"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

Mill on the Priority of Liberty as Autonomy: Laissez-faire, Private Property, and Socialism


I have argued, from the revisionist viewpoint, that Mill could consistently attach a priority to individual liberty in political and social life. Allowing liberty to be preeminent whenever background conditions of security and an acceptable level of culture were established,[29] Mill could yet remain faithful to his overriding utilitarian commitment.


But what does Mill's commitment to liberty's priority mean in the intensely controversial areas of his view on laissez-faire, socialism, and private property? As a start to answering this difficult tangle of questions, we need to challenge the traditional view that Mill's working conception of liberty was a negative one.[30] For, first, several of the fairly explicit definitions he gives of liberty commit him to a strongly positive libertarian standpoint.[31] Secondly, although On Liberty indeed discusses the classical-liberal grounds and limits of justified coercion, that essay makes clear that Mill would regard any society which lacks conflicting modes of thought and life as failing to fit the ideal type of a society of free persons. Central to the argument of On Liberty, then, is the notion of the free person as having available to him a wide range of alternative lifestyles and modes of thought. Mill sees the free person as liberated from the yoke of custom and convention, from the conformist pressures of peer-groups as well as the legal penalties of law, in areas where harm to others is not an issue. This positive notion of freedom as autonomy informs all of Mill's writings on socialism and private property: It is related to the idea of the autonomous man defined in David Riesman's well-known sociological study of the nonautonomous or "other directed" person in modern society, The Lonely Crowd. The intellectual pedigree of freedom as autonomy extends back at least as far as de Tocqueville's writings on American democracy.

Mill on the Role of Government: Neither Laissez-faire nor Socialism


It is evident that the argument of On Liberty (1859) is a natural development of Mill's discussion of the proper province of government in his immensely influential Principles of Political Economy (1848). Mill never unreservedly endorsed the standard slogans of laissez-faire, and much of the time, indeed, he has engaged in criticizing them, sometimes misguidedly. We would, however, fundamentally misconceive of Mill's intellectual development imagining (as is sometimes still done) that Mill was intellectually seduced by Harriet Taylor from an orthodox laissez-faire position to something more akin to Fabian socialism. Mill's criticisms of the capitalist political economy of his day, though often misconceived, fundamentally differ from those of the socialists of his time and ours.


Before we can demarcate Mill's critique of capitalism from that of the socialist orthodoxies, we need to be clear about Mill's relations to the doctrine of laissez-faire by making a number of distinctions. In the Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill distinguished between 'necessary' and 'optional' state functions, and divides 'optional' into two types: 'authoritative' and 'nonauthoritative'. Mill differed from stringent laissez-faire noninterventionists, and argued that it was completely inadequate to restrict state activity merely to the prevention of force and fraud. He concluded pragmatically that the range of necessary government functions, though certainly broader than supposed by many exponents of laissez-faire, could not be identified by any universal rule, save the simple and vague one: that we should permit governmental intervention only when the case of expediency is strong.[32]


Against interventionists, however, Mill makes a crucial distinction between the two mentioned types of 'optional' government interference, the 'authoritative' and the 'nonauthoritative'. Since the 'authoritative' comprehends interventions by sanction and legal prohibition, there is a strong presumption against it deriving from utility in the larger sense. There is, however, no such presumption against the 'nonauthoritative' interference which merely supplements and does not replace successful private initiative. Unlike nonauthoritative interference, which avoids all coercion beyond that involved in the exercise of the state's taxing power, authoritative interference involves the state as order-giver and tends to stultify the spirit of independence.


Thus Mill believed that the larger utilitarian considerations on the one hand supported noninterference, but on the other hand allowed the state a wide range of functions, when it is clear that private institutions cannot adequately supply certain desirable things (public goods, as we should call them today). In this way, the state might properly assume a share of responsibility for such items as poor relief, colonization, scientific research, and the financing of education. Mill's overall view, in fact, was that the preservation of individuality in the modern world could not be achieved by sticking to any very fixed rule, but demanded great centralization of information in the state, together with great diffusion of power and initiative throughout society.

