On Liberty / John Stuart Mill

This review appeared on my previous blog, Rat's Reading.

I read the Cambridge University Press book, which actually contains three of John Stuart Mill’s works: On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and Chapters on Socialism. For brevity’s sake, the title of this review only lists the first.

Cover of On Liberty and Other Writings

John Stuart Mill is one of the leading thinkers of the utilitarian movement in philosophy. The central tenet of that movement is that morality of actions is determined by their overall utility. Utility being the goodness of the consequences. What constituted goodness can be multiple things, but generally includes things like happiness and well-being. A well-known formulation of that is the greatest good for the greatest number of people, though the wording doesn’t exactly fit the originator’s (Bentham) intent.

On Liberty

John Stuart Mill lived in Victorian England, a environment that could be culturally stifling to those who don’t fit it’s fairly rigid strictures. On Liberty is partially pushback against that culture as well as an argument for individual liberty against the legislation of the state.

In the Introduction, Mill begins with a review of the history of liberty with respect to government. From when kings ruled by divine right to later years when government was at the sufferance of the governed. He notes that the reason for moving toward the latter is that the interests of the state are not necessarily those of its citizens. While congruent in places, they were not exact. Tyranny results when the interests of the governing do not align with the governed, and it was thought that there would be no need to protect against tyranny when democratic government was instituted. Mill disagrees with this, and argues that democracy is the government by the most numerous, and in a phrase I find particularly prescient, the most active part of the people. In other words, the interests of the people are not monolithic. One group may wish to put down another group. Mill reflects that the tyranny of the majority has come to be generally recognized as a danger in democracy.

But then Mills jumps the shark, so to speak. He goes off script. He expands his reprobation of the majority for not only legislating conformance, but also for using public opinion to fetter individuals. He believes that moral mandates from society also subjugate the individual, and that individuality needs additional protection.

Mill bases his arguments, not surprisingly, on utility rather than on any abstract rights. His argument rests on the idea that liberty is best for human well-being in a broad general sense and he intends his arguments to demonstrate this. Jumping ahead a bit, I think his arguments fall somewhat short. They end up being self-referential and subjective rather than objective measurements. Happiness and goodness aren’t particularly measurable, and particularly not in those days. So he paints himself into a corner with assertions that countries and times respecting liberty have a better well-being, because they are generally accepted as being better off. Which to me, circles back to his approbation of public opinion. How is the public determining that one particular society is better off any different than it’s determination that Victorian values are better. On the other hand, it’s not like Mills has a lot of hard data to go on here. But it would be nice had he recognized the circle in the argument and made an attempt to address it.

Mills thinks that there is but one legitimate reason for government or society intervening against the liberty of an individual: self-protection, individually or collectively. He proposes three areas of liberty that should be preserved from interference. First, that the freedom of thought (and being inseparable from it, the freedom to publish and express thoughts) should be inviolate. Second, that individuals should have the liberty of tastes and pursuits to do what they like, so long as the liberty does not harm others, even if it is foolish. And third, that individuals should have the freedom to unite for any purpose not involving harm to others.

In his second section, Mill justifies the requirement for absolute freedom of thought and expression not by an assertion that morality is relative. Instead, he believes that there are some things that are morally correct. But, being infallible beings, we will never be 100% certain what those truths are.

Thus the interests of utility are served by absolute freedom of thought and expression. If we have a marketplace of competing ideas, the constant battle for survival between the ideas will continually test correct ideas and make them stronger. In other words, if an idea is not the truth, the presence of competing thoughts which may contain better information will expose the lie. And society is enriched by learning better and better truths.

Mills also spends considerable ink on the counter-argument that some truths are so time-tested as to be certain. He thinks they cannot be protected for several reasons. One reason is that what seems to be correct for one age or society may not be correct for others. Another reason is that ideas that are not continually test are not deeply held. He gives by example certain older churches whose teachings are not held so much by converts as by the descendants of the originators. Having simply been taught the tenets of the church rather than coming to believe them through testing them, the ideas become muddled convenience. Adherents will ignore portions that aren’t convenient, or which do not match the tradition of the community. Over time, the differences become larger until the ideas to which the churchmen adhere hardly resemble their professed creed. Mills argues that being forced to defend time-tested ideas against challenges, whether thought of as frivolous or not, will bring about more deeply held knowledge of the truth.

