New Book



$21.95 hardcover · 224 pages
9978-1594037641-January 2015


The theme of The Great Divide is that the populations of the democratic world, from Boston to Berlin, Vancouver to Venice, are becoming increasingly divided from within, due to a growing ideological incompatibility between modern liberalism and conservatism. This is partly due to a complex mutation in the concept of liberal democracy itself, and the resulting divide is now so wide that those holding to either philosophy on a whole range of topics: on democracy, on reason, on abortion, on human nature, on homosexuality and gay marriage, on freedom, on the role of courts … and much more, can barely speak with each other without outrage (the favorite emotional response from all sides). Clearly, civil conversation at the surface has been failing -- and that could mean democracy is failing.

This book is an effort to deepen the conversation. It is written for the non-specialist, and aims to reveal the less obvious underlying ideological forces and misconceptions that cause the conflict and outrage at the surface -- not with any expectation the clash of values will evaporate, but rather that a deeper understanding will generate a more intelligent and civil conversation.

As an aid to understanding, the book contains a handful of Tables directly comparing modern liberal and conservative views across a range of fundamental moral and political “issues” so that curious readers can answer the book’s main question: “Where Do You Stand?” An interesting result in testing this exercise has been the number of people who find they “think” one way, but “live” another.    


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Essays (37)

Mill's "Good" - Only a Personal Good

Only A Personal Good

                   The central message sent by Mill to the modern democracies has been his insistence that we must be left free for “framing the plan of our life to suit our character” (1), and that “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way” (1), as long as we do not harm or impede others in the same pursuit. Volumes could be written on these distinctions. But let us cut to the chase. The modern democracies took this directive from Mill as a sanction for the supposedly “neutral” state, or “procedural republic,” in which a framework of law is established that is supposed to be neutral as to the ends of society. But as mentioned before, this has been a deception, for this supposedly neutral environment has unleashed an egalitarian-democratic war against traditional morality and civil society in the name of the progressive welfare state, as we shall see.

                   Even worse, if Mill meant something more than satisfying our appetites and desires, and it is certain he did, then he invites paradox. For the “good” John aims for beyond his simple pleasures in life may readily conflict with the  “good” of Mary whenever their ideas are converted into actions. Further, how is it possible to have convictions to act for the good without having complementary convictions as to the bad? Can the good possibly mean anything without its opposite? And if we are to be free to “unite” in like-minded associations, and to “express” individually or together our ideas, is it possible to “pursue” these things without repudiating the bad in order to protect the good? Finally, if society is but a mass of freely-choosing men and women acting under the principle of utility, does this not mean they are required to safeguard the general happiness with force, if necessary? And if so, who decides what that happiness is?


“Multitudes of Promising Intellects”

         Throughout On Liberty we sense an over-weaning and frankly irritating interest in “intellectuals,”  “genius,” and the “higher” intellect, with Mill persistently asserting a direct connection between certain knowledge of the good, goodness itself, and higher intelligence (to be supplied by a lot more “education”). Notwithstanding his snobbism and obvious preference for the values of his own class and kind, however, it is clear that Mill was obliged to believe in the higher intellect of the authentic and free self in order to make his theory work, just as he was obliged to believe in higher, better, and more enlightened stages of society. More freedom leads to more expression of genius and this filters down to society (hence his preference for representative democracy, rather than the direct sort). He distrusted uneducated people. But more importantly, without a belief in intellectual, moral, and social  “progress,” Mill would have deprived himself of any “good” for his newly freed individuals to “pursue.”

                       So he worried deeply about “the multitudes of promising intellects combined with timid characters who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought” (2) - lest they be accused of being “irreligious or immoral.” Of course we wonder how they can have bold and vigorous thoughts if they have such timid characters, poor things. No matter. Much is revealed in Mill’s concern. He despises the weight of religious and moral opinion on the free intellect, and so rejects such opinion out of hand, but he immediately replaces them with his own moral vision of the goods of natural reason, social and intellectual progress, and “truth,” all of which he believes spring into existence with freedom.

                  As for the connection between genius and politics? He asserts that no government of whatever sort could ever rise above mediocrity “except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided ... by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few. The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honour and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond internally to wise and noble things [he means can “vibrate” with them, in the Romantic sense], and be led to them with his eyes open” (3). Implied in this opinion is Mill’s philosophy of democratic rule by chosen representatives, individuals who “stand on the higher eminences of thought,” who have experienced the stirring of the authentic self and have been led by nature and their own genius and eccentricity to lead others. This is the Romantic root of his democratic snobbism. He requires such individuals to be not morally “better” than the mass (which, awkwardly, would imply the imposition of their views on others), but different, nonconformist, and “eccentric,” which to him and all other Romantics is a code word for ... better. He directly equates the amount of eccentricity in society with the amount of moral courage, revealing again his Gnostic view of reality. Mankind wallows in the darkness of ignorance, but individual freedom begins the process of enlightenment. Some are naturally brighter than others and once freed must lead society to ever higher levels of perfection. This is his secular version of Calvin’s Elect. Justice on earth arises spontaneously from the actual process of intellectual freedom in which false views are purged, life is simplified, and truth emerges victorious.  


Mill’s Dialectic: Truth and Harmony From Dialogue

                Many of the most moving and spirited passages in On Liberty are songs of faith in praise of  “truth.” What truth? Mill cannot say. For him, truth is not eternal or established, or a moral ideal, or a settled custom or opinion, but a process that may yield any number of results according to the situation. He insists truth must arise from the process of his Talking Cure in which all positions, especially those of the minority are considered in their fullest diversity. Then truth will spontaneously appear, and not otherwise, because “wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument” (2). Thus did Mill clearly articulate the great secular dream of Western liberal democracy: “Truth in the great practical concerns of life,  is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites ...” (2) [italics mine]. In short, truth is not established, nor fixed in advance, nor written in law or religion. Rather it is an ever fresh creation, and Mills’ faith is that it will always be found provided absolute individual freedom is present. He did not seek the truth of an abstract General Will,  as did Rousseau, but a truth that arises as an original result of a dialogical balancing process, and cannot be known in advance. Needless to say, such a truth will always be “good” because of the freedom of the participants and its form of manufacture, and this is how Mill removes the need for any transcendent moral standards. Because we are free, then on all disputed questions “the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons” (2). Which is to say that truth is never absolute, but always a compromise. Combining? Balancing? Reconciling? Accordingly, Mill articulated the great modern liberal turn away from telos, or ends, to praxis, or process; from the goal sought, to the seeking; for at least at this present stage of “an imperfect state of the human mind” (2), there is no fixed destination for human beings, only a journey.

                      Yet at the end of this process, in what history must judge as an astonishingly naive passage in view of the horrors of the following liberal-democratic age, Mill sees his own vision of the New Jerusalem, for “as mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths  which have reached the point of being uncontested” (2) [italics mine]. Here, progress and truth march arm in arm toward final social harmony, simplicity, and human well-being. Then, in a movement of mind that again reveals the underlying dualistic framework animating him, he warns us that “the cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinion, as it is  dangerous and noxious when opinions are erroneous”(2) [italics mine]. For Mill, then, truth springs solely from the right process, and error from obstructing that process. It is the revelation of individual liberty that opens the door to authenticity and true choice-making. This necessitates the repudiation of all prior custom, opinion, and religious or moral standards, which leaves us with the collision, balancing, and reconciling of authentic personal views. This process of its very nature produces human progress, well-being, and the blessed cessation of conflict. Though he is very careful to add that even progress does not produce a final truth. It only subsititutes one incomplete truth for another that is “more wanted” in the circumstances. So in short form, the process is as follows:

individual freedom > authenticity > choice-making > collision of opinions > purgation of error > situational truth > a higher individual freedom (and around again).

                       Having said all this, if Mill were ever to return, he would surely flee in terror from the results of his handiwork: the modern view, first that all “values” are equally “true,” and then (its certain consequence) the repudiation of the basic concept of truth itself as oppressive and “hegemonic.” He would especially have reviled the way so-called post-modern intellectuals depict all truth-claims as a camouflage for personal or class tyranny. In this sense he was the last liberal thinker.  


The “Choice” Mantra

               The rejection of transcendent truth, custom, and tradition as unitary sources of value in favour of the Romantic ideal of the authentic and spontaneous Self meant that meaning would no longer have a discoverable source outside us, but millions of internal sources in the individual choices of free, truth-creating human beings. In a striking sentence Mill dictates the terms of such a world, in which “the only unfailing and permanent source of improvement is liberty, since by it there are as many possible independent centres of improvement as there are individuals” (3).  In this sense Mill was a type of existentialist thinker. Man’s essence does not precede him, is the implication; the meaning of life and of the universe is not, as most classical thinkers and Christian theologians have taught, something external to be discovered by patient searching. Rather, it is created by ourselves: for “the human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice” (3). This he feels so extremely that he actually says that “he who does anything because it is custom, makes no choice ... he who lets the world ... choose his own plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation” (3).

                    The strength and vituperation of Mill’s objections to any form of imitation - which we saw above in his dislike of Classical poetry and art - touches his every judgement on politics and morality. The bitterly emotional force of his arguments against Custom are likely rooted in a personal rejection of his own robotic education at the hands of his domineering father. As a result of his crisis he turned away from the power of all received opinion to the power of the Self and free choice. The Self became his new lamp and source of truth, and the foundation of all social perfection, the most important focus of which is man himself. For, he says, “it really is of importance not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it. Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance is surely man himself” (3) [italics mine]. Now this is the sort of comment for which Mill has been faulted as contradicting himself. For if we are to be absolutely free as individuals, why would we be constrained to perfect anything at all, whether ourselves, or “man himself?” Nevertheless, Mill insists on the evil of all imitative men, whom he labels derisively,  as “automatons in human form” - and on the spontaneous goodness of the free chooser. His core belief is that a society of free choosers will progressively become perfect of its own accord. It is difficult to imagine a more euphoric, utopian, and essentially rudderless vision.

                       Needless to say, the ideal of free choice as the sole foundation of human authenticity and goodness is a potentially dangerous ideal because merely choosing something cannot make it good. For example, we may choose to lie, steal, and cheat. Whole societies may and do choose to oppress, liquidate, or make unjustifiable war on other human beings. There is obviously no necessary connection between choosing and goodness.

