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On John Stuart Mill

“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.”

Bryan Caplan.

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.

11 comments to On John Stuart Mill

  • I am pretty much with Caplan in that 🙂 Not a Mill fan.

  • Dale Amon

    Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ was part of my University reading as a Freshman engineer at CMU and he blew me away. Given the prevalence of very statist Right Wing and Left Wing thought at the time, it was a first view that there were kindred spirits out there somewhere.

    The most dangerous thing about giving Mill to young minds is that he can lead to the hard stuff like Rothbard 😉

  • I agree with you strongly about that “harm principle”. Consent principle is what he should have said. Many people consent to circumstances that might harm them.

    Tonight, on the telly, a bunch of pianists are trying to be the BBC Young Musician of the Year. Such participants can be seriously harmed, by the experience of competing in such a thing, and by having an off day or off evening when on telly. Their entire career could be blighted. But, they consented. They know the rules. No problem with the event going ahead (addendum: aside from the usual complaints about the state (i.e non-consenting) funding of such an event). But if Mill meant what he said (which I rather doubt) the potential harm of such occasions makes a fine excuse for statist meddling. Competitive sport has been curtailed in British schools for just such (very bad) reasons.

    Consent also takes care of children and incompetent adults. Indeed the word “incompetent” is precisely about whether someone understood what they were consenting to, and can therefore even be said to have consented. Lawyers are familiar with such arguments.

    It is precisely the fact that children can quickly understand one of the central facts of competitive sport, that they might do very badly and if so: tough – them’s the rules, that makes it such a good preparation for adult life. The harm of it is what does you good.

    You can get embroiled in very complicated arguments about whether this or that activity is or could be harmful. Consent cuts through all such stuff.

    People who are forced to compete in sports they hate tend not to have their characters “improved” nearly so much.

    Which is not to say that consent is always easy to establish. Different point.

  • Midwesterner

    Utilitarianism is antithetical to principles. Either the ends determine the means or the means determine the ends. One cannot have it both ways.

    Utilitarianism is of necessity relativist. Since the ends are in the future and the means are now, every individual will have their own idea of which means are appropriate. This leads to utilitarianism being morally relativist in its approach to the daily means of interaction.

    When Brevek (sp?) did his deeds in Norway, I was initially disoriented because the ends he wants are so like the ones I want. When I realized he was an unprincipled (by definition unprincipled) utilitarian and that his operation parameters are whatever achieves his vision of utopia, I realized that we are at opposite extremes of the scale of whether principles determine our moral restraints or utopian visions excuse the lack of them.

    To any that think compromise is possible and that restraint can be exercised, no. The ends and the means cannot both be fixed. Either the means are fixed (principles) and the ends are the variable, or the ends are fixed (utopian vision) and the means are the variable.

    Unless a way is found to synchronize all individuals thoughts and prescriptions for both the definition and the means to reach utopia, utilitarianism cannot help but be morally relativist.

  • Laird

    Let me join the chorus: I am no fan of JSM, and even less so of utilitarianism. Which doesn’t mean that Mill didn’t make some good points, but (as Caplan said) his thinking is muddled. I agree completely with what Midwesterner said.

  • RRS

    Unlike the more trenchant Samazizdatistas who may have reached conclusions about Max Utility, I am still at the point of seeing (at least) two viewpoints:

    1. Max Utility is the motivating force of human conduct.

    2. Max Utility is the optimum result of other (optimally selected) motivating forces of human conduct.

  • Midwesterner

    Maximum utility as defined by the actor or the acted upon?

    If maximum utility is determined individually, then it is irrelevant to human interaction. Once maximum utility is claimed as a reason to impose the actor’s will on other individuals, it falls apart as a rational basis for human interaction for the reasons I’ve already stated.

    Each individual must be permitted to determine their own maximum utility by their own value choices. This is where the consent that Brian advocates for becomes the center piece of a principled system of human interaction.

