indefinitely augment them.

The Revisionists' Clarification of Mill's Harm or Liberty Principle


All these questions have much exercised Mill's traditional critics, and to deal with these difficulties the revisionists have advanced a range of more or less persuasive answers. By far the most common accusation against the doctrine of On Liberty has always been that Mill's principle of self-protection presupposes a distinction that we cannot intelligibly make between acts which are "self-regarding" (in that they affect only or primarily the agent himself), and acts which are "other-regarding." As Fitzjames Stephen puts it, with characteristic bluntness and clarity:

I think that the attempt to distinguish between self-regarding acts and acts which regard others, is like an attempt to distinguish between acts which happen in time and acts which happen in space. Every act happens at some time and in some place, and in like manner every act that we do either does or may affect both ourselves and others. I think, therefore, that the distinction (which, by the way, is not at all a common one) is altogether fallacious and unfounded. [15]


One of Mill's early critics, Joseph Parker, in his John Stuart Mill on Liberty, A Critique (1865) makes a similar point about determining the range of application of the self-protection principle, when he asks how far Mill is prepared to stretch the concept of harm. If, as Mill thought, the state is justified in imposing compulsory education, and this is warranted in that it prevents "harm to others," what policy could not similarly be justified? In the same vein, Leslie Stephen, James Fitzjames Stephen's brother and biographer, makes substantially the same objection, when in the third volume of his great work, The English Utilitarians (1900), he declares that "It is ... the acceptance of this antithesis, put absolutely, the 'individual', as something natural on one side, and law, on the other side, as a bond imposed upon the society, which at every step hampers Mill's statement of any vital truths."[16]

Rees's Defense of Mill's Harm Principle: Interests and Rights


How do the revisionists try to rebut these objections? By far the most powerful and influential attempt to clarify self- and other-regarding acts is made by J. C. Rees in his well-known 1960 paper, "A Re-reading of Mill on Liberty."[17] Rees distinguishes between actions that merely affect others and actions that affect others' interests, and gives massive textual support for the claim that Mill's working conception of harm in On Liberty is that of harm to interests. The crucial difficulty for this interpretation, however, is how Mill (or anyone else) is to know what are a man's interests. Might not a committed puritan claim that he had an 'interest' in the moral environment in which he and his children live, and hold the state might restrict the liberty of those libertines and deviants who threaten to harm or damage the moral environment? Rees's interpretation is clearly open to such an objection, since he emphasizes that interests "depend for their existence on social recognition and are closely connected with prevailing standards about the sort of behavior a man can legitimately expect from others."[18] It is, in fact, in order to distinguish human interests from "arbitrary wishes, fleeting fancies or capricious demands,"[19] that Rees stresses their dependence on norms and values which enjoy social recognition.


But, as Professor Richard Wollheim recognized, in Rees's interpretation Mill's liberty or self-protection principle becomes relativistic and conservative in character, and this cannot possibly accord with Mill's intentions. For on Rees's interpretation the boundaries of the self-regarding area will be relativistically determined by the currently dominant conception of interests, and the liberty principle will expand freedom only insofar as legal and social limitations on liberty lag behind changing, more restrictive conceptions of human interests.


D. G. Brown has argued persuasively[20] that we can avoid this relativization of Mill's liberty principle only if we construe Mill as understanding "interests" in a strictly naturalistic and prudential fashion. Rees himself considers this question further in a subsequent "Postscript"[21] to his paper, where he emphasizes the relevance to On Liberty of certain passages in Utilitarianism. Brown's interpretation is further supported by the independent work of D. G. Long. In his highly relevant book Bentham on Liberty (1977), Long emphasizes that several of the crucial distinctions at work in On Liberty are variants of distinctions made by Bentham. And this is most obviously the case with Mill's distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions.


What complicates Brown's revisionist interpretation is that in On Liberty, as in Utilitarianism, Mill recognizes that some, but not all, interests are crucially relevant in determining the self-regarding area and thus in applying principles about liberty of action. When Mill in On Liberty demarcates the area of life in which we may be held accountable to society, he speaks not of determining what are a man's interests but of ascertaining his rights. "This conduct," he says, "consists in not injuring the interests of one another; or rather certain interests which, either by express legal provision or by tacit understanding, ought to be considered as rights."[22] Here the test is not whether a man's interests have been damaged by other men, but whether his interests ought to be protected as rights. Mill does not think, then, that if a man has an interest, he thereby has any kind of right. His reference to "certain interests" suggests that only some interests can be grounds for rights, but which ones?

Utility and the Permanent Interests of Man as A Progressive Being


In the introductory chapter of On Liberty Mill relinquishes any support for his argument derivable from ideas of abstract right. Furthermore, he insists that he regards utility "as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but" he goes on at once, "it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of a man as a progressive being."[23] The difficulty here is pushed one stage further back, in that we now need a criterion for distinguishing between those interests of man that are transitory and those that are permanently his in virtue of his character as a progressive being. What is there in Mill's doctrine of liberty that answers this need for a criterion?