Mill's Conception of Distributive Justice vs. Orthodox Socialism


If Mill's criticism of orthodox laissez-faire went so far, how did his "new political economy" differ from contemporary and later socialist orthodoxy? Pedro Schwartz shows in his important book, The New Political Economy of J. S. Mill (1972) that the major targets of Mill's critique are the maldistribution of property and an oppressive system of industrial organization. One of the main causes of the maldistribution of property, according to Mill, was the concentrations of fortunes facilitated by uninterrupted accumulation of wealth across the generations. Mill's remedy for this maldistribution, which he proposed in the first edition (1848) of the Principles, was the institution, not of an estates duty, but of what we would nowadays call an accessions or inheritance tax, to be levied on the recipient and not on the donor of capital. For Mill, the merit of such a tax was that, unlike other arrangements, it need not transfer wealth from private individuals to the state, since it was easily avoidable by the desirable expedient of dispersing one's wealth widely. Importantly, Mill favored a steeply progressive inheritance tax. This tax, though it would allow the transfer of a "modest competence," would destroy all great fortunes in a couple of generations.


Mill's support of progression in inheritance taxation contrasts sharply with his opposition to it in the taxation of income. A progressive income tax, he argued, was tantamount to "hanging a weight upon the swift to diminish the distance between them and the slow"; it was to impose a penalty on people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbors, which is the same as "relieving the prodigal at the expense of the prudent." One explanation for this disparity in kinds of taxes lies in Mill's constant preoccupation with saving and his lifelong distaste for conspicuous consumption. These motives led him to express his support in principle for an expenditure tax before the Select Committee on Income and Property Tax of 1861.

Mill's Lockean Distributive Theory vs. Egalitarianism


Another deeper reason for his contrasting attitudes to income and inheritance taxes, one which I shall need to expand upon, is that Mill's conception of distributive justice was by origin a Lockean one. Although this Lockean position tended to make him favor a redistribution of property and of incomes, it had no specifically egalitarian complexion. Mill clearly avows the Lockean pedigree of his doctrine of property and distributive justice, when he gives a quasicanonical statement of the grounds and limits of property rights:

The institution of property, when limited to its essential elements, consists in the recognition, in each person, of a right to the exclusive disposal of what he or she have produced by their own exertions or received either by gift or fair agreement, without force or fraud, from those who produced it. The foundation of the whole is, the right of producers to what they themselves have produced.[33]

Statements such as this (which could easily be multiplied) open up a gulf between Mill's doctrine of property and that elaborated in the tradition of Hume, Bentham, and the elder Mill. The gap develops because Mill absorbed a Lockean, Ricardian labor theory of value, which he used to ground a theory of justice in property titles based on notions of desert. This labor theory of the acquisition of property rights explains why Mill always treated the ownership of land as a special case, in which the existence of permanent bequeathable property rights is least justifiable. Similarly, the labor theory of property accounts for his sustained interest in schemes for peasant proprietorship and his unremitting hostility to landlords. Again, it is a Lockean conviction that the marginal productivity of a man's labor is one good measure of his worth and one that should be encouraged. This conviction accounts for Mill's uncompromising defense of labor competition and his unrepentant support for the incentives of piece-work in increasing individual productivity. Mill's redistributionist proposals about inheritance also owe their rationale to another Lockean belief. In the market economy of his day, Mill lamented that "reward instead of being proportioned to labour and the abstinence of individuals, is almost in inverse ratio to it." The Lockean background for Mill's conception of distributive justice is recognized in Lawrence C. Becker's recent study, Property Rights (1977), which expands and criticizes Locke's own theory.


However, Mill's distributionism, that is to say his desire to distribute property on the basis of individual desert, has another source. This is the ill-judged and fatal methodological dichotomy he sought to make between laws of production and laws of distribution. As he famously puts it:

The laws and conditions of the production of wealth, partake of the character of physical truths. There is nothing optional, or arbitrary in them... this is not so with the distribution of wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely. The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with them as they like.[34]


This split between production versus distribution may be restated as follows: Somehow persons produce wealth through rather mechanical procedures without any options or choices on their part, and we need not examine their motivations or incentives in doing so. The only question that seems relevant to this approach is how society should choose to distribute the wealth that mysteriously appears. However, this approach gives little thought to the effects on producers of social schemes to redistribute the wealth they create. In fact such redistribution may discourage producers from producing their product.