                    The contrasting, and deeply conservative view of freedom is that we are fortunate to learn from the wisest and best of our kind. The history of any civilization is a kind of process of filtration through which cumulative wisdom is available in the form of useful customs, laws, and traditions that constrain us to act in a civilized fashion, and what makes us civilized ought not to be subjected to re-examination every minute. Automated behaviours such as shaking hands, apologizing when we sneeze, getting up to help the elderly or weak, expressing gratitude for kindness, and the like, are things without which even the simplest daily transactions would be impossible. It is largely the inherited and predictable decencies that enable us to behave freely as a people by avoiding constant friction and bewilderment, or second-guessing every motive, and not the ridiculous and impractical idea that we should re-examine and then choose or reject each act anew as an original personal invention. In short, the civilizing process is indelibly historical. Despite this, a jaded and seemingly resentful Mill argues that  “the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement” (3:595, italics mine). We see again that Mill’s case advances only by a relentless combination of abstractness with the euphoric hope of perfection.

                   This is precisely the revolutionary implication of modern ethics that underlies our democratic politics. The individual as the ultimate source of value has become the common standard since Mill. Modern hyperdemocracy , by which activist courts commonly read meanings into abstract Bills of Rights and Charters in favour of a hypothetical individual deemed to possess democratic “rights,” with nary a mention of any obligations, rests on this notion. And yet we know that the use of the word “ethics” is absurd if there is no social or morally constraining context, and that the moral ends of society cannot be decided by individuals acting alone. Mill was also clearly aware of this conundrum, and so in place of traditional ethics he substituted the naturally good freely-choosing individual, investing him with ideals of an abstract “liberty” and “progress” which combine to act as a continuous and inexhaustible moral horizon.   


Mill’s Moralism and The “Inconveniences”               

                Despite everything he claims, in Chapter I of On Liberty, Mill seems to recant in Chapter IV, or at least offers so many caveats that he well earns his reputation as a sometimes contradictory and confusing thinker. He once again attempts to draw an imaginary line between individual and social behaviour, stating that “to individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society the part which chiefly interests society” (4). This phrasing sets up a tug-of-war between the individual and society because it leaves the definition of each sphere of interest to each party. So we expect him to propose a contractual arrangement to define the spheres and how they relate. Instead, Mill surprises us by rejecting the Lockean notion that society is based on a contract, declaring that we all owe society a return for the benefits received, that we are all “bound to observe a certain line of conduct” toward each other, vaguely defined as avoiding injury to each other’s interests (which by “tacit understanding” may be considered rights), must bear our share in defending society, and so on. Then, in what seems an abrupt about-face after so many pages spent scorning coercive social and moral opinion, he says that if the acts of an individual are “hurtful” to others or lack “due consideration for their welfare,” the offender “may be justly punished by opinion,” though not by law (4).

                      Now here is Mill saying that public opinion is in fact a useful coercive moral force, and warns that we utterly misunderstand his book if we think he means “that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing, or the well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved” (4). Then, again seemingly in contradiction to his strict prohibition of moral meddling in the lives of others, he adds, “there is a need of a great increase of disinterested exertion to promote the good of others” (4) [italics mine]. The essence of his message is that to get the horse to water we may use lots of carrots, but no sticks, and he calls this “disinterested benevolence.” What is interesting, of course, is to know how we can promote the good of another unless we have a pretty firm idea of what it is, and therefore of the bad that threatens to prevent us from obtaining it. Mill then informs us that “human beings owe each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter.” People should, he feels, be “ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations” (4) [italics mine].

              Clearly Mill proposes a moral community in which we all have a duty to encourage the good and discourage the bad, but in which all are nevertheless free to choose their own plan of life and must be left alone in things that concern only themselves. Having said this, he allows that without oppressing another’s individuality, we may nevertheless openly avoid his company and advise others to do the same if we think he will have a pernicious effect on them; we may give preference to others over him (that is, actively discriminate against him) in his job-seeking (though should not do so if a job might help him). A bad person, in short,  might “suffer very severe penalties at the hands of others for faults which directly concern only himself ,” but Mill assures us he suffers penalties only as “spontaneous consequences of the faults themselves,” and not because they are “purposely inflicted on him for the sake of punishment.” Then, in a most extraordinary passage,  he reveals his personal moral requirements of others. He warns that “a person who shows rashness, obstinacy, self-conceit - who cannot live within moderate means - who cannot restrain himself from hurtful indulgences - who pursues animal pleasures at the expense of those of feeling and intellect - must expect to be lowered in the opinion of others ...” (4). He calls these moral punishments “the inconveniences” of such bad behaviour (all of them rooted in Christian morality, we might add) and says that they are “inseparable from the unfavourable judgement of others.” Now I ask, what is public opinion, and the social and moral coercion against which Mill has spoken so sternly, if not a set of attitudes “inseparable from the unfavourable judgement of others”?

                       As if now squeezed by his own retractions, Mill closes by giving a number of petty examples of behaviour in which we ought not to interfere because they purportedly concern only the individual. Gambling, drunkenness, incontinence (inability to control oneself or one’s appetites), idleness, and uncleanliness are foremost. Mill agrees that such behaviours may affect society in a minor degree, but a person may only be restrained from these things if he has violated a “distinct and assignable obligation” to someone else, or to society at large. Otherwise, let him live as he chooses.

                      It is extraordinary how we may want to agree with Mill in order to defend our freedom, and yet how easily we may find arguments against the cases he gives. Gambling in one’s own home or that of a friend, he says, is fine, but public gambling must never be allowed. Those pursuing such vices ought to be “compelled to conduct their operations with a certain degree of mystery and secrecy” (5) so that no one knows about them except the users. That is the best society can do. Drunkenness must be allowed, but never in a person who has been an unruly drunk. Idleness is no one’s concern, of course, unless the idler falls onto the welfare rolls and takes our money. Uncleanliness is not a problem either, we may suppose, unless the rats in your neighbour’s uncollected garbage visit your home or the drunk asleep on the bus-seat beside you reeks of vomit.

                     Mill covers off objections to his liberty principle by admitting that “whenever there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual, or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law” (4:italics mine).  But it would seem that in permitting society (or a majority?) to assess the risk of damage as a criterion he destroys most of his prior argument, and indeed he does say that “if society is of the opinion” that social or legal punishment is necessary for its protection, then it is legitimate (5). In this vein, and somewhat surprisingly given the general nature of the topic, Mill includes as offenses against others, everything which is a “violation of good manners,” such as the many “offenses against decency” on which he says “it is unnecessary to dwell” (5) -  because all may be rightfully prohibited.



Mills Two Democracies

The Two Democracies
                     This war between the two democracies is still under way. It had been the failure and - to most intellectuals of the time - the tremendous disappointment of the theory and practice of Rousseau’s collectivist freedom that provoked the most sensitive minds - of which Mill’s was certainly one - to retreat from it in search of a more workable alernative.[i] More than any other document, his On Liberty spelled out that theory, and the experiment in individualist freedom Mill articulated there is still unfolding, for better or worse, within almost every Western democracy.*


[page bottom] * We must note the paradox that it is doing so in the very bosom of the most overweaning and oppressively regulatory welfare states ever constructed, all duly voted into power by many millions of self-styled democrats. This is the great inarticulate, if not unconscious social mystery of modern times: How is it possible for such an objectively unfree people to carry on believing they are the most free, all laying mental and legal claims to the most extravagant personal freedoms as democratic rights without regard to society as a whole, even as they rely heavily on the State for social benefits, control and material support? This paradox can only be explained by exposing the theoretical and mystical roots of the individualist democratic strain and its effects as a destroyer of traditional society. In the last chapter a resolution of the contradiction between individualism and collectivism is proposed.


                    Suffice it to say that while Mill was thrashing all this out, the old Rousseauistic yearning for a collective freedom of the whole people surged once again in a series of irruptions we remember as the many minor revolutions and skirmishes of Nineteenth Century Europe. And then, as we know too well, it gathered more steam and created a murderous havoc in the Twentieth. The key to understanding this havoc lies in distinguishing between practical surface events and their underlying causes. For example, although many would argue that World War Two was fought because Hitler invaded Poland, and thereby threatened to throw the chains of German rule over all Europe, that fact should be considered a symptom, and therefore only microhistory. The true underlying cause, or macrohistory, was the momentous historical conflict between two bitterly opposed ideas of freedom, and had Hitler or Churchhill never existed, others would probably have arisen to give them symbolic voice. The entire Cold War was but a continuation of this same conflict. Indeed, the political story of the modern Western world for at least the past two centuries has been about the continuing struggle between the outright spiritual yearning for a secular democracy of the One, and the equally spiritual, though nicely disguised pragmatic - and still keenly problematic - democracy of the Many. Simplified, it is a battle between Rousseau and Mill. Modern times must thus be seen as a grand theatre in which Western civilization continues its internal struggle to invent an acceptable political form lying somewhere between the two extremes of collective unity, and mass autonomy; between a mystical corporate body into which all individuals are dissolved, and a mass of autonomous individuals suffering from the absence of a corporate body. 

                   The impulse for a radical collective freedom seems dormant now, except for small pockets of the world, but we would be foolish to believe it cannot surface again. Many observers worry that it will be reborn globally in the name of freedom from the thighs of American democracy - where, as in Canada, its softer welfare State form has been gaining ground - and that it is this very urge that drives American foreign policy. American liberal democracy, as one critic put it, “has become an ‘armed doctrine’ ... as well as a human right, and both sides of the American party spectrum have called for the use of force and public money to bring its blessings to other people.”[ii] Indeed, what distinguished America from all previous regimes “is a persistent and self-proclaimed commitment to the promotion of democracy as an integral element of its foreign policy and its long-standing confidence [in] all ‘good things’.”[iii]  This soft but confused idea of a collective freedom now increasingly motivates the mignions of the United Nations, who seem to share a salvationist vision of a secular administrative “democracy” they would like to see sprouting in every nation, family, factory, school, and mind on earth in what they imagine as a universal war against ignorance, oppression, and want.