Much of the secondary literature surrounding On Liberty might lead a student of Mill's thought to suppose that his use of terms like "harm" and "interests" is hopelessly vague. Given the apparent deficiency in Mill's argument, his principle of self-protection might also seem practically useless. As I have already observed, the force of that principle disqualifies anything but harm-prevention as a test for restricting liberty. Paternalist, welfarist, and moralistic interventions, therefore, all fall under the general ban.

Human Interests, Moralism, and Paternalism


But are we always able to differentiate paternalistic reasons for interference from moralistic ones? Is there, indeed, any determinate area in which paternalism is at all an issue? The controversies surrounding "moral offenses" suggest that judgments both about what is in a man's interests and about the general interest, have an inescapably controversial aspect. Professor Basil Mitchell shows this inherently debatable meaning of "interest" (while accurately reporting on the famous controversy between Lord Devlin and Professor H.L.A. Hart).[24] The ambiguity of "interest" is evident in Hart's argument that much existing legislation that restricts liberty may be justified as protecting men's own interests by paternalistic, rather than moralistic reasonings. This argument, in other words, assumes that we can assess a man's interest without presupposing any evaluation of the worthiness or excellence of his way of life.


To put this logical situation in a later terminology,[25] Hart (like Mill before him) can resist Devlin's and Fitzjames Stephen's argument that individual immorality is itself harmful to others by contending that "interests" designate a purely want-regarding concept, and by claiming that state interference can never rightly be ideal-regarding. Then the central claim of liberalism in Hart, as in Mill, is that the state in its liberty-restricting activities should be neutral between necessarily controversial competing ideals of human excellence. Mill's argument, indeed, is that since assessments of a man's excellence or nobility are not authentically moral evaluations at all, the liberal thesis that the state may properly enforce the requirements of critical or rational morality, and those alone, itself entails that the state may never coercively support one ideal of human excellence against its competitors. Mill differs from Hart, and lines up with later libertarians like Thomas Szasz,[26] in his uncompromising opposition, not only to legal moralism, but also to state paternalism.

Man as a Progressive Being: Choice, Liberty, and the Psychology of Self-Realization


What is the nub of the revisionist interpretation? We can concede that these may well be "hard cases for the harm principle,"[27] that is to say, cases where Mill's self-protection principle gives, at best, ambiguous guidance to action. But revisionists hold that Mill's theory of happiness and human nature is rich and dense enough to clarify how to apply the principle of liberty across a very wide area. The crucial point to recognize is that Mill's Aristotelian and Humboldtian conception of happiness had moved far enough away from old-fashioned psychological hedonism to allow considerations of individuality and self-realization to enter as constitutive ingredients into the idea of human happiness. It is the theory of the higher pleasures, as elaborated in Utilitarianism, that the exercise of the human capacities of choice, reflective thought, and active imagination is not just a means to human happiness, but a vital ingredient of it.


Mill further embeds this abstract and open-ended view of happiness in his characteristic theory of human nature as permanently capable of self-alteration and unpredictable self-transformation. Mill embraces this view in On Liberty following such German writers as Schiller and Novalis (who were in close touch with Wilhelm von Humboldt when he was writing his libertarian classic Limits of State Action). This is the same view which Mill elaborates more explicitly in the seminal articles on Bentham (1838) and Coleridge (1840): it is a mistake to regard man as a natural object with fixed qualities and predetermined possibilities. Rather, man is to be conceived as a reflective and self-critical agent, actively engaged in the open-ended venture of exploring his own powers and the world that he has created for himself. What distinguishes man from the inhabitants of the animal kingdom, and gives him a special relationship with nature, is only his capacity for reflective thought and deliberate choice; but this is of capital importance. For, unlike that of an animal, the shape of a man's life is not ordained in advance by a repertoire of unalterable instincts, but is never less than the permanently revisable product of his own past thought and action. Man, unlike the animals, is a progressive being. But Mill never unreservedly took this to mean that moral improvement or social progress are inevitable features of the human prospect. Being a progressive being means that man's life is not bound by any fixed, unalterable natural endowment, but is rather the unforseeable product of men's choices and experiments upon themselves.

The Interests of a Progressive Being: Autonomy, Security, and Liberty


We are now in a better position to understand what Mill means, when he speaks of "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being." The permanent interests of any person are those that concern him or her as a chooser, a creature who fashions his or her life by provisionally endorsing but forever criticizing principles and policies. We can turn to the essay on Utilitarianism for further illumination on Mill's notion of interests. We find there that Mill regards security as man's least dispensable interest, the precondition of any valuable form of life. We may suppose that Mill understands by security, security of person and property. The theory of the higher pleasures,[28] in turn, assures us that Mill believed that what was in a person's interests was a choice-environment undistorted by invasive social and legal controls. This freedom of choice is an indispensable condition of the kind of happy life that is distinctive of a person. It is clear that we can secure free choice only by the social and legal protection of an area of individual liberty.