In this disastrous dissociation of production and distribution, with its implicit "manna from heaven" view of how goods and commodities are produced and with its failure to treat capitalism as a unified system of both production and distribution, Mill propounds the central heresy of modern Social Democracy. For this misleading dichotomy of production and distribution sanctions the belief that productive and distributive arrangements of different sorts may promiscuously be mixed so as to realize some ideal or preferred pattern of distribution. This is a delusion that is justly assaulted both by Marxians and by such neo-Austrian economists as F. A. Hayek and Murray Rothbard. In this belief, Mill fostered a harmful tradition of social criticism of capitalism. We are only lately recovering from this belief's ill-effects in social theory and political practice. At the same time, all who are not exponents of natural rights theory will commend Mill for arguing that property rights are not things settled once and for all, deducible from some supposed axioms of ethics. Mill viewed property rights, no less than political institutions, as creatures of "time, place and circumstance," to be assessed and altered to harmonize with "the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."

Mill's Syndicalism vs. Authoritarian Socialism


Mill thus advanced contemporary Social Democracy with his erroneous notions about what constituted justice in distribution. But we should not suppose that his form of anticapitalism had much in common with that of the Fabian socialists who came after him. (Nor is there any strong evidence to support the received view that Mill's approach to socialism and private property, or to any other major issue, was substantially modified by the influence of Harriet Taylor. [35]) It is true, however, that Mill was a lifelong opponent of one mode of capitalist industrial organization. He opposed those enterprises which are owned and managed by owners of capital who stand in an authoritarian relationship with wage-earners. He thought this became worse rather than better with the growth of joint-stock companies. He opposed it because, in the first place, he thought it institutionalized a permanent conflict of interests between capital-owners and wage-earners, and he doubted if any productive system which rested on such a basis could be either stable or efficient. Again, he supposed that the separations between wage-earners and owner-managers deprived workers of any real opportunity for personal initiative and precluded their becoming anything like the self-reliant individuals celebrated in On Liberty. Such objections to the capitalist system of his day led Mill to take a continuing interest in schemes for profit sharing, industrial partnership, and producer's cooperation. But his utopian views went far beyond such proposals and (as Lionel Robbins has suggested[36]) can best be characterized as a form of nonrevolutionary competitive syndicalism. As Mill put it himself in his Principles:

The form of association ... which if mankind continue to improve must be expected in the end to predominate is not that which can exist between a capitalist as Chief, and work people without a voice in the management, but the association of labourers themselves on forms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.[37]


It is worth emphasizing that, while there are many objectionable aspects of Mill's syndicalist or non-state socialist utopias, it has no affinities whatever with the paternalist State celebrated in the Fabian socialist tradition. In Mill's posthumous Autobiography (1873), he certainly envisaged an economic order which was no longer recognizably that of nineteenth-century England, but it differs at least as much from our own interventionist economy. If Mill is in any sense a socialist then his was decidedly a "market socialism." He nowhere fatally compromises the core capitalist institutions of private property in the instruments of production and commodity production for competitive markets. Further, in considering the relations between Mill's position and the various socialist orthodoxies, we should note that, despite his iconoclastic sympathies with trade unionism, he envisaged no place for trade unions in the society of the future. He looked forward to a time when the harmony of interests between all partners in production, facilitated by workers' ownership and self-management, would allow "the true euthanasia of trades unionism."[38]

Mill on the Limits of Economic Growth: Its Harm to Individual Character and Social Values