    Since each individual has their own (generally differing) definitions of ‘self’ and the commensurate boundaries between ‘selfs’, I (individually) consent to a constitutional contract with other individuals. I do not agree on all of the particulars, but neither does anybody else. It is the consensual common basis for our interactions.

    Maximum utility, being an individual value and choice, is irrelevant to any principled system of interaction between individuals.

  • Mill may well have been wrong on certain things, as with all philosophers, but he made some important points and, certainly, some of his words on free speech and the implications of curtailing it, are terribly needed today, in these worrisome times.

  • Paul Marks

    I just did a long comment – but the bleeping thing vanished just as I was finishing it.

    I am dog tried – and really pissed off to see the “Bleeding Hearts” mentioned (in any context) but I will type out the bare bones again.

    The “Bleeding Hearts” miss the obvious (that it is Mill’s POLITICAL thought that is a muddle) and go off into complex but non relevant stuff.

    This is only to be expected of them – because they tend to do that (about everything and everyone).

    Look the Bleeding Hearts openly praise “Social Justice” – the guiding principle of the enemy.

    Social Justice is the docrtrine that all income and wealth rightly belong to the collective (“the people”) and should be “distributed” according to some polticial rule.

    “Political Economy has solved the problem of production but not of distribution” – what arsehole said that (or close to it), oh it was J.S. Mill, so that brings me back to him.

    It was Mill’s POLITICAL thought that was a muddle.

    As Brian points out he said “harm principle”, and we assume he meant a common law style nonaggression principle.


    The freedom to sell not the same sort of thing as the freedom to buy (yes it freaking is you muddle head).

    Free trade a matter of political economy, NOT a matter of the moral principle of liberty (oh yes it is you……).

    And on and on.

    My “favourate” is when he claims “everyone agrees” with something.

    The something is always some bit of statism – that national or local government should do X or provide Y.

    And always when “everyone agrees” it is something that was actually hotly contested – and that Mill KNEW was hotly contested.

    “Are you calling him a liar”.

    Yes that is exactly what I am calling him.

    And the lies do not end with policy debates – they go into economic theory also.

    For example, in Principles of Political Economy we are told that the theory of value is settled – everyone agrees.

    Liar, liar, pants on fire.

    Mill knew perfectly well that people like Richard Whately and Samuel Bailey did not accept the labour theory of value – that they rejected it root and branch.

    How does he refute their arguments?

    The same way that he refutes the arguments against local or national government providing X, Y, Z.

    But pretending that they and their arguments do not exist.

    In short he is not just a foe – he is also a dishonest (twisting) foe.

    No wonder the “Bleeding Heats” love him.

    I bet the ideas about coops (and other such) as well.

    By the way – one of the oldest tricks in the teaching of the history of ideas in the 19th century.

    Give the students Marx and Mill – and pretend one has given by sides of the argument.

    Certainly some students will move from Mill to libertarian writers.

    But a lot more students will take the road that 19th century liberalism (under the influence of people like Mill and his wife) took.

    The road that took the world to where it is now.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Re- the harmful effects of competition. In my Cronulla Toastmasters Club, we spoofed this harm minimisation by saying, after every contest, “You’re all winners, just for competing!!! However, you won’t all be getting prizes…”

  • Paul Marks

    By the way – the quotation.

    So Caplan is wrong to think that “man

    as a progressive being” refers to an individual person?

    It refers to “mankind as a whole”.

    So the entire species is a single “being” (“progressive” or otherwise)?

    If Mill (and the “Bleeding Hearts”) can not see how insanely collectivists that is……

    As for the long term interests of most ordinary INDIVIDUALS being (somehow) different from the interests of “mankind” as a “progressive being”……

    Well, and the “Bleeding Hearts” say that religious people believe in mystical nonsense – it would be hard to think of something more in the realm of mystical nonsense than their “mankind” as a “progressive being” who has interests that are different from that of most ordinary flesh-and-blood individuals.