Mill The Moralist

              Behind most assertions lies paradox. Mill’s asserts a coldly logical utilitarianism, but he was actually a tough-minded moralist trapped by what at first seem contradictions in his own logic. He was a stern moralist for all matters public, and a stern libertarian for all matters private. You could be bad in private all you want, but not in public. As Himmelfarb put it, “if he insisted upon the legality of private immoral acts, he did not deny the fact of their immorality.”[iv]  Of course, this attempt to divide private from public morality is what got him into difficulties with critics then and now, simply because morality has no meaning if it is not public. Famous Victorians such as Newman, Carlyle, and Arnold, and others rightly accused him of reductionism and simplicity. Charles Kingsley, originally enthusiastic, later said that when he looked upon Mill’s “cold, clear-cut face” during a visit in 1869, he could not but conclude that “there is a whole hell beneath him, of which he knows nothing, and so there must be a whole heaven above him.”[v] 

                 However, showing that his thoughts are not logical - and this is rather easy - has not stopped mainstream democratic civilization from accepting Mill’s views almost wholesale. It has done so because Mill’s moral division has had the effect of legitimizing a broad range of human conduct formerly considered selfish, perverse, or immoral by removing it from the public square. The result, not quite a century and a half  later was that when U.S. President Slick Willy Clinton, then the most powerful public figure on earth, perhaps in history, puffed on the Lewinsky cigar, Americans far and wide - or at least the powerful liberal media persona that speaks for them - sniffed that his private sexual conduct (basically cheating on his wife in the Oval Office and aggressively lying about it for months on end)  was his own business, and unrelated to his political life. The people he governed refused to connect his private moral weakness with public weakness. They refused to consider that if he could not be trusted in private life, he could not be trusted in public life. The reason, I suggest, is that millions of adults were stridently adamant about preserving the same private de-moralized zone for themselves, whether for their present or future conduct. De-moralization of personal conduct is now considered a private right.

               This simply means that we have taken Mills private/public division farther than he ever intended. For Mill himself never denied immorality, and the fact that Clinton’s behaviour occurred in the most public office on the planet would in his mind have called for immediate impeachment. We have not merely privatized certain forms of immorality, as Mill arguably encouraged us to do, we have neutralized them! And this has had the effect of eliminating an enormous range of moral questions from human life altogether. Mill never went that far, and so contradictions do seem to abound in his thinking. But I submit they are more easily resolved once we get beneath the surface and behold the deeper structure of his belief system as revealed in On Liberty. That work is particularly striking and revealing because it shows how his seemingly disconnected thoughts form themselves into a coherent ideology, by which I mean an autonomous system of interdependent ideas. A thinker’s partial meanings can always be grasped from knowledge of things said. But the total meaning can only be grasped by how the ideas work together to produce something more than what was said, often in the context of what the thinker has intentionally omitted or perhaps refused to say because he was aware of possible objections or contradictions. The job of the interpreter is to reveal the systematic nature of a thinker’s ideas, showing how they form a kind of architecture, or structure of interdependent axioms or assumptions, such that if any single assumption is removed the structure collapses.

                  One example of this should suffice. The cornerstone of Mill’s belief system in On Liberty, surely his most influential work, is his faith in the natural goodness of a liberated mankind spontaneously progressing toward ever higher stages of civilization. Every word is essential to his meaning. If his most radical and Gnostic assertion concerning natural goodness is removed, however, then the rest of the argument collapses. Let us now examine a number of other key assumptions and see how, due to their interdependence they are vulnerable to collapse.


Mill’s Talking Cure and The Good Society

                 On one hand Mill promoted individual self-fulfillment, or the authentic self as the highest good. On the other he promoted a good society based on the greatest happiness of the greatest number, asserting once again: “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions” (1). There is a revealing tension in this statement. Mill ridicules all public moral opinion if it oppresses even a single contrary voice, and yet he sets up “utility” - a majoritarian public standard of the greatest number - as the “ultimate” appeal on ethical questions. Two principles are here in mortal conflict, for in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number an individual may be oppressed, but in the name of individual self-fulfillment, society and morality may be ignored. Mill attempted to escape this conflict by arguing for the social utility of increased individual freedom through the operation of  what might be called his “perpetual talking cure” or the dialectic of dialogue: a blind faith that truth arises spontaneously from free discussion and the healthy collision of contrary ideas.   

               Mill’s had a pervasive belief in the movement of humankind toward the good and considered the utopian possibilities of freedom to be boundless. Even the advanced elements of civilization inhabiting the civilized parts of the world, he felt were but “starved specimens of what nature can and will produce” (3). He refused to specify any final good of society in the belief that to do so is oppressive. The good will change with circumstances, arising spontaneously by the force of nature whenever humans are liberated from public opinion and social coercion. However, many commentators have correctly noted that the reason Mill was incapable of naming the moral good of society was because he so violently repudiated the religious roots of goodness. He was “the first of that characteristic pattern of contemporary liberal thinkers that are distinguished by their inability to satisfactorily account for the source of their convictions.”[vi] He found religion, custom, and concrete tradition oppressive, so he sourced his convictions in a Romantic ideal of creative freedom that he was convinced would produce an abstract future perfection.


Spontaneous Progress: History and Social Perfection

                 Mill was careful to apply his principle of human liberty only to “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” (1), never to those underage, to dependents, or to “backward” societies or races. He proposed benevolent “despotism” as the best system for the governance of  “barbarians,” and specified that his liberty principle does not apply until a society “has become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion” (1). A number of things are revealed here. He has a blinding faith in natural reason as a continuous moral principle that begins operating only at an advanced stage of human liberty and knowledge, when “mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance” (2). The active agency of improvement is free and equal discussion, which he thinks cannot result in corruption, because corruption is caused by ignorance, and not sin.

                      Mill’s imaginative world is thus sharply dualistic. Mankind moves from darkness to the light of knowledge, or gnosis. History unfolds as a structure of revelation, a progressive movement toward an increasingly enlightened future. Without the gnosis of libertarian freedom mankind remains a force of ignorance blocking this progress toward social and moral perfection.  He equates the “progressive principle” with liberty, improvement,  and emancipation from the yoke of Custom [sic] which binds us as tightly as the chains of Rousseau. He is certain we cease to be progressive whenever we cease to express individuality. The contest between Progress and Custom is to Mill “the chief interest of the history of mankind” (3) and it generates the chief tension of his moral framework.

                    That framework is a secularized, expectational view of history on the Christian model. History is not static. Nor is there any overarching cycle of recurring events, no wheel of fortune, or retribution, or fate. Rather, History moves by the revelations of free discussion or dialogically-derived truths (plural) toward a final condition of harmony and simplicity. This is a carefully muted but distinctly mystical-millenarian vision. Diversity, and not unity of opinion is important at present because “mankind are imperfect” (3), truth being revealed only “when the human mind is capable of receiving it” (2).  The truth-process can begin only when the knower experiences unencumbered freedom and is thus prepared for enlightenment, for the movement toward what Mill calls “Supreme Goodness” and “the moral regeneration of mankind” (2), or the Kingdom of Heaven on earth that our moribund Christianity - which now produces only “the low, abject, servile type of character” (2) - can no longer create. Truth is thus created in a step-wise, logical fashion according to Mill’s “laws” of association, authenticity, and utility. Despite his initial reservations, Mill transformed the idea of utility by attaching to it the necessity for “the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct.” In other words, individual freedom is be constrained and moved forward by a final overarching abstract principle having to do not with the quantity of opinion, but with its quality. Utility was henceforward to be “grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (1) [italics mine], interests which “authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control” wherever others may be impeded. This basically means if you don’t agree with Mill’s view of progress you may be legitimately suppressed.

                We soon see that Mill’s “absolute” principle of freedom was far from absolute in practice. He seems seldom to have acknowledged that wherever society is said to “progress,” it must have a goal, or end, and limitations must then be placed on the individual liberty of those who oppose or ignore its realization. Although he began as an atheist rejecting a religious good, or indeed any ends established by society, Mill finished by substituting for them his own abstract ideal of the good. 



[i] Although Mill was one of those souls plainly shocked at the evil unleashed in Europe in the name of freedom, this did not stop him from musing, in what must qualify as one of history’s most flagrant examples of opportunistic understatement (Mill, Op.Cit., p.62), that the atrocities of the French Revolution, were “temporary aberrations,” and the heinous murder of French citizens before huge baying crowds the work of a “usurping few.” Such statements were so much intellectual positioning required to dissassociate the democratic bloodbath of the Revolution from his personal hopes for democracy and the human “progress” of civilization on which his theory depended. So much for how the heart leads the head. 


[ii] Paul Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State ( New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), p.17.


[iii] Laurence Whitehead, cited in Gottfried, Ibid.


[iv] Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Introduction” to Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.48.


[v] Ibid., p.46. The critical responses of other famous Victorians are described briefly in pp.41-46 of this book.


[vi] David Walsh, The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1997). In “Minimum Consensus of Liberal Politics,” pp. 136-148, Walsh deals with the broad topic of the liberal flight from moral transendence. The quote referenced is at p.143.       .



Mill's Religion of the Self

The New Religion Of The Self

                     In an earlier chapter we discussed the two contrasting metaphors of the Mirror and the Lamp that stand for the vast cultural shift from the Classical/Christian to the Romantic ethos.[i] The metaphor of the mirror implies the truth of the cosmos lies outside us, to be discovered first through soulwork and insight, then reflected in life and art. The lamp implies the opposite. It is in part a response to the conviction that we can only know our own perceptions of the external world, and nothing more. We cannot know the world itself. Hume said we can’t. Kant said we can’t. The Romantic reaction to the frightening idea that we cannot ever really know a common reality was to say, fine. If we are trapped inside our own perceptions, then truth must be personal, something we generate from within that glows like a lamp and can at least illuminate the external world. It is we who create reality with perception and imagination. Mill became so fascinated by this conception of truth as something sourced in the free Self that he made it the new creed for his morals and politics. Although his flirtation with Romantic ideas was entirely derivative and unoriginal, the way he constructed his new political understanding on them was to radically alter our Western concept of freedom and democracy.

                        As mentioned above, the English Post-Reformation sense of freedom (and of democracy) had in a sense successfully relocated moral authority from the state above, to society below. But Mill’s redefinition went further. It pushed the locus of freedom and moral authority from society above, to the individual below. Mill is one of the most quoted intellectuals in Canada’s founding debates, but I feel quite certain that if those Founders had more fully grasped the import of his new concepts they would have considered this relocation a type of insanity. They did not see, and we have yet to do so, that at this very point in our history freedom began its modern life as yet another form of absolutism every bit as extreme as Rousseau’s General Will. Indeed, in his own words, Mill declared that his new “very simple principle” of freedom should “govern absolutely” the affairs of men, and that freedom, as he defined it “is, of right, absolute.”