Finally, Mill's thought significantly contrasts with his socialist posterity in his opposition to productivist conceptions of the good life. Like the other classical economists, Mill accepted that economic growth could only be temporary in a world of scarce natural resources in which population constantly pressed on land and food reserves. In contrast with all other economists in the classical tradition and in its socialist aftermath, however, Mill did not fear the arrival of a stationary economy, but rather welcomed it as an opportunity for a large-scale transformation in social values. Doubtless, a part of Mill's concern that society be re-ordered to allow for a peaceful transition to a no-growth economy derives from his neo-Malthusian insistence on the finitude of the world's resources and the ever-present danger of overpopulation. Yet Mill's advocacy of a stationary-state economy is largely concerned, not with considerations of resource-depletion, but with the damaging effects on human character of the unremitting pursuit of possessions and with the alleged destructive consequences for the natural environment of open-ended economic growth. In Mill's own emphatic words, in the chapter on "The Stationary State" in the Principles:

"I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of mankind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress."[39]


In words which show him to have moved altogether outside the Benthamite utilitarian tradition, Mill goes on to illustrate the harmful consequences for human character and development of an overcrowded world: "It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal ... Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature." Concluding the chapter in his Principles with the search that "a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement," Mill effectively confirms his distance from the productivist central stream of classical economic thought and of its socialist aftermath. Clearly John Stuart Mill, at least among the great liberals, owed little—too little perhaps—to any culture of possessive individualism.[40]


We may well question the practical cogency of Mill's vision of a society of fraternal but competitive workers' cooperatives. No one who now reads the Principles can help reflecting that it became the standard economics textbook at a time when Britain was still only semi-industrialized. At this time the statification of the economy by interventionism was minimal and the joint-stock revolution had only recently got under way. It was an era when it was unthinkable that multinational corporations should arise possessing a discretionary authority often exceeding that of sovereign states. Further, we now know something of the problems of labor-managed economies (such as postwar Yugoslavia) resembling Mill's syndicalist utopia. What we know suggests their liability to debilitating influences, including especially an ineradicable disposition to an irrational allocation of labor. And, as both F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman have had occasion to observe,[41] Mill's distributionism, combined with his belittling of the achievements of technology, caused him to support the bizarre view that no further economic growth was needed in mid-nineteenth century England, but only a radical redistribution of its products. As Hayek has put it,[42] Mill "appears to have been unaware that an attempt to cure even extensive poverty by redistribution would in his time have led to the destruction of what he regarded as cultured life without achieving its object."

Mill and Socialism


These defects in Mill's positive doctrine of a post-capitalist society are widely admitted in the relevant secondary literatures.[43] It remains unquestionably the case, however, that a deep gulf separates Mill's idiosyncratic synthesis of laissez-faire with socialism from any subsequent socialist orthodoxy. If today, we have little to learn from Mill's political economy, still we ought, in intellectual honesty, to distinguish his errors from the even worse ones of his socialist rivals and heirs. Indeed, many socialists today might still benefit from reading Mill's posthumously published Chapters on Socialism, in which he prophetically exposed the dangers to individuality posed by a socialist economy.

John Stuart Mill's Idea of a Science of Society: One or Two Mills?


We now move on to one of the oldest, and most persuasive, traditionalist objections to the unity and coherence of Mill's social philosophy, and one which has furthered a number of "two Mills" theses. This objection focuses on a tension between Mill's view of mind and action, the tension between his theory of human nature (presupposed by Mill's liberalism) and that to which he explicitly commits himself in his "official" philosophical canon. Broadly speaking, traditional critics point to a tension between the empirical, more deterministic, and passive conception of human nature (defended, with several changes of emphasis, in Mill's 1843 System of Logic and in his 1865 Examination of Hamilton's Philosophy), and the view of the mind as free, active, and creatively ordering the raw data of experience. This second view seems presupposed by the argument of On Liberty, and Mill gestures towards it in such occasional pieces as his essay on "Two Varieties of Poetry." This traditional criticism of Mill is powerfully made by a nineteenth-century writer, Charles Douglas, in his John Stuart Mill (1895):

Because all improvement depends upon ideas, it must come from individuals; and the most real and secure improvement—that of men themselves—consists in their adoption of new and better ways of thinking.

Personality is thus, for Mill, at the very centre of human affairs. Human progress depends, not only upon rational conditions, but still more upon choice, and thought, and character and qualities of personal life. If Mill is committed by his presuppositions to another way of conceiving men's relation to the world, yet his assertion of the fundamental importance of personality forces itself through his empiricism, and modifies the strictness of the theory (pp. 177-178).


