“I’ve never been a fan of John Stuart Mill. Yes, he had a massive IQ and a dreadful Tiger Dad. But his thinking is shockingly muddled.”
Hmm. I haven’t read Mill for many years. Back when I was a student in the mid-80s, I read On Liberty, and like some people I was not entirely happy with the “harm principle” that Mill used in his formulation of a liberal order. And he was a bit flaky on economics, or at least there was enough ambiguity in there to presage the transformation into the “New Liberalism” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (ie, greater state involvement).
The Bleeding Heart Libertarians group blog think that Caplan is being unfair on Mill:
Mill’s view is clear: utility is the ultimate determinant of whether an act is (ethically) right or wrong. Given certain empirical assumptions, utility will be maximized overall by restricting the exercise of force over “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” to that which is required to prevent harm to others. Acting paternalistically towards children and incompetent adults is justified, for Mill, for to accord them the same range of liberty as competent adults would not (again, given certain empirical assumptions) maximize utility. To be sure, Mill’s views here are ripe for criticism, especially his (frankly appalling) claim that “barbarians” require a despotic government for their own good. (We might ask, for example, whether any acts can be completely self-regarding, and so harmless to others, and whether Mill’s empirical assumptions are correct.) But this isn’t “awful” philosophy by any means—and it doesn’t require any appeal to “fine and subtle distinctions” to be defended against this charge.
But what if we were to try to defend Mill by making such distinctions? Caplan charges that Mill “piles confusion on confusion” when he attempts this. Quoting Mill’s “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” Caplan writes “But a man’s “own good, either physical or moral” surely includes his “utility in the largest sense.” And Mill says that’s ‘not a sufficient warrant’ for violating his liberty.”
But the error here is Caplan’s, not Mill’s. Caplan fails to recognize the difference between the interests of “a man”, and “man as a progressive being”—the former refers to an individual man, the latter to mankind as a whole. A man’s own good thus doesn’t include “utility in the largest sense”, and to think that it does is to commit a simple category mistake.
Interesting stuff. Regardless of such disputes, one thing I am certain of is that Mill was one of the greatest defenders of free speech.