Freedom And Goodness

                                        The long Western struggle against the oppressions of absolutism - often in the name of absolutism - are logical as well as Christian, though the latter now parade in secular garb. Christianity has always taught that God gave man free will to live as he might, and Commandments to help him make the right choices. The justification has always been that good behaviour is only authentic if it is freely chosen. This means it is not possible to have a truly moral society without freedom. Millions of people leading a very good life because they have guns to their heads ... do not really have a good life, no matter how well they behave. Nor are they good if merely obeying orders from God. They are slaves to God. They must choose the good life themselves. Yet if all are to be free to follow their own idea of the good, what will unify them and prevent social and moral chaos? Alas, theorists of human freedom have been forever dogged by the historical facts: a religious belief in human freedom makes sense if God is there setting the standard of goodness. But a merely secular belief in human freedom cannot survive logically unless it is based on certain unquestioned assumptions: all men are good by nature, and if society has not already corrupted them,  they will naturally make only good uses of their freedom. Yet we see from history this is clearly not the case.

                 Rousseau and his followers, as we saw, converted the Sinless Man Model into political terminology through a mystical concept of the General Will, and as mentioned, the whole world saw it fail. So Mill basically said,  if a democracy of the One cannot be made to work, how about a democracy of the Many? What about a system in which freedom is not a group phenomenon, but a purely individual one, and under which each of us may “pursue our own good in our own way” as long as we do not impede others from the same objective. Then the government, as servant of the people can simply assume the role of neutral guardian of this law-based State whose purpose is solely to protect that individual freedom.  In short, what Mill strived to create was what many now call the modern liberal “procedural republic.” But like Rousseau and the Marxists, he first badly needed a theory about the innate goodness of man. The Romantic ideal of the authentic Self supplied this.


Relocating Freedom: Romantic Poetry and The Authentic Self

                    In the age of sound-bites and computer bytes we tend to forget the dramatic role of the poet in past societies as seer, interpreter, and heroic symbol of the age. I remember photos in Life Magazine in the 1960s of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko reciting his poems to a Moscow stadium of 65,000 people who drank in his coded poetic words of hope for freedom and light in the midst of the communist dark despair. Just so, at the time modern liberal democracy was being chiseled into shape by such as John Stuart Mill, the poet was still an elevated and educated symbol, a refined version of today’s rock star, looked to for a distilled and moving expression of truth and prophecy. Most Romantic poets enjoyed playing that role. European nations all had their favourites, and fairly hung on every moving verse of poets such as Shelley, Lord Byron, and Novalis. Political movements and revolutions of the nineteenth century invariably became immortalized, not on T.V. or movies, but in heroic paintings or poems. Freedom-fighters were styled as poets of the people’s soul.

                     Mill was a freedom fighter of a specifically modern kind. Many are aware of his famous flirtation with Romantic poetry and with feeling as his new ideal, but they usually leave it at that. Political thinkers and literary thinkers do not much communicate. But I submit that the secret to decoding Mill lies in understanding what he absorbed of, and how he used, his new faith in the Romantic theory of poetry and of Man to fashion a new faith in the politics of modern liberal individualism as we now understand it.

                     Leaning heavily for support on Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads published some thirty years prior, Mill published two essays in 1833 on his new creed in the Monthly Repository - “What is Poetry?” and “The Two Kinds of Poetry.”[ii] Both essays were republished in 1859, the same year as On Liberty appeared. The fact that he chose to reprint them so much later in life when he was much better known suggests the importance Mill placed in them and a firm consistency in his views. As critiques of poetry the essays are rather mechanical and disappointing, the chief ideas in them obviously borrowed from the poets he so much admired. But they were only ostensibly about poetry. The deeper truth is that he was keenly aware that his political ideas - and ideals - required a new moral basis. He found it in a handy poetic theory that justified the repositioning of freedom within the Self. Like Rousseau, he ended up a convinced mystic of the Self, and this is what Carlyle had acidly called him when these essays first appeared.[iii] But for democracy there was a crucial distinction. Whereas Rousseau romanticized the whole people, Mill romanticized only the autonomous individual.

                  Confirmation of this came from his friend and biographer Alexander Bain who wrote with some astonishment that Mill now “seemed to look on Poetry as a Religion, or rather as Religion and Philosophy in One.”[iv] He had created a powerful conjunction between what he saw as the truth-uttering role of poetry and his love of moral freedom. His mystical notion about the creative origin of poetry was now being joined to an equally mystical notion about the creative authenticity of the autonomous, freely choosing self, and so he insisted time and again that “whatever crushes individuality is despotism.”[v] He came to value eccentricity and individuality for its own sake, but even more so if it happened also to be for the good of society - which he believed was most often the case.  Let us consider now just a few of the radical ideas about poetry that so influenced Mill’s metaphor of the Self, and therefore the political beliefs we have inherited from him.

                Among his new literary friends it was especially Harriet Taylor, whom  he was later to marry, who drew him away from his former quantitative speculations into a new qualitative concern for everything cultured, beautiful, and “elevated.” With such things he rather soon began to feel himself capable of  “vibrating in unison” - a rather shocking and emotional admission from someone so widely known as a rationalist. (After Harriet’s premature death,  when he retired to his cottage in Avignon, her doting daughter had a special enclosed walk built for Mill which he called his “vibratory.”) At any rate, poetry was Mill’s new touchstone, and he felt no shyness at all in defining it mushily as “the expression or uttering forth of feeling,” or even more tellingly, as “the delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of the human heart,” finally affirming bluntly, and without the embarrassment we might expect a tough-minded philosopher to feel, that “poetry ... is truth.” Here we sense the pincers action of his mind as he lays the groundwork to persuade us (contrary to all religious teaching) that truth is not external to Man, but rather something mysterious and deep that springs spontaneously from within. The true poet learns by observing not external nature, but  ... himself - as a “refined specimen of human nature on which the laws of human emotion are written in large characters,” and that are understandable “without much study.” But the true poet (he discounts classical poets) is not content to feel deeply, but must be “possessed” by,  and be “given up” to, deep feelings that he ceases to control and that therefore “overflow.” This is but Mill’s secular formula for the mystical absorption and loss of the Self, not in any idea, or thing, or in an external God, but in the Self  itself. The poet seeks “to stir up the soul by mere sympathy with itself,” in feelings “which possess the whole being.” It would be hard to imagine a more acute and specific formula for the mystical unity of the Self. For in the popular Romantic theory he was mouthing,  poetry is said to spring almost by compulsion from the creative imagination which, “like God the creator, has its internal source of motion.”[vi] What Mill is flirting with here is the old Gnostic (and Protestant) idea of the indwelling spirit, the sense that our relationship with the Divine is direct, personal, private, and above all unmediated. The natural extension of this belief is the idea that all enlightened and free human beings (only) have a spark of divinity within, or as one critic put it, “each man has his own personal quiddity or essence which awaits discovery.”[vii] Mill’s objective was to create the philosophical ideals and political institutions necessary to enable entire societies to discover their own essence. 

                            This deeply Romantic notion of a spontaneous inner truth valued more highly than the cold logical truths gotten from authority, religion, and academic learning, or from a calculation of consequences, became the solution Mill was seeking. He now promoted creation over imitation, the realization of an idea instead of a model, the Romantic ideal over the Classical one.  For him, true poetry is stamped indelibly by individualism, just as his political ideal is stamped by ethical autonomy. So much was this true that he eagerly equated “feeling” with “character,” defining the latter as “but a certain state of feeling grown habitual.” This was perhaps his most radical step, and with it he seemed to remove morality altogether from the definition of character. Traditionally a product of discipline, virtue, and restraint, character was now only a matter of authentic feeling which, he was certain,  “escapes” from us naturally when we are least aware of it, making us all artists of our own souls, for “whosoever writes out truly any one human  feeling, writes poetry.”

                    So what is poetry, he asks? And then tells us. It is “but the thoughts and words in which emotion spontaneously embodies itself” [my italics]. This converts emotion into a substance, an active principle of the Self that generates feeling-truth automatically, thus removing the need to distinguish a good from a bad person (for only the good - the free - can have these feelings). It also makes every weepy teenager a poet and removes any standard for distinguishing a good from a bad poem. Through these steps, Mill produced a surrogate soul and Self all in one that became essential to his evolving theory of freedom and moral autonomy.

               Then, as if uneasy with such soft emotional adventures, he further elaborated the theory, seeking to give it scientific support by linking spontaneous emotion and the “energy” of deep feeling to the “law of association.” Hartley’s psychological theory of the mind, an attempt to explain thinking by the association of ideas, was still very fashionable in Mill’s time, the more so because in 1859 he was re-editing his own father’s book on the topic that had given the theory its most definitive statement thirty years prior. Associationism was a form of materialist thinking that presented ideas as units, or objects of the mind governed by laws of association, just as Newton had presented particles of matter governed by laws of physics. The main “law” says that all ideas are generated by association with concepts and feelings, and hence can be traced to direct experience. The strongest emotions are supposed to generate the most authentic associations between sensuous and spiritual ideas. Mill relies on this strange notion to reject the universal laws of human nature he felt mankind had wasted two thousand years discovering. He goes so far as to say that ideas, thoughts, and images exist only because of prior feelings, and this supplies him with the equation he needs linking strong feeling to elevated thought. His gambit here is to repudiate the existence of transcendent external natural law, in favour of an internal natural law of spontaneous “diversity” in every human being. This supposed internal law was intended to bolster his later political preference for moral autonomy and with it the repudiation of everything he considered mere external “opinion.”

                      It is important to see through Mills surface arguments about poetry to his underlying political motives. For his mystical theory of the spontaneous Self has the effect of ranking all selves for authenticity and excellence by virtue of what he calls their emotional “energy.” At work here is a belief that once the authentic self is discovered, more of it is better. More feeling means more energy, which in turn means more natural goodness. Those, he assures us, who have “most natural feelings are always those whose cultivated feelings may be made the strongest” (3). Strong feeling is the “raw material of humanity” that Mill would have cultivated, or “made” by society. This essentially poetic conviction saturates On Liberty, where in a knowing and direct refutation of the Classical and Christian mind-body slavery metaphor, he called impulses and desires “the raw material of human nature,” arguing that far from our being slaves to our own strong impulses, “there is no natural connection between strong impulses and a weak conscience.” Rather, he insists that impulses and desires are “as much a part of a perfect human being, as beliefs and restraints” (3) [italics mine].  We need to recall how very radical and impudent these claims were in the contemporary social and moral context. For in making them Mill was clearly attacking the entire basis of the Western moral tradition, and  that he later connected them to freedom and modern democracy put these, too, in the same rebellious category.