A very similar argument, contending that Mill's ideal of a free man commits him to a view of the mind as creative and ungoverned by causal laws, has been elaborated much more recently by J.W.N. Watkins in a lecture to the Royal Institute of Philosophy.[44] Mill's views of the sovereign autonomous individual thus seems to impute to man a contracausal freedom of action which Mill's official empiricist philosophy denies.

Mill as a Transitional Thinker on Human Nature: Between Mechanism and Idealism


This, however, is only one aspect of the claim that two views of human nature compete and conflict in Mill's thought. At the most general level, such arguments raise the question of how Mill's moral and political philosophy is related to his theory of knowledge, and especially to his account of the scope and methods of a science of society.


The traditional interpreters are on firm ground when they claim that Mill's theory of human nature is a halfway house between the avowedly mechanistic account that Bentham and Mill's father developed, and the Idealist view defended by such later liberal thinkers as Bernard Bosanquet and T. H. Green. Several recent writers acknowledge that Mill strongly inclined to endorse the view (intimated in On Liberty and expounded in the writings of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Coleridge) that emphatically denied the constancy of human nature and constantly emphasized its liability to unpredictable metamorphosis. Richard Wollheim has declared that "Mill denied the uniformity of human nature. In doing so he rejected a belief that, implicitly or explicitly, has been central to the thought of the European Enlightenment, and thus by descent to classical Utilitarianism." R. J. Halliday, in his recent important book on Mill, sympathetically airs many revisionist claims and states: "Mill felt himself emancipated from simple psychological beliefs. Psychological hedonism, in particular, implied too neat and too narrow an account of motivation, there was no permanent human nature, to be explained by universal and invariant laws. ... Mankind were not alike in all times and places."[45] Given Mill's methodological eclecticism, we must regard such claims as only a little less extravagant than Karl Popper's account of Mill which castigates him as an exponent of psychologism.[46] The real situation is more complex, and suggests that the traditionalists are right in affirming that Mill never enunciated a coherent philosophy of human nature.

Mill's Science of Human Nature: Uniform Laws vs. Constancy


The key point to make here is twofold: (1) Mill largely did free himself from any belief in the constancy of human nature as always and everywhere moved by a small, tight-knit family of motives; but (2) he never decisively relinquished the empiricist project of a science of society, which must presuppose that human conduct is sufficiently uniform to be brought under law-like statements having both explanatory and predictive value. Thus, though Mill did indeed respond to Macaulay's famous attack on his father's Essay on Government[47] by repudiating the apriorism of the classical utilitarian approach, he never gave up the empiricist assumption that the way to render human conduct intelligible was to subsume its episodes under laws akin to those we formulate in the natural sciences. Some evidence may suggest that Mill believed the methods of inquiry appropriate to the study of human social life may qualitatively differ from those appropriate to the study of nature. But in his official philosophical corpus, Mill always adhered to a doctrine of methodological monism, to a thoroughly reductionist account of man and society. Though at times Mill's intellectual integrity and open-minded candor admitted bewilderment at the difficulties arising from the empiricist projects of a science of society, he never abandoned that project.


In order to critically evaluate the various traditional and revisionist accounts of Mill's project of a science of human nature and society, it is necessary to consider just how far Mill endorsed the classic empiricist aspiration to formulate a theory of human nature using principles and methods no different from those employed by natural scientists. To succeed, such aspiration presupposes that human behavior is subject to universal regularities which are culturally and historically invariant. This aspiration also assumes that in the human or moral sciences, as in the physical sciences, explanation and understanding consist in fitting observed behavior under a general formula or natural law. It was, after all, that most skeptical of British empiricists, David Hume, who wrote that "mankind is much the same in all times and places."[48] Before Hume, Machiavelli had expressed in the Discourses a similar conviction of the constancy of human nature: "In all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same passions as there always were. ... Everything that happens in the world at any time has a genuine resemblance to what happened in ancient times. This is because the agents who bring such things about are men, and men have, and always have had, the same passions from which it necessarily comes about that the same effects are produced."[49]


Now it is true that, in his philosophical writings, such as the System of Logic, Mill did occasionally insist that there are such things as laws of human nature, determinate and ascertainable: "the laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the actions and passion of human beings," he says, namely "the laws of individual human nature." Mill goes on to insist that men are not "when brought together converted into another kind of substance, with different properties." Similarly, he declares that "Human beings in society have no properties but those which are derived from, and may be resolved into, the laws of nature of the individual." Thus far, Mill does indeed seem to be endorsing a historical, psychologistic empiricism about the study of human conduct.