In his third section, Mills write a paean to individuality and against custom. He thinks a strong, vibrant society is one in which eccentrics abound. Rather than bemoan wildness and going out of bounds, he celebrates it. Genius is only a product of more individuality. According to Mills, genius and progress can never come from completely following customs. Doing something new and great by definition is something that is not customary. Someone has to do something not ordinarily done. As an example, Mills proffers China, explaining how it has become stationary because of an extreme adherence to custom, that other countries have passed the once pre-eminent lands of the Far East.

Mills spends most of the fourth section delineating when it is appropriate for society to intervene. He writes about various things that may seem to be harming someone else, but which do not, for the purposes of society’s ability to punish. He argues that specific or risk of damage must occur, not merely a contingent injury. If no perceptible hurt is created, then there is no damage. For something that is merely inconvenience for the public at large, society should be able to bear the burden rather than the individual. On this argument, I have little difficulty.

But where Mills has the most difficulty in drawing up a cogent argument on the limits of the actions a society has over the individual. Remember, Mills is not arguing merely against state power, but also against social limits as well. A telling line is this, speaking of actions of another with which we disagree: We have a right to avoid it (though not to parade our avoidance), for we have a right to choose the society most acceptable to us. A person cannot express moral reprobation or do anything to make the other uncomfortable.

I have no problem with Mills general argument that societal pressure can be just as harmful as government action, it becomes much more difficult to draw a line in the sand. How shall an individual know when he is expressing his individual choices and when he has crossed the line to inappropriate pressure? Would he then be conforming to just another custom? Isn’t his stricture just another form of restricting individuality? With respect to non-state interference, I think Mills has not made a clear philosophy.

But then, philosophy is rarely clear.

Mills’ fifth section concerns some practical applications of his theories on liberty. He adds a few principles and applications here that are worth repeating, though I won’t go do so here. In some cases, I don’t think his view of the practical implications fits with his theoretical underpinnings. As is often the case with people, Mills finds ways to tweak situations to fit the theory as he would like, rather than apply the theory. I doubt he realized he was doing so. I don’t think this is a great failing of the theory.

I enjoyed the work for the most part. What I didn’t like wasn’t so much Mills’ positions as his writing style. One of these days, I’ll need to learn to read older writings without grimacing. I am addicted to modern, easy to read styles.

The Subjection Of Women

Mill attempts to do a very valiant thing in The Subjection Of Women, to argue that the customs and laws of England and Europe with regard to women were depriving them of greater well-being. By them Mill meant not just women, but also men. At the time, I’m sure his treatise was considered very learned, but in retrospect it doesn’t seem to accomplish his goal in my view.

In the style of the day, everything he attempts to make his point through logic. As in, state an assumption, then attempt to build that into a strong case through logic. But his assumptions are often very false. There’s a page or two he writes on how freeing women would result in less immoral sexual ways, for instance. In other words, since men are holding women down, the women are responding by being extra flirtatious and licentious because they have no outlet for their desire for freedom.

He also spends a number of pages writing an apologia for why women haven’t achieved as much as men in the fields where they are allowed. But rather than prove that women are the equal of men, it simply reverts the real known state to we don’t know.

On the other hand, he make one very cogent argument. That is that the utility of the women is greatly increased, to the point that it outweighs any minor inconvenience with regard to the men losing their prerogatives. Women’s lot improves far more than men’s lot could possibly decrease.

And I think he does a pretty good job of showing that there really isn’t any realistic reason why women should be held back. That logically speaking, that would only need be done if women really were better than men. If their skills are worse, there would be no point in restraining their opportunity, for they couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Chapters On Socialism

Of the three works by Mill in this collection, I enjoyed reading this one the most. I think his ideas in On Liberty are of more importance and are more original, but Chapters On Socialism was concise and clear.

Chapters On Socialism was published after Mill’s death. Helen Taylor, Mill’s step-daughter, allowed them to be published despite lacking Mill’s normal editing procedure. Mill took great care in the phrasing he used. Since the manuscript was among his papers at his death, it’s assumed that he hadn’t yet written his second or third or further drafts. I wonder if that’s partially what makes it so readable compared to the other two works.