                    At any rate, the Romantic selves he is musing upon here are, he says, most authentic when experiencing feeling that “when excited and not voluntarily resisted, seizes the helm of their thoughts, the succession of ideas and images becoming the mere utterance of an emotion” [italics mine]. This pure emotion he finds so beautiful that he cries out against “ordinary education” and the “ordinary course of life” which he believes are constantly at work “repressing” states of authentic feeling; that is, blocking the expression of the authentic and autonomous Self.

                        This creates a direct relation between Mill’s theory of poetry and his theory of politics in a number of respects.[viii] For one thing, he wholly inverts the traditional criteria for judging the verbal arts. Tragedy and Epic are demoted as alloyed expressions because they rely on imitation of life, on the ordinary, on artificialities of plot, and even on lecturing the reader on morality, whereas the poetry of pure feeling is elevated to very highest rank because it alone expresses the pure soul of the poet. In short, in poetry as in politics, authority and imitation of public standards, whether esthetic or moral, are to be shunned. Spontaneity and feeling become the sole criteria for judging good poetry, and the good man. Just as Rousseau gave pride of place to man in an imaginary “state of nature,” Mill gives the highest ranking to the “poet by nature.” Accordingly, Mill again devalues the primacy of the external world. It may serve as a stimulus for poetry, but has no other importance itself, as poetry in its purity is all “in the state of mind.” Hence poetry must be true, not to the object described, but “to the human emotion.” Mill virtually severs poetic expression from the external world by privatizing feeling, just as in politics he severs morality from the external world by privatizing freedom and choice. The poet makes his own personal world  with words and symbols, just as the free political man makes his own ethical world with free choices of action. Finally, Mill argues the Romantic poet has only himself for an audience, as poetry is but “feeling confessing itself to itself in solitude,” and  “is of the nature of soliloquy.” A poem should not be written for others, any more than a  choice of one’s actions should be decided or influenced by them. Spontaneity in poetry equates to ethical autonomy in life and politics.

                        Mill takes a final shot at the whole Classical and Christian tradition when he complains bitterly that whereas in the past strong feeling (that is, raw emotion) was always said “to disturb the judgement,” he now believes, to the contrary, that it is strong feeling (perhaps meant more in the sense of emotional conviction) alone that provides our motives, and among these is the dominant motive to pursue the truth. In short, against two thousand years of wisdom, he argues the doubtful equation that “an impassioned nature” is most certain to pursue the truth. In On Liberty he actually claims that those with the most “natural feeling” may be made the most “cultivated,” and claims that strong feeling is “the source from which are generated the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control” (3). In a world in which the spectacle of self-deception , over-indulgence and rashness were then and are still everywhere obvious, it must have greatly shocked people to hear Mill argue so desperately for what he termed “Pagan self-assertion,” even though he knew that a much better case can be made that without decided moral standards and reason an impassioned nature is as likely to pursue untruth.

                    It is crucial to realize, however, that Mill was trapped by his own motives. He had no option but to equate authentic natural feeling with truth simply because if we say man is to be free and without external moral judgement, then we are compelled to argue that goodness, which requires some motive,  is natural, internal, spontaneous. Accordingly, and again like Rousseau, Mill must then persist in the corollary belief that if by chance impassioned natures do not happen to ripen properly into the most powerful intellects, “it is always from defect of culture, or something wrong in the circumstances...” such as “neglect” or “bad education,.” which he says is made up of “artificialities and conventionalisms” and “traditional opinions” that are part of the “hostile and dreaded censorship” of society.

                    At this point Mill has entirely inverted the Classical and Christian slave metaphor of the Self. No longer are we tainted by sin (or ignorance), enslaved to our own appetites, and seeking truth through soul-work. Rather, the Self is now refashioned as a substance pure and innocent, subject not to self-enslavement, but to enslavement by the authority of society. That is why in On Liberty Mill speaks of society practicing a “social tyranny,” penetrating deeply into the details of life “and enslaving the soul itself[ix][Italics mine]. This modern Self he plainly no longer sees as a source of deception and evil, but as its innocent victim. For the first time in his life Mill took great pains to set up a struggle between self and society. As Gertrude Himmalfarb puts it, he established “an adversarial relationship, with the individual assigned all the positive, honorific attributes, and society, the negative, pejorative ones.” The self is invariably described as endowed with liberty, absolute independence, and will, in search of its own good, while society is characterized by compulsion, control, force, interference, and tyranny.[x] 

                      So there it is, in order to make a case for mystical freedom, Rousseau and Mill, each in his own way, had to argue that evil lies outside us, and goodness within. It’s the old Gnostic view that we are by good by nature in a bad world. The Millenarian aspect is obvious in the drive through massive education and reform programs to change that world. Rousseau and Mill both turned the world upside down, each in his own way. We are no longer to change ourselves to reflect the goodness of creation but to change creation to reflect our own goodness. In effect, we end up hearing the most famous liberal freedom fighter of the English-speaking world advocating what amounts to the total reconstitution of society. We arrive now at the very heart of the modern liberal democratic project: only individual man is the origin of value, and therefore only democratic man is the origin of political and moral legitimacy. The poet colours the dark world with the internal light of his personal truth, as did the Gnostic of old with his luminous spark, and as does the modern liberal individual with privately constructed meanings, off-limits to judgement by others. Society is comprised of fully autonomous beings acting out personal and private meanings unimpeded by others. Here is the bold and yet somewhat pathetic image once again of the innocent and pure soul cast into an evil world by an alien god, there to fend for itself. It meant that henceforth there would be two main forms of democracy vying for dominance in the West



[i] In graduate school while undertaking a Doctorate in English Literature I was much taken with Myer Abram’s The Mirror and the Lamp (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958), in which he examined Mill’s notions on poetry. At the time I paid little attention to this section of that book. Now I see how unfortunate it is that the various academic disciplines are still so separate from each other, for it is clear that Mill’s politics of the Self came from his infatuation with Romanticism, and this in turn has infected - that is the right word - our modern liberal conception of morality. 


[ii] All quotations from these essays are from F. Parvin Sharpless, ed., Essays on Poetry by John Stuart Mill (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1976).


[iii] On the publication of a few letters on the spirit of the age in the Examiner in 1831, Mill was greeted by Thomas Carlyle with “Here is a new mystic!”, intended as a criticism. But it was close to the truth.


[iv]  Abrams, Op.Cit., p.335.


[v] Mill, Op. Cit., p.128.


[vi] Abrams, Op.Cit., p.22.


[vii] J. Gray, and G.W. Smith, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” in Focus (London: Routledge, 1991), p.206, cited in Cosmas Ekwutosi, Freedom To do Evil in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Rome: Thesis for the Doctorate of the Pontifico Ateneo Della Santa Croce, 1998), p.2.


[viii] See Abrams, Op. Cit., pp23-25 for an analysis of the poetic aspects of this relation.


[ix] Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.63.


[x] Himmelfarb, Op. Cit., p.78.



Mill's Sham Morality

Sham Morality: Mill’s Two Fibs and The New Golden Rule

                   His assault began with the bold announcement that the object of his essay was “to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is 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 civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”[i] [italics mine]. This is referred to as Mill’s “harm principle.” I am assuming he cribbed it from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, the infamous Article 4 of which said that  “liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not injure another.” 

                   With respect to the tyrannies of governments, all of which have a monopoly on legal coercion, this at first has a stirring ring. But we must take close note of what he actually wrote. Remember, Mill was a snob. His new principle was reserved for “civilized” nations and educated people only. All others should be governed sternly. What is remarkable about this elite principle is that it inverts the Christian Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that has been central to our civilization. That was a positive rule, rather than a negative one, and altruistic in its ambition, enjoining us to set a moral standard for the community based on what we agree is good. The underlying Commandment, “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” I would add, is its source. That Commandment is incorporative, implying a merging of identical beings in love. We are not asked to love our neighbour as if he or she were us; that is, to fake the love, or imagine it, but rather, as ourselves, without difference from us. But Mill’s new Golden Rule is manifestly negative. It invokes a strictly inward-looking personal vision that creates a private Star Wars zone of privacy around each one of us and defines morality not by any inclusive standard of good, but by an exclusive standard of bad.

                        Mill manages to make this seem logical with his first fib, suggesting that “physical force,” “legal penalties,” and “moral coercion of public opinion,” have the same legitimacy and an equal power over our lives. This is plainly false and misleading. A policeman has a lot more power over our conduct than do our neighbours gossiping over the back fence. But he got away with equating these things and triggered a war against society in the name of personal freedom, mainly because so few critics have ever taken him to task for a deliberate confusion that ought to have disqualified his principle from the start. The force of public opinion and manners is of course very powerful, but it is not legally binding, and it has no physically coercive power whatsoever. Social coercion is only possible by our consent. It may scare, persuade, ridicule, lecture, hector, intimidate, and the like, just as it can praise, encourage, soothe, and embolden; but it can in no way coerce. Just because so many people behave as if they cannot resist, or cower before opinion, suggests more of cowardice than coercion.

                    The second fib follows from the first. For if we accept his equation and say that moral coercion is indeed the same as “power,” then his statement that the only reason it may be used is “to prevent harm to others,” is simply not true. Throughout the history of civilization the main use of moral coercion has been to create and sustain a sense of community and social order that would otherwise have to be supplied by bureaucrats and police. Public morality thus serves as an inexpensive form of crowd control. When it is delegitimized, chaos quickens, and governments step in to supply the missing control. Ironically, it is precisely a strong sense of moral coercion that prevents harm to others by keeping people off each other’s necks, and governments at bay. The eloquent Edmund Burke summed the matter up in one of his famous phrases, to wit, that “society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”[ii] Perhaps this explains why precisely in a time of rampant and preening individual self-indulgence there have arisen such massive regulatory welfare states. At any rate, Mill did not seem unduly bothered by the surface ambiguities of his general argument, likely because they disappear when seen in the context of his overall theory of the Self.


The Harm Principle Is Harmful


One cannot grant in the first place that any such sharp division between

the altruistic and the self-regarding elements in human nature is possible;

and even if one did grant it, one should have to insist that the self-regarding

virtues are the most important even from the point of view of society; for it

is only by the exercise of these virtues that one becomes exemplary and so

... truly helpful to others.