The permanent or vital interests of persons, accordingly, are the interests they have in security and in liberty. These interests thus ground their moral rights. Damaging these interests constitutes, not just harm, but injustice. Mill's doctrine of liberty and utility, we may repeat, judges that morality is maximally expedient (and utility is itself maximized) when we maximize personal choice or liberty and minimize moral requirements. As a general rule, these moral requirements should be restricted to a prohibition of aggression and of injury to individual security and liberty. Mill believes we have no moral duty to benefit others, except in special circumstances as when a person freely chooses contractual obligations. This is surely a conclusion which should be welcome to all radical libertarians. One objection may be that the conclusion is somehow suspect because it depends on contingent assumptions about man and society. But this objection surely begs the questions whether any social philosophy can avoid such assumptions.

Notes for this chapter

J. P. Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians, p. 123.
Isaiah Berlin, "John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life," in Four Essays on Liberty, pp. 174 and 189.
J. S. Mill, "Utilitarianism," in Utilitarianism, On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government, p. 50.
James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 176.
On Liberty (Everyman edition) p. 72.
I owe this quotation to John C. Rees's admirable book, Mill and his Early Critics, p. 31. The most comprehensive and reliable general bibliography of writings on John Stuart Mill is that published in the Mill News Letter. One of the best nineteenth-century criticisms of Mill on liberty is to be found in the Norton Critical Edition of On Liberty, edited by David Spitz, pp. 123-142, reproduced from an anonymous paper in the National Review 8 (1859).
Alan Ryan's main contributions are to be found in "Mr. McCloskey on Mill's Liberalism," Philosophical Quarterly 14 (1964); "John Stuart Mill's Art of Living," The Listener, October 21, 1965; The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill; John Stuart Mill; "John Stuart Mill and the Open Society," The Listener, May 17, 1973.
Donald G. Brown, "Mill on Liberty and Morality," Philosophical Review 81 (1972): 133-158. Iam indebted also to Brown's papers on "What is Mill's Principle of Utility?" Canadian Journal of Philosophy 3 (1973): 1-12; "Mill's Act-Utilitarianism," Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1974): 67-68; "John Mill: John Rawls," Dialogue 12, 3 (1973): 1-3.
J. P. Dryer's contribution, on which Brown draws in part, entitled "Mill's Utilitarianism" may be found in Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society, J. M. Robson, ed., Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, 1969.
Lyon's principal contributions are: "J.S. Mill's Theory of Morality," Nous 10 (May 1976); "Human Rights and the General Welfare," Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (Winter 1977); his books, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism and especially his In the Interest of the Governed, a revisionist interpretation of Bentham's legal and political thought, are relevant to the interpretation of On Liberty.
Utilitarianism (Everyman edition) p. 45.
This point is made in a perceptive paper by Professor David Copp of Simon Fraser University, entitled "The Iterated-Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill," and delivered to the Canadian Philosophical Association Congress, June 1978.
For the argument that Mill is a rule-utilitarian, see J. O. Urmson, "The Interpretation of the Moral Philosophy of J. S. Mill," Philosophical Quarterly 3 (1953).
Brown, "Mill on Liberty and Morality," p. 136.
Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 28.
Leslie Stephen, The English Utilitarians, Vol. III, p. 296.
John C. Rees, "A Re-reading of Mill on Liberty," Political Studies 8 (1960), reprinted with an important "Postscript" (1966) in Limits of Liberty, Peter Radcliff, ed. Rees's papers "A Phase in the Development of Mill's Ideas on Liberty," Political Studies 6 (1958); "Was Mill for Liberty?" Political Studies 14 (1966); and, "The Thesis of the 'Two Mills,"' Political Studies 25 (1977), should also be consulted.
Rees, in Radcliff, ed. Limits of Liberty, pp. 101-102.
Rees, in Radcliff, pp. 101-102.
See Brown, "Mill on Harm to Others' Interests," Political Studies.
See Radcliff, Limits, pp. 106-107.
On Liberty (Everyman edition) p. 132.
On Liberty, p. 74.
See Herbert L. A. Hart, Law, Liberty and Morality and Patrick Devlin, The Enforcement of Morals.
The terminology of 'want-regarding' and 'ideal-regarding' principles derives from Brian Barry's book Political Argument.
See Szasz's many publications on involuntary hospitalization as an infringement of human rights.
I owe the expression, "hard cases for the harm principle," to Joel Feinberg, who uses it as the title for Chapter 3 of his excellent Social Philosophy where these matters are discussed.
The theory of the higher pleasures is expounded by Mill in Utilitarianism, Chapter 2.

End of Notes

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