Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Scruton on Mill
Mike Rappaport

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.


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Mike Rappaport


It is not generally a very strong argument to criticize a moral theory because it can be misapplied. But this knock on utilitarianism is more than that. It is the claim that it cannot be properly applied, with the result that uses of it can be no more than rationalizations.

It cannot be applied because it requires knowledge of the future that is not available to us finite beings. One might say: of course, we cannot know the future completely, but we can have rough and ready knowledge. To this, it's best to call bullshit. Even if you have rough and ready knowledge of the near future, have you any evidence that this is a good guide to the overall good, indefinitely temporally extended?

As for the rule-utilitarian notion that our ordinary moral rules get justified in utilitarian terms: again, so much smoke and mirrors. No utilitarians have done this seriously; even Sidgwick, for all his thoroughness, does an awful lot of handwaving on this. Nor could they, for reasons given in the first paragraph.

(Which isn't to say I don't agree that Scruton can say strange things. Mill doesn't qualify the greatest happiness principle with an appeal to individual rights; individuals rights are supposed to be justified by an appeal to the greatest happiness principle.)

Posted by: skeptical | May 23, 2006 4:57:28 PM

I think that Scruton's claim is that Lenin and Hitler *were* utilitarians, even if they wouldn't have thought of things in that way. I think he's on shaky ground with Hitler, since it seems as though the "happiness" of the Volk for fascists necessarily includes the suffering of others, even if that suffering outweighs the "happiness" it produces. (As a bit of an aside, though, the most significant problem for utilitarianism is still the fact that if we can generate happiness through the suffering of others, we ought to do so, regardless of our attachments to "traditional" morality). With respect to Lenin, though, I think it's pretty clear that Marxism-Leninism very much shared utilitarianism's moral outlook. The revolutionary terror was in preparation for the creation of earthly bliss in perpetuity. Indeed, the fury of Lenin's (and Stalin's) revolutionary terror can only be explained, in my view, by the frustration brought about by the revolution's essential failure. When the utopian society failed to appear, the obvious answer was that the old elements had not been rooted out ruthlessly enough. I think Scruton is dead on here.

Posted by: QD | May 24, 2006 5:14:25 AM