~ Irving Babbitt, on J.S. Mill, in Democracy and Leadership, 1924


               Mill’s harm principle is open to wide interpretation from the start. In the mostly unread Chapter Four of On Liberty he dilutes its absoluteness by offering a highly interpretable and flexible guideline; namely, that “to individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society the part which chiefly interests society.” But there are no guidelines as to which is which. He seems to struggle with the fact that humans are social beings from birth and hence the great difficulty with his principle lies in figuring out exactly what it is we might do that truly only effects ourselves. Can there be anything?

                   One thinks of the “Butterfly Effect” developed in the Chaos Theory of modern physics. It says that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Peking today it can transform storm systems in New York next month. That takes a bit of imagining, or one very large butterfly. On the other hand, if measurements or models are actually fine enough, there is some consequence calculable. Indeed, most of the prestigious edifice of modern physics is based on the fact that outcomes are incredibly sensitive to, and dependent on tiny alterations in “initial conditions.” Small differences in input become overwhelming differences in output. The folk-awareness of this truth is summed up in chants such as

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost,

For want of a horse, the rider was lost,

For want of a rider, the battle was lost,

For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!” [iii] 

                  Accordingly, we can argue quite plausibly that the slightest human actions and opinions ultimately affect everyone else in the world in some way; that there is hence no firm dividing line between most public and private behaviour, and that in moral matters there is no fixed line at all - though for practical convenience we accept the fiction of a line. What Mill did was radically shift the line so far as almost to remove the whole idea of morality. So against Mill, my argument would be that there can never be anything such as wholly individual, or “self-regarding” behaviour in a human social environment. If we can agree that all of us are engaged in a lifelong seeking of our own good (even when we are wrong-headed), then the sum of all human choosing is modified by every choice.

                 For example, a man who makes a private decision tomorrow to leave his religion and become a lustful consumer of pornography, thereby alters the world for all by altering his way of seeing and acting towards others and himself. The world is minus one abstaining religious person and plus one pornography nut. He alters his personal notion of what is good and desirable, but in doing so also alters the total public good. He spurs the pornography market with his purchase, which spurs some procurer to lure young girls to his camera for more pictures to sell at a higher price, and so on, in a kind of social butterfly effect. No, the great appeal and danger of Mill’s principle is that it offers the gullible and selfish a moral disconnection from society, freeing them from all constraint so long as their behaviour does not include physical harm to others. This ideal has been terribly seductive to a Western world still working out - I should say still suffering from - the consequences of the moral downloading that began with the Reformation and that still promises, alluringly, to free the Self from any need of external discipline or moral oversight.                        

                   It is not an original observation to point out that most human beings in most civilizations in history would have considered this an impoverished idea, if only because there are so many other senses to the meaning of freedom, as we have seen, and because all our actions obviously and inevitably affect others, and therefore the quality and ends of society, whether we wish them to or not. In his wide-ranging book Freedom, Orlando Patterson shows how for many traditional civilizations, ancient and modern, our current liberal ideal of freedom as autonomy would have been viewed as a kind of ostracism, or “social death,” and that what people in every previous society in history have yearned for is quite the opposite. They want freedom as inclusion in a moral community and full and active participation in its common rights, strictures, and obligations. That’s why for the ancients, the worst punishment was not imprisonment - a very modern idea - but ostracism or banishment. Even now many modern native communities use banishment of juvenile delinquents as a form of correction. Personal freedom as autonomy, as an ideal, had no place in such societies. The force of this truth is considerable. In many past slave-holding societies, for example, liberated slaves often turned right around and asked for legal adoption by their former owners. What they desired most was “the condition of the complete insider” in a kin group. The mere idea of being released from all obligation, “far from being a desired state, was equated with one of the saddest conditions known to human beings, that of being deprived of one’s parents.” Personal freedom, for such cultures, such as we value it, was “a despised value.” [iv]

                         In this vein, James Stephen, a critic and contemporary of Mill, aptly skewered his famously simplistic idea when he described it as “Let every man please himself without hurting his neighbour.”[v] He correctly observed that in practice, Mill’s liberty principle would destroy all systems of religion and morals, the whole point of which is  precisely to interfere with and restrain liberty for the good of the individual as well as the community. In essence, the only aim of these systems is to serve as forms of moral coercion. Stephen argued that freedom is neither good nor bad. It is an instrument. Like fire, it’s value depends on its use. Fire can heat your supper or burn down your house. To him, humans are “like a pack of hounds all coupled together and wanting to go different ways,” and it is only the restraint of morality that keeps them running in the same path. But  “Mr. Mill would like each to take his own way.” He observed wisely that “complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other - that is to say, when society is at an end.”[vi] 

                  At any rate, with his two fibs, Mill set modern liberalism - and democracy - on a new course that began dissolving their original connection to the greater good of society - a process still underway. His principle has caused much confusion ever since for the simple reason that most people are absolutely certain that everything of which they happen to disapprove that is done by others grievously affects all of society, while everything they like to do is their own business whether others like it or not. This truth just demonstrates that the only possible and workable line between private and public behaviour must be defined morally, and not personally. This Mill was desperate to change, or lose his case for natural social progress.

                      His sudden turn to the absolutism of the Self was triggered by the influence of his beloved socialist-leaning wife Harriet Taylor, with whom he worked out many of the notions for On Liberty, and to whom it was movingly dedicated. Actually, he wrote that it is impossible to distinguish her ideas from his own - which makes us wonder why her name isn’t on the title page with his? At any rate, she took much pleasure in introducing this icy rationalist to the emotional delights and mysteries of Romantic poetry. That he was influenced so deeply by Harriet and her poetry is common knowledge. But the profound influence of the Romantic ideal of the Self on the development of his political thought is rarely explored. This is a pity, for Mill indulged it as a kind of secret rebellion both against religious morality, the Sinful Man Model, and the Utilitarian and rationalist conceptions he had once so eagerly incorporated from his own father’s teachings. So I will be making what I suppose is an unusual case here. Namely, that the widely accepted view of Mill as a political rationalist and logician is quite wrong. His rationalism was mostly just a vehicle for introducing politcal ideas that were mystical in the deepest sense of the word. It was this latter strain, and not his rationalism that was to so influence the changing Western sense of democracy. The background for this new political mysticism was the inherited mixture of beliefs he was rejecting.  


Mill’s Utilitarianism

                       When Mill was young he was dreaming more of logical,  moral, and political systems than of poetry, and his young life was easily shaped as “a mere reasoning machine” by the stern rationalism of his father James. Among his precocious achievements, Mill had read most of the classics of Greek and Roman literature and science in their original languages by the age of nine! After a time, his father instructed him in the “Utilitarian” philosophy of his friend Jeremy Bentham, whom the younger Mill later served briefly as personal secretary. This was a complicated but truly impoverished system (a “felicific calculus”) for arriving at moral judgements. It enabled people without any moral sense of their own to make difficult life decisions based on weighted numbers assigned to the various choice-possibilities they faced. It was an incredibly shallow pseudo-system that the clever Bentham and his followers had invented in an effort to avoid the moral and political conflicts that for centuries had erupted from opposing religious convictions. The asininity of it has been oft-exposed.[vii] Nevertheless Mill was drawn to its simplicity so strongly he considered it “a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life.”[viii] Indeed, his own father wanted to turn him into a “utilitarian messiah.” He took to Utilitarianism with the fever of religion because it offered him a neat way of making “ethical” decisions on a quantitative basis. Well, actually, it was a method for avoiding ethics altogether. Instead of judging the goodness or badness of an action based on a moral or religious ideal or standard, you consider only the many actual consequences of the action and add up the pluses and minuses to see if it produces  “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

                       This is sometimes called  “consequentialism” because it attempts to weigh the various positive and negative consequences of human actions. It is easily defeated by the simple observations that large numbers of people can be as easily deceived as can an individual by their own fleeting happiness. Also, the system could not deal with the fact that unhappy choices today may produce the greatest happiness tomorrow, or with the fact that there is no permanent connection between immediate happiness, the number made happy, and wise choosing. It was the very fact that utilitarianism aimed to secularize and instrumentalize moral questions by removing all good and bad from the calculation that left it open to ideological manipulation. But the chief utilitarian aim of Bentham and the two Mills was to remove the Christian God from the public square. 

                  The young Mill worshipped at the shrine of Bentham (and his own father) for a long time. But as he was a moralist at heart, who believed that only a person of confirmed virtue could be completely free. In his world of “unbounded freedom,” all would have “convictions as to what is right and wrong, useful and pernicious, deeply engraved on the feelings by early education.”[ix] What bothered him in Utilitarianism was the idea that the greatest number of people could easily be made happy by the most vulgar choices. In other words, freedom could lead to debasement of self and society. Here was an irresolvable conflict between the two opposing ideals of the greatest good for the greatest number, and individual freedom. The principle of the good of the majority could be used to suffocate the freedom of the minority, and the good itself. From this he concluded that happiness is the wrong goal. Happiness should be a by-product of right living, and not the main objective. By 1826, at the age of twenty his confusion over these questions led to a personal breakdown or crisis of faith in his “creed.”

                    But he refused to turn upward to religion proper to find his way out, for he remained convinced that religion was a chief cause of human conflict. Anything transcendent smacked of authority to him. So much so that On Liberty became a  lightly-veiled screed against Christianity, especially of the Calvinist variety, which he accused of killing human nature.[x] So in place of religion he turned for truth and a new standard of conduct to the poetry of Wordsworth and his friends. Romantic poetry gave him a new starting point from which he was to spin an informal but astonishing theory about the upward progress of civilization. In this way the Romantic ideal of the Self became his next religion. Such a conversion must have been very difficult for him as his father’s and Bentham’s attitudes toward poetry were rather blunt, like Plato’s: poets are deceivers and therefore enemies of truth. Bentham said “all poetry is misrepresentation.” Yet despite these discouragements, he plunged into the job of making the autonomous human Self the new source of value in Western political philosophy. This remains the standard liberal belief-system of our time, by any number of fashionable names. Ironically, however, Mill’s faith in the natural Self had quite a different objective from our own. He wanted us to be morally free individuals so that we could improve ourselves and therefore all civilization, whereas modern liberals want freedom mostly to enjoy themselves. I would go further and say that modern liberalism denies that any one ideal of human improvement can be agreed upon. It sees the absence of external moral purpose and authority as a mark of freedom.