Human Nature: the Laws of Individual Psychology and the Cultural, Historical Context


Such an impression of Mill's "official" theory of human nature is seriously misleading, however, unless we severely qualify it. For Mill himself qualifies his assertion of the primacy of psychology among the social sciences with a reminder that it is necessary to grasp the historical context of human behavior if one is to understand it adequately: "as society proceeds in its development" he says "its phenomena are determined more and more, not by the simple tendencies of human nature, but by the accumulated influence of past generations over the present."[50] Mill's effort in his System of Logic to develop an account of the nature and scope of social explanation can be seen to embody an unresolved (and, very probably, insoluble) contradiction between the psychologistic methodological individualism (or "science of human nature") he had inherited from the empiricist tradition, and the Comtean, historicist belief that "the fundamental problem of the social sciences [is to discover] the laws according to which any state of society produces the state which succeeds it and which takes its place."[51] It is widely recognized, even by the most sympathetic among Mill's interpreters, that his attempt to synthesize a form of methodological individualism which was no longer narrowly psychologistic with an emphasis on the cultural and historical contexts in which human behavior occurs was not, and could never have been successful.


Perhaps the most powerful statement of the philosophical inadequacy of Mill's conception of explanation and understanding in human studies has been given by the Wittgensteinian philosopher, Peter Winch, in his extremely influential and controversial book, The Idea of a Social Science. Winch identifies the main weakness in Mill's philosophy not as its psychologistic tendencies, but more fundamentally, as its commitment to methodological individualism. This commitment is to a version of the "resolutive-compositive method" for which Newtonian mechanics (rather than the "geometrical" and "classical" methods he ascribed to his father and Macaulay respectively) was in Mill's view the appropriate model. Winch's argument against Mill is, no doubt, part of a polemical argument against empiricism and against methodological individualism in the social sciences generally. As such, it is very powerful. However, the inadequacy of Mill's "official" philosophy of human nature is not sufficient to establish his philosophy as inconsistent.

Mill's Compatibilism: Free Will and Determinism


Traditionally, the latter objection of internal inconsistency chiefly addresses Mill's reflections on the questions of free will and determinism. Mill's account, which renews an ancient compatibilist tradition, seeks to reconcile freedom and determinism, to show that any threat to the reality of choice posed by causal determinism of human actions is fraudulent. Mill contends that the consistency of determinism with freedom is, in the last resort, a pseudo-problem generated by a conflation of causal necessity with coercion.


Mill directs the main force of his argument against the Owenite, necessitarian or modified fatalist view (which he had found so oppressive during the period of his mental collapse). This modified fatalism asserts human actions are the unavoidable results of human character. The very features of human character are themselves necessitated by circumstances which each man inherits from nature, history, and society. Mill's rebuttal of the Owenite view is straightforward enough, consisting of the assertion (unexceptionable so far as it goes) that a man can alter his own character if only he wishes to do so by (for example) placing himself under the influence of circumstances other than those which gave it its current attributes. The objection to this argument is equally straightforward, namely, that the impulse to change one's character must itself in any coherent determinism be determined by one's constitution, history, and circumstances.


Such objections are, however, far from conclusive. Any attempt to show that Mill's philosophy, and his moral and political theory, flounders on the problem of free will, involves a program of substantive philosophical argument against compatibilism. This is an area of philosophy in which nothing like a consensus has yet been reached (and in which one is not yet visible on the philosophical horizon). On this issue, at any rate, the charge that Mill's philosophy lacks internal consistency must be given the Scottish verdict of "not proven."


