Tuesday, May 23, 2006
In honor of the 200th anniversary of John Stuart Mill's birth, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Roger Scruton on the famous 19th century philosopher. Scruton is well known as a conservative philosopher, but I have never liked what he has written. His piece on Mill is no exception.
Scruton criticizes Mill for a variety of reasons. First, he criticizes Mill's utilitarianism:
Utilitarianism [provides that] "that action is right which promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number."
Mill's rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defense of it, and his "Utilitarianism" is acknowledged today as one of the few readable accounts of a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime. Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia. As Mill recognized, the "greatest happiness principle" must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant.
Here Scruton commits a mistake that is often committed by others as well. He writes that Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarianism, but surely he does not mean that their actions produced the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Nor can he argue that Hitler and Lenin espoused utilitarianism, since they didn't. Scruton merely seems to mean that someone might have attempted to justify Hitler and Stalin's actions based on utilitarian reasoning, even though that justification would be mistaken. That is an extremely weak argument. Any theory can be misused. In my view, by contrast, utilitarianism helps us to figure out what moral rules we should follow in general, and those moral rules are for the most part the traditional ones that western societies have employed. Mill had much the same idea.
Scruton also comments on Mill's famous "On Liberty" where he argued for individual freedom for actions taken that do not harm others. In my view, Mill's argument here is entirely consistent with his utilitarianism: Mill does an excellent job of showing that "the greatest number" will be better off as a result of granting everyone liberty.
Finally, Scruton talks about Mill's Principles of Political Economy:
While pretending to be a popular exposition of Adam Smith, [the Principles] accords extensive powers of social engineering to the state, and develops a socialist vision of the economy, with a constitutional role for trade unions, and extensive provisions for social security and welfare. The book is, in fact, a concealed socialist tract.
On the Principles, I have to agree with Scruton. But what is interesting is that Mill was inconsistent about these issues. In "On Liberty," Mill writes eloquently about the importance of keeping government control of the economy limited for the preservation of freedom. In a lesson needed by the liberals of today, Mill writes that freedom of speech is not enough:
If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities, were all of them branches of government; if in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government, and looked to the government for every rise in life; not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise in name."
Interestingly, Mill here seems to be anticipating much of modern Europe.