[i]  Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.68.


[ii] Edmund Burke, “A Letter To a Member of the National Assembly,” in Further Reflection on the Revolution in France, (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1992), Daniel E. Ritchie, Ed., p.69.


[iii] See especially the fascinating and admirably written book by James Gleick, Chaos: Making A New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), whom I thank for the reminder of this little ditty.


[iv] Orlando Patterson, Freedom (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), pp.34ff.


[v] James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), p.9


[vi]  Op. Cit., p.95.


[vii] An early and impassioned critique published in 1873 was  the whole of Stephen, Op. Cit. Stephen was initially an enthusiastic supporter of Mill’s On Liberty, and reviewed it positively when it first appearedbut subsequently changed his mind. A brief and trenchant recent critique of Mill’s logic of liberty may be found in Jay Budziszewski, Written On The Heart (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1997).


[viii] John M. Robson, Ed., John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 68.


[ix] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p.133.


[x] On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.126. For his most sustained and vicious tirade against Christianity, see Chapter Two, pp. 111ff.



Mill's Contradictions - Only Apparent

Mill’s Contradictions - Only Apparent

                    The conflict between wholes (organic society: Rousseau, Humboldt) and parts (individual freedom: Locke, Kant, Mill) continues throughout Mill’s On Liberty, and has generated considerable unresolvable controversy about what exactly Mill meant. No wonder. He was trying to suck and blow at the same time. This often gives the impression, as one frustrated critic put it, of someone “bewildered by the intricacies of his own thought.”[i] For how could he be such a freedom-lover and also, by the end of his life, a self-admitted socialist (though of a very idealistic sort)?[ii] Are these not contradictions? Well, yes and no. The contradictions in his views are real enough at the surface. But they dissolve into a unified view once we understand his underlying assumptions. For Mill believed in absolute human freedom, as well as absolute human progress, or ‘civilization.” Now freedom implies the absence both of hard government coercion as well as the soft social and moral kind. But progress, which must be directed,  implies lots of both to steer the course of civilization toward the good.

                 This irresolvable conflict has continued to perplex Mill’s admirers and critics alike. But I submit there is a solution to the puzzle of his ideals that lies in his sudden and unexpected embrace of Romantic poetry. Soon after he abandoned strict Utilitarianism (a theory that makes no comment on human evil or goodness) he derived from the popular poetry of his time a new secular faith in the inherent goodness and reasonableness of the unencumbered Self. But just as for Rousseau, whom Mill admired as a seer, and whose basic Nature-against-Society theme he echoes, this posed a problem. Man may be inherently good in theory,  but he obviously does not live that way. The explanation therefore is that he is currently corrupted by a vicious and ignorant society that suppresses his true nature. So for Mill,  the task was clear: continue to argue for the unencumbered Self, all the while actively reshaping society so that it would one day be a true and pure expression of freedom and reason. A polity structured this way would then progress spontaneously to higher levels of civilization through its own newly released “energy,” and would one day be the purest expression of truly free citizens. Heady stuff.

                     Most readers see On Liberty as a precisely constructed manifesto of libertarian freedom written in the cool and logical language of a political philosopher. But it is no such thing. It is fundamentally a religious document wearing a secular mask, a highly ideological and politically radical manifesto aiming to entrench the Romantic ideal of the naturally good authentic Self  in the democratic language and institutions of the Western world. It has pretty much succeeded in doing so. And this is paradoxical coming from a man who described himself as one of the few who never had religion of any kind. But light and dark were opposed from the start. Despite his misgivings about the uneducated and uncivilized, Mill defended the freedom of the individual against “the tyranny of the majority,” or what he called “social tyranny,” in the name of  “Social Liberty.” To make his argument work he had to present “public opinion” as an evil external coercive force as bad as political tyranny, that works by suffocating independence and individuality with unwritten “rules of conduct” and “penalties.” To an age longing for more “democratic” freedom, Mill’s little book - a pot-pourri of convictions and apparent contradictions nourished by what one writer aptly called his “inquisitorial certainty”[iii] - soon became the bible of the anti-big-government “classical liberal” movement of the Nineteenth century.

                 As that movement slowly betrayed its origins and transformed into the modern statist type of liberalism, however, Mill’s book got adopted by conservatives and libertarians eager to continue the protest against growing government power. Radicals adopted it as a manifesto of individualism in their struggle against any form of authority. Indeed, it became “the classic text of radicalism ... carrying out ... the goal of true liberation. It is, in short, something of an icon of modernity, giving intellectual authority and legitimacy to ideas and attitudes that dominate our society[iv] (italics mine). Too bad so many of those ideas and attitudes are false, or at the least misleading conceits. For by now, On Liberty has taken on a peculiar life of its own, and although it “was radical enough in its own time ... it is, in a sense, more radical in ours, because its seems to validate contemporary ideas about liberty which go well beyond what Mill intended.”[v] Indeed, modernity, I shall argue, clean ignored Mill’s caveats and shoplifted what it needed from his little manifesto to further its headlong embrace of  hyperdemocracy.

                    For me, Mill’s wide-ranging legacy to Western political and moral life is a problem. True conservatives, as I argue, must praise his warnings against government coercion, interference, and regulation, because they want people to be free to form themselves spontaneously into a civil society. In this sense only, Mill can rightly be classifed as a great defender of freedom against the State. In On Liberty, however, he argued powerfully not for the freedom of individuals to bind themselves together in a society free from government interference, but for individual freedom from society as well. In doing so, he pushed the idea too far by falsely equating State and society. He did this with an unsubtle, chopping-cleaver logic that has had the continuous effect of slowly dismembering traditional society according to a principle of freedom that radically privatized morality and behaviour. Now that was an appealing but very dangerous thing to do, simply because there is nothing most people would secretly like better than to escape moral judgement and indulge their appetites and fantasies at will without regard to others. Mill asked us to deny the fact that morality must always be a public matter or be reduced to a war of individual choices. Just so, his privatization of morality easily fed all the conceits of the modern ego and the contemporary notion of individual (as distinct from societal) democratic rights. In this respect I count him as a great destroyer of spontaneous community in the name of freedom and individualism, and the author of so many modern woes.

                       We tend to forget, until the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb reminds us that Mill’s definition of liberty defied all precedent. Not a single one of Mill’s famous liberal predecessors had imagined for a moment the sort of extreme privatization of freedom and morality that On Liberty has somehow made central to the contemporary tradition. For example, Spinoza advocated liberty of speech but “not out of anger, hatred, or a desire to introduce any change in the state on his own authority;” Locke called for liberty but “not for opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society;” Montesquieu spoke for a limited liberty to do “what we ought to will;” and Kant called for liberty of speech, but not of action. The two key American liberals,  Jefferson and Paine,  pushed for liberty of the individual against government, certainly, but not against “public opinion” or “society, ” while the great Tocqueville famously called for liberty, but  “not without morality, nor morality without faith.”[vi]

                        If these political and moral philosophers wanted democracy at all, it was always what might be called a communal democracy of the whole people, and they certainly never imagined a separation between thoughtful democratic opinion and moral opinion. Before Mill’s outburst, all human behaviour was assumed to have some moral consequence, however small or large, however direct or indirect. Then here comes a brilliant logician to argue that personal and private behaviour was out of bounds to moral judgement unless it harmed someone else. This was akin to saying there is no light from fire unless it burns you. Anti-authoritarian intellectuals and ordinary freedom-lovers everywhere in the democratic West soon interpreted him to mean that individuals alone could now determine the “morality” of their behaviour; or that morality was something created within the self and asserted in the name of freedom against the “opinion” of society. Mill did not necessarily mean that - he actully had very strict ideas about virtue and behaviour. But he put his freedom principle in a way that this conclusion was unavoidable. In this way Mill almost singlehandedly shifted the locus of morality from society to the individual, and started us on the road to hyperdemocracy.

                    From a macrohistory point of view, he was legitimizing the ancient Gnostic urge to repudiate society and the moral law in the name of individual (self) knowledge. This was all the more strange because before and after On Liberty, and even in many sections of that work, he was far from a moral relativist. Mill believed that the truth actually exists and may be found, but only by first encouraging the widest range of free opinions, some of which may be temporarily wrong. But he imagined truth would eventually arise spontaneously from a mass of truly free and intellectually-engaged autonomous individuals. In other words, for him, liberty is prior to truth, but is also its efficient and final cause. But we are not free most of the time because whenever society (or religion, or the state) decides it knows best what is once and for all true, it immediately oppresses what he saw as the essential freedom and truth-finding function of humanity.

                     Mill’s notion is a stirring one that can be defended -  but only if his opening assumption about natural human goodness is true. Alas, experience confirms it is far from proven, and his gambit has had an opposite effect. By equating freedom and truth, Mill’s little book seems to deny priority to any standard of action and in the minds of his followers has relativized and privatized morality. In this respect Mill is responsible for the damaging idea that both society and the state must be morally “neutral” with respect to the private lives and choices of individuals. However we will see later that modern liberalism, which publicly proclaims this very ideal, is in fact anything but neutral. This no surprise, for on reflection it is clear that there can be no such thing as a “morally neutral” society or state. That is because even neutrality is a firm position taken against an alternative seen as bad. Furthermore, as its very condition, all collective action must assume some moral direction, or choice for the good over the bad (what is rejected). The question is only whether that morality is articulate and publicly defensible, or carries on as a kind of sham morality, as I suggest is the case for modern liberal democratic regimes. 



[i] J. Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), p.122, cited in in Cosmas Ekwutosi, Freedom To do Evil in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill (Rome: Thesis for the Doctorate of the Pontifico Ateneo Della Santa Croce, 1998), p.171.


[ii] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p.175.


[iii]  Maurice Cowling, cited in Paul Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State ( New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999).  page 48.


[iv]  Himmelfarb, Op. Cit.,  p.75.


[v]  Ibid., p.82.


[vi]  Ibid., p.81.



Exposing the "Harm Principle" of J.S. Mill

Trying something new. 

For the next ten days or so I will be posting a a series of connected installments taken from Chapter Eight, "The Road to Hyperdemocracy," as published in my book The Trouble With Democracy (Stoddart, 2001, and then by BPS Books, 2008).