A more problematic issue is that of the compatibility of the strongly fallibilistic theory of knowledge intimated in On Liberty with the inductivism defended in the System of Logic and throughout Mill's writings on epistemological writings. Paul Feyerabend has gone so far as to base one version of a "two Mills" thesis[52] on this tension, claiming that in On Liberty Mill embraces a form of epistemological pluralism, stronger than Popper's falsificationism, in which human knowledge grows simply by the proliferation of conjectures and world views. Such a theory of knowledge would certainly conflict with the more straight-forwardly accumulationist, inductive account offered elsewhere in Mill's writings. But it is also contradicted by much of what Mill says in On Liberty.

Mill as a Transitional Thinker: Between the Objectivist and Skeptical Traditions of Liberalism


Quite apart from the question of Feyerabend's fidelity to evidence about Mill's intentions in On Liberty—a question treated authoritatively by J. C. Rees[53]—there is an overwhelming plausibility about the claim, recently advanced by Professor Basil Mitchell, that Mill stood between two traditions in liberal thought. According to Mitchell,[54] the two kinds of liberalism are distinguished chiefly by their account of the value of freedom. The "old" liberalism valued freedom because only in a free society could men have the chance to discover the truth about basic questions in morality and metaphysics. The new liberalism valued freedom precisely because there are no objective truths (at any rate in respect of evaluative and metaphysical questions). Again, according to Mitchell, the new liberalism is represented by Strawson, who in a well-known paper[55] justifies the freedom of individuals to realize a diversity of competing ideals of life within a framework of shared morality and law by arguing that no one of these ideals can be shown to be uniquely rational or even to be rationally preferable to other, well-formulated ideals.


Interestingly, though Mitchell follows most interpreters in claiming that Mill belongs to the tradition of "old liberalism" he goes on to acknowledge that "the seeds of the new liberalism" are to be found in Mill's defense of individuality. In this respect, at any rate, the traditional interpretation seems irresistible: throughout his adult life, Mill was poised in unstable equilibrium between a dogmatic, objectivist posture towards truth and validity in the areas of morality, metaphysics, and science—a posture he inherited from his father—and a skeptical outlook in all of these areas. Part of the fascination of Mill's liberalism derives from the spectacle of his agonizingly self-conscious attempts to reconcile these irresolvably antagonistic outlooks.

Traditional and Revisionist Interpretations—A Provisional Evaluation


Speaking of his period of mental crisis, and of the change in his opinions which it wrought, Mill declared: "If I am asked what system of political philosophy I substituted for that which, as a philosophy, I had abandoned, I answer, no system; only a conviction that the true system was something much more comprehensive than I had previously had any idea of."[56] There can be little doubt that it is this self-critical and open-minded eclecticism of Mill's thought which has led many commentators, exasperated by the systematic elusiveness of his standpoint on the great philosophical and social issues of his time, to despair of finding any coherent view in his writings. Certainly, these are good grounds for the traditional interpretation in Mill's own many-sided intellectual development. It must even be conceded that, in all probability, the traditionalists are right in their contention that Mill never succeeded in welding the diverse intellectual traditions by which he was influenced into an integrated system. To this extent, the traditional interpretation must be upheld.


Several considerations emerge from the preceding discussion, however, which should cause us to moderate the severity of tone with which the traditional interpretation has often been accompanied.


(1) In the first place, while Mill's eclectic aspiration to synthesize the claims of utility and justice, laissez-faire and socialism, empiricism and a creative view of the mind may ultimately fail, his argument has been shown by the recent revisionist wave of Mill scholarship to be far more complex and subtle, far more acutely aware of obvious counterarguments, than exponents of the traditional view habitually allow. In some areas, indeed, it would be hasty and premature to suppose that Mill's reconciling purpose had been decisively defeated by progress in philosophical inquiry.


(2) Secondly, though we must not suppose that Mill is always clear-headed and consistent in argument, the power of his argument about the relations of utility, liberty, and moral rights should at least give pause to those who think intellectual traditions can be identified schematically by reference to some small group of dominating principles. Even if Mill's attempt to make peace between utilitarianism and justice does not in the end come off (and the issue must be regarded as still an open one) it does not do so because the idea of a utilitarian theory of moral rights is self-evidently absurd. Indeed, this is one area where Mill's eclectic method produces hopeful results.