The chapters on socialism are: Introductory, Socialist objections to the present order of society, The socialist objections to the present order of society examined, The difficulties of Socialism, and The idea of private property not fixed but variable. In the second chapter, Mill started with some general socialist objections to problems with the then-current form of capitalism. But then he wrote something that scared me:

As I shall have ample opportunity in future chapters to state my own opinion on these topics, and on may others connected with and subordinate to them, I shall now, without further preamble, exhibit the opinions of distinguished Socialists on the present arrangements of society, in a selection of passages from their published writings. For the present I desire to be considered as a mere reporter of the opinions of others.

What follows are selections from Louis Blanc’s Organisation du Travail, Victor-Prosper Considérant’s La Destinée sociale, and Robert Owen’s The Book of the New Moral World. These passages are full of just plain flat out wrong assertions about capitalism. For instance, this objection by Considérant:

It robs society by the adulteration of products, pushed at the present day beyond all bounds. And in fact, if a hundred grocers establish themselves in a town where before there were only twenty, it is plain that people will not begin to consume five times as many groceries. Hereupon the hundred virtuous grocers have to dispute between them the profits which before were honestly made by the twenty; competition obliges them to make it up at the expense of the consumer, either by raising the prices as sometimes happens, or by adulterating the goods as always happens.

But as anyone familiar with microeconomics can tell you, this is not what would happen. Over and again, the objections assume monopoly control and an inability to substitute. In other words, they assume that behavior is inelastic. But people are remarkably adaptable and changeable in the face of changing prices. This is not just on the consumer side, but also on the supplier side. In this example, 100 grocers would not establish themselves. If they were plopped down all at once, fairly soon a number of them would quit being grocers and instead turn to other professions, or move to other cities where there isn’t such a glut of grocers. The situation of adulteration described in the example would occur whether there existed 100 grocers or 20. The incentive to cheat is the same. In fact, it’s greater when there are only twenty, as a larger number of participants in the market is likely to reduce the prices, meaning there’s less room for saving costs with adulterated products as the number of items sold is fewer per grocer. What prevents this adulteration in either case the the ability of the consumer to switch to the honest consumer. And again, with more grocers, the chances of finding an honest grocer through competition go up, not down.

But, Mill did state that he wanted to be considered merely a reporter. I was dearly afraid that because these objections were so far-fetched that Mill had been taken in with them. Luckily, in The socialist objections to the present order of society examined, it becomes clear that he did not. He recognized the assumption of a monopoly and points out the simplest truth that monopolies are hard to establish and maintain. Consistent monopoly power by those selling is wholly imaginary. Mill similarly ripped to shreds most of the other arguments against capitalism.

There are a couple of objections in which he found merit. One being that capitalism doesn’t have a complete solution for poverty. He recognized that capitalism wasn’t, in fact, a zero-sum enterprise. Capitalism doesn’t require the poor to spiral lower and lower in order for the rich to circle higher and higher. But neither is there any guarantee that through hard work and honest living a man can support himself and his family. In addition, many of those who are successful do so through accident of birth or luck. Mill agreed that this was morally objectionable, though to what extent I am unsure. It didn’t seem to me that his objection was particularly vehement.

Mill also examined a couple of socialist proposals as well, to see if they solved the objections to the then-present societal ills. He thought they might. But he also went further and examined the incentives inherent in socialist systems and concluded that few would step forward to volunteer to manage a socialist cooperative, since there is little incentive to do so and considerable risk and disincentive. In addition, he thought that socialist would require considerable moral and intellectual education to substitute for the lack of incentive. Education that simply didn’t exist at the time. He also gave an example of communal running of education being problematic. Since individuals would have no means of choosing a different education for their children, the ability to get the education they desired for them would be dependent on their influence with the collective. Mill concluded his examination by writing that he thought a socialist experiment worthwhile on a small scale, but that it would be impractical for a long time because the kind of education necessary wouldn’t be available.

The very last chapter I loved. In kind of a coda, he rejects the tendency of capitalists to paint property as inviolate. History was replete with things that had previously been considered property having been changed. Ranks in the military were no longer considered the property of the holder, to be bought, sold, or passed on. In previous times, property did not always come with a right of inheritance. New forms of property can be created and other forms can be destroyed, depending on the needs of the present society. Sometimes I wish this principle were better recognized by folks both for and against the idea of intellectual property.

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