This is basically an expose of Mill's so-called "Harm Principle", showing the steps that led him to it, the faulty logic of it, the philosophical and moral confusions in which he became mired over it, and how it has unfortunately become a canonical statement of modern liberty.  

p.s. other than the footnotes, the in-text numerals in parentheses refer to the the relevant section of the 5 in Mill's famous essay.


“The history of the West has been a history of reason

operating within tradition.”

~ Frank Meyer, In Defense of Freedom, 1962


                   The common idea, above, that Western civilization is an outcome of reasoned political and moral argument now seems more like a comforting myth, as we shall see, for what surprises most of all is not the strength of reason, but the strength of symbols and emotion; above all, the mystical element. In retrospect,  it is no surprise that collectivist freedom - a theory of absolute democracy - found its first major prophet in Rousseau, and its first practical experiment in France. Much of French history has been consumed with battles over the authority of ideas - and it still is. One after the other, “new” or “revolutionary” political, moral, and socially fashionable doctrines come hippity-hopping out of the intellectual witches’ brew of Paris. Almost every dogma of modern times has attracted a French messiah proclaiming absolute originality and offering the solution of all mysteries. Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Positivism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Existentialism, Structuralism, Neo-marxism, Deconstructionism, Post-modernism, and so on; each was a child of the absolutist temperament. One wonders at this tired parade of arguments, each desperate to persuade us to see all of life from a narrow perspective that inevitably disappoints.                     

                          In contrast, individualist freedom of the original liberal variety - the struggle for real liberty as a concrete practical barrier for self, home and hearth against excessive government power - has ever since Magna Carta been chiefly an export to contintental Europe and the Americas from England, a country with an eight centuries-long tradition of legal and political individualism, as well as a certain scorn for abstract theories.[i] However, we must be wary, because the word “individualism” has a lot of historical baggage. The sort upheld by the Founders of America and Canada, for example, differed in the extreme from modern individualism. For one thing, it began as a by-product of the Protestant Reformation. Those first religious-democratic reformers just wanted freedom of belief, expression, and association for their self-governing assemblies; to be free to submit to the authority of their God, the Bible, and the universal morality of the Christian religion, without interference or dictates from government or an “established” (government-controlled) church - which they freely characterized as the Anti-Christ. But even atheistic liberals of the time fully expected to subordinate their individual selves to a transcendent moral order of Reason and Natural Law. They understood that the purpose of individual rights and freedoms was not to escape the control of traditional society and moral authority, but rather to seek out the best natural order and live under it. Love of others and obligation and duties to society should obviously come before self, and this, they fully expected their democracy to reflect.


Concern For The Self - The Enemy Within

                     In this respect, it is yet another modern conceit to think that such community-minded people were not concerned about their individual selves. Quite to the contrary. It was axiomatic to them that a life well spent meant undertaking the difficult soul-work of developing one’s character to its highest level by checking and controlling the self’s instincts and appetites in the service of truth, family, community, and God. Not self-expression, but high character and salvation of soul was the goal, something impossible without a discipline and wary care of the self. Hence the slavery metaphor was the commonly accepted image for all humans who since the Fall suffer by nature from internal division, or dualism. We were imagined as divided beings torn by the opposing claims of the spirit and the senses in a lifelong struggle for mastery of the soul. The physical yearnings, more immediate, powerful, and base, work necessarily by deception, striving to turn the soul away from its natural progress toward truth and union with God. This powerful metaphor, inherent in the Sinful Man Model, ruled western civilization for more than two thousand years, first under a Classical, and then a Christian understanding of the virtues, especially as fashioned by St.Augustine, until roughly the end of the Eighteenth century. The message of the metaphor was that an autonomous self, without the support of transcendent truth is likely to be, well, self-serving, and will constantly lead the soul astray. This working image was of the self-as-deceiver, a kind of enemy within, and the institutions of representative democracy in the West were established to address this same reality in the form of human nature as deceiver.

                   And this was not so suddenly abandoned as a guiding ideal. The pressing need for a discipline of the self was reflected even in the early tradition of Western liberalism, which was from the start “appreciative of the ideas of liberty and individuality, but in a context that made liberty consonant with the common good and individuality with the commonality of interests in the commonwealth. This was what was meant by [phrases such as] ‘republican virtue’ and ‘civic virtue’ ... liberty was to be reconciled with morality and the individual with society and the polity.”[ii] The most insightful observers of ancient as well as modern democracy took it for granted that democracy simply cannot function without a self-disciplined and moral populace.  Even the quintessential freedom-lover John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), except during what I call his “liberty outburst,” insisted most of his life that the self must be subordinate to the common good and subject to a “restraining influence.”  There are “fundamental principles,” he believed, that men hold sacred that are “above discussion,” and without which there is a natural tendency to anarchy. The higher morality he sought could be actively promoted through education, laws, and economic and social arrangements.[iii] 


A Democratic Snob

                      Yet, as if suddenly to speak against his own beliefs, in 1859 Mill published his windy manifesto On Liberty, which may fairly be described - at least the first part of it - as the world’s first tract on absolute individual freedom. (The numbers in brackets used here refer to the brief chapters of this book in the edition cited.[iv])  Because of how it has been used - and abused - by ensuing generations, however, he is now considered the man who “largely set the course of modern democratic thought.”[v]   

                The truth, however, is that Mill led a life of some considerable intellectual and moral contradiction - some might say confusion - in the unlikely guise of a democratic snob. On the one hand he considered a representative democratic regime to be the best tool for the development of the full powers of the individual. On the other he had very little faith, indeed scorned the uneducated common man to the extent that he in no way favoured direct democracy, and his every proposal being underscored by a frantic desire for the “progress” and “improvement” of mankind.[vi] So much is this true that while reading him we get the distinct impression that in his perfect world he wanted everyone to be just like himself and his class of educated liberal intellectuals. He “dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass,” of what he called “the uncultivated herd,” and its effect on “the highest natures,” and “the great minds,” and so his “ideal of ultimate improvement went far beyond democracy.”[vii] To offset this he proposed many qualifications on the right to vote, including a complex plural voting scheme giving the educated more votes than the ignorant to prevent that very outcome. One of his most unpopular speeches as a Member of Parliament was a proposal to counteract the effects of democracy.

                     Mill was also much less of a libertarian than we are led to believe by a casual reading of On Liberty, which as I say seems like a departure from his normal posture, (though it is interpreted here as the manifesto of his program for “progress”). There are also plenty of arguments that he laid the groundwork for so-called social democracy and the welfare state, favouring intervention in the economy for the resolution of  “coordination problems,” for public goods such as education, for occupational security, for protection from poverty, and for an ongoing redistribution of incomes. Mill actually seemed to conceive of the whole nation as a metaphor for the intelligent person. He argued that power should be disseminated as much as possible, like limbs on a body, but wanted “the greatest possible centralization of information, and diffusion of it from the center.” The “central organ” of  “information and instruction” by government that he called for, the brain of government, so to speak, should “have a right to know all that is done,” and also the right of “compelling the local officers to obey the laws laid down for their guidance”(5). He advocated a tutelary top-down state. At the end of his life he openly favoured socialism over liberal democracy and even argued a pseudo-communist case that workers should enjoy control of the means of production,[viii] if not the ownership. They could tell the boss what to do, but needn’t own the factory. In the end, like those Adepts of the Free Spirit of centuries past, he flirted with the possibility that human nature might be changed enough to run society with “a common ownership in the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.”[ix] 

                       We tend to forget that the individual freedoms he proposed were intended only for the “civilized” nations, and for the rest - most - he favoured benevolent dictatorship. In the beginning, Mill believed that through science, rationalism, representative democracy, education, and his pet solution, Utilitarianism (more on this below), all societies could progress to ever higher levels and a “new morality,” led there by an elite of social planners like himself who would take charge of the “general culture.” In conclusion, although he is known today primarily as an individualist freedom-fighter, Mill was in reality a kind of educational elitist promoting a leading political role in the shaping of society from the top by a class of philosopher kings and queens (he was an adamant and eloquent feminist) educated up to special political powers and insight.   England actually took him at his word: the last vestige of plural voting by means of which some educated and distinguished people enjoyed as many as six votes each was not abolished in England until 1948.

                     As it happens, all Mill’s writings have a background and a foreground, so to speak. The background is a broad moral vision of the best of humankind freeing themselves from the stultifying ignorance of public opinion to form the best and most progressive society imaginable. This is what Mill wanted. Many of his ideas about this he took uncritically from the German Wilhelm von Humboldt (1776-1835), a conservative thinker with a theory about “the true end of Man,” summed up in the German word bildung, which Humboldt defined as “the highest and most harmonious development of his [Man’s] powers to a complete and consistent whole.”[x] Mill sets the tenor of On Liberty with an opening quotation from Humboldt about his (Mill’s, as well as Humboldt’s) every argument converging toward “the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”[xi]  This was obviously a social and moral goal in clear conflict with Mill’s foreground idea that millions of free and private individuals could, and would arrive at an organic whole by themselves. The two ambitions were in conflict in theory, and in Mill’s head, and they remain in conflict in Western society, simply because it is impossible to direct society as a whole toward a certain end while allowing it to direct itself. In the broad picture I have drawn in this book, Rousseau formed one kind of democratic theory to push society toward such a whole, and failed, and so Mill formed another, which is in the process of failing.  



[i] See especially Alan MacFarlane, The Origins of English Individualism  (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978). Here, he shows that English men and women enjoyed all sorts of evolving individual, property, and legal rights traceable as far back as the thirteenth century, many centuries before the same liberties and rights were enjoyed by continental Europeans.


[ii] Gertrude Himmmelfarb, “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle’?, ” in Looking Into the Abyss (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp.74-106. The passage cited here is at p.99.


[iii] Op. Cit. p.101.


[iv]  John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Edited, with an Introduction by Gertrude Himmelfarb (London: Penguin Books, 1974).


[v] David Held, Models of Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p.100.


[vi] In his Autobiography, Edited, with an Introduction by John M. Robson (London: Penguin Books, 1989), Mill said forthrightly that “any general theory or philosophy of politics supposes a previous theory of human progress,” p.130.


[vii] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p. 175.


[viii] Held, Op. Cit., p.118


[ix] Mill, Autobiography, Op. Cit., p.175.


[x] Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action ( Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), This essay was first published in 1854, five years before Mill’s On Liberty, as The Sphere and Duties of Government.


[xi] Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.57. The quote is drawn from Humboldt, Op. Cit.



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