(3) Finally, it should be recognized that the construction of an integrated and comprehensive philosophy was not one of Mill's major aspirations. The revisionist literature on Mill will have done us all a service if, in encouraging us to look with respect on Mill's work, it encourages us also to emulate that tolerance of uncertainty, and reverence for diversity, which is the distinctive feature of Mill's intellectual personality.

Notes for this chapter

Mill makes his qualifications to the range of application of his principles on p. 73 of On Liberty (Everyman edition).
The terminology of 'positive' and 'negative' liberty is owed to Isaiah Berlin, who develops its sense in his "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Four Essays on Liberty.
Thus, Mill observes in the System of Logic (London, 1974 edition, p. 841) "it is said with truth, that none but a person of confirmed truth is completely free." In An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (London: Longman's, 1865, p. 510) he speaks of "that normal preponderance of love of right, which the best moralists and theologians consider to constitute the true definition of freedom."
See Vol. III Principles of Political Economy in the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, edited by J. M. Robson and V. W. Bladen, Toronto, 1965, p. 804.
See Mill's Principles (Toronto edition) pp. 754-755.
See Principles, Bk. II, Chapter I: "Of Property," first paragraph, in Collected Works of John Stuart Mill.
The claim that Harriet Taylor's influence decisively affected the development of Mill's thought is still alive in much recent work. It is discussed critically by H. O. Pappe in his valuable monograph John Stuart Mill and the Harriet Taylor Myth, which is reviewed by John C. Rees in Political Studies 10 (1962): pp. 198-202.
See Lord Robbin's Introduction to Vol. IV Essays on Economics and Society in the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, edited by J. M. Robson and Lord Robbins, Toronto, 1967, p. xi.
See Principles, (Penguin edition) p. 133.
This point is discussed in Pedro Schwartz's The New Political Economy of J. S. Mill, p. 103.
See Principles (Penguin edition), p. 113 ff.
My reference to possessive individualism is, of course, intended to designate C. B. Macpherson's ambitious ideological interpretation of liberalism in his The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. He gives a more balanced view of liberalism, and an occasionally perceptive account of Mill, in his The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy.
See Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, p. 170; and Friedrich A. Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, p. 430.
Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, p. 430.
See for example, Alan Ryan, John Stuart Mill, Chapter 6, for a critical discussion of some of the difficulties in Mill's account of property and distribution.
See J.W.N. Watkins, "Three Views Concerning Human Freedom," in Nature and Conduct, Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures Vol. 8, London, 1974.
The preceding quotation from Wollheim occurs in his Introduction to the World's Classics Edition of On Liberty, Representative Government and the Subjection of Women, London, 1975, p. xi. The quotation from Halliday comes from his John Stuart Mill, pp. 55-56.
Popper's attack on Mill's "psychologism" occurs in Vol. 2 of his The Open Society and Its Enemies, Chapter 14.
The controversy surrounding Macaulay's attack on James Mill's Essay on Government has been marvelously presented in Utilitarian Logic and Politics by Jack Lively and John C. Rees.
See Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, Bk. I, Part 4, Section 6, for a development of this claim.
This passage from Machiavelli is quoted by Stuart Hampshire in a paper relevant to Mill Studies, "Uncertainty in Politics," Encounter (January 1957).
See System of Logic, Bk. VI, Chapter VIII, p. 583 (new edition, London, 1930) for this and the preceding quotation.
See Mill's Against Comte and Positivism for a development of this claim.
See especially the original version of P. K. Feyerabend, "Against Method" in Vol. 4 of Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science: Analyses of Theories and Methods of Physics and Psychology, p. 112.
See Rees, "The Thesis of the 'Two Mills,'" Political Studies (1977).
Mitchell, Law, Morality, and Religion.
P. F. Strawson, "Social Morality and Individual Ideal," Philosophy (1961).
J. S. Mill's Autobiography, p. 97.

End of Notes

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