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The British Whig tradition and Mr John Stuart Mill

The British Whig tradition, and the Tory tradition also (Dr Johnson and all that), starts from the principle of moral personhood – the ability of human beings, with effort, to tell moral right from wrong and, again with effort, to choose to overcome our evil passions and do what it is morally right. To choose do other than we do. As Ayn Rand reminded us in the 20th century – one can be an atheist (and hold that the soul, the human person. dies with the body) and still hold to these principles.

Typical Whig thinkers including Thomas Reid and the Scots “Common Sense” School of Philosophy who dominated the Scottish Enlightenment (the modern association of the Scottish Enlightenment with David Hume is bizarre, considering he was the arch critic of it), but the Whig tradition and (in this) the Tory tradition also, reached back to Ralph Cudworth (he enemy of the determinist and political absolutist Thomas Hobbes) and in law to Chief Justice Sir John Holt and Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke (the enemy of Sir Francis Bacon – whose servant Thomas Hobbes was). For law is based on the “metaphysical” assumption that people can choose NOT to commit crimes – if they can not choose to do other than they do, then punishment is unjust. And, of course, to the Christian (and Jewish) understanding of man – seen, for example, in the work of the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (and Joseph Butler much later) and the Christian Talmudist and Common Law thinker John Selden.

This view of what a human is (a human being) goes back, at least, to the Arisototelian Alexander of Aphrodisias – see his “On Fate”. As for “compatibilism” – determinists (those who deny the existence of the soul, in the Aristotelian not just religious sense, and hold humans to be flesh robots) should at least state their doctrine openly, rather than hide it. The words of Immanuel Kant and William James (whatever their other faults) are just on this matter – it is a contemptible subterfuge leading to a wretched quagmire. Of course Dr Johnson would not even waste words on the doctrine – and when he heard that his “fellow Tory” (the quote marks are because Johnson did not really recognise Hume as a Tory) it just confirmed his low opinion of the man. But at least David Hume did not claim to be a Whig – unlike some of his more recent followers. In America the determinist Johnathan Edwards was less influential than the libertarian (libertarian = believer in Free Will, sometimes I suspect people do not remember even this) Samuel Johnson (not to be confused with the British Dr Johnson, although their opinions were similar on this matter). It is a sign of our evil and degenerate times that Edwards is remembered as a “great philosopher” and people who were more influential among the American Founders (most importantly Thomas Reid) are almost forgotten.

The British Whig tradition was also one of Natural Law (as was the Tory tradition – but less clearly), such men as Chief Justice Sir John Holt (of the Bill of Rights and all that) have already been mentioned. The United States Constitution and specifically the Bill of Rights did not appear from nowhere – it emerged from the British Whig tradition in law. Before the heresy (associated with Sir William Blackstone and others) that Parliament can do anything it likes and that any ravings of Parliament are law – for example that having red hair is a “crime” punishable by death. The arbitrary will of judges is not law either – only judgements that are in line with the principles of natural law, which is a problem as modern judges are not trained in these matters, and exercise their WILL not their moral reason.

The British Whig tradition also stressed that the landowners should play a leading political role (although they were not so blatant as the first Chief Justice of the American Supreme Court the Founder John Jay with his blunt statement that “those who own the land should rule it”) – guarding against both an over powerful monarchy on the hand, and mob-rule on the hand. Here the Whig Edmund Burke differed from his friend the Tory Dr Johnson – with Johnson stressing the role of the King, and Burke that of the landowners. Although both men supported a “balanced constitution” where all elements acted as checks and balances upon the others – Crown, Lords and Commons (including those “pot walloper” seats where most men had the vote – as long as most seats in Parliament were not like that).

This was because the Whigs stressed that the long term interests of rich and poor, employer and employee (in land or industry) were in harmony. It was feared that the poor might be mislead by demagogues into supporting looting by government – not understanding that this was not in their own long term interests. What the Whigs would say of our present time where it is often very rich men who support looting (funding far left movements and so) can be partly seen in Edmund Burke’s “Letter To A Noble Lord” where Mr Burke tried to explain to the Duke of Bedford that the people that His Grace was supporting (the Revolutionaries) wanted to rob him – and to murder him and his family. The Duke of Bedford proved as difficult to warn as the Duke of Orleans – the richest man in France, who funded the French Revolutionaries and supported the murder of his own cousin (the King) only to have his “friends” show their gratitude by robbing and murdering him.

Mr George Soros please take note – ditto Mr Warren Buffet (I watched this very rich and very ignorant man only a little while ago going on about blacks being “three fifths of a person” under the Constitution of the United States – it was, of course, the slave owners who wanted the slaves counted as a whole person for the purposes of calculating Congressional seats, which is what this section of the Constitution is about, anti slavery people did not want them counted at all) – or the owners or Facebook and Twitter, who either think that being leftist will lead to the left sparing them (it will not) or really are leftists themselves. “Death to the rich – apart from me and my fiends” seems to be the motto of many rich people in our times, it does not show very deep thought.

Sadly the Whig stress on men of property in political life is at least partly refuted by how utterly ignorant many rich people (at least now) are – outside the narrow question of making money (something I have no knowledge of at all). It is not just “the mob” or a fanatical or power crazed King that is to be feared. Although, to be fair, the Whigs were mainly thinking of landed families (not merchants and traders) – people of inherited landed property and (just as important) inherited tradition.

And Mr John Stuart Mill?

How much of the above did Mr Mill support?

As far as I can make out, Mr Mill did not support any of it.

He did not support Free Will – he was a determinist. See above for the answer to people who want to do the “compatibilist” tap dance at this point. If you are going to be determinist at least be open about your denial of the human soul (in the Aristotelian as well as the religious sense), spare me the mist of words (the double talk). Mr Mill was on the side of Mr Hobbes and Mr Hume – not Mr Cudworth and Mr Reid, he was no Whig.

Mr Mill also did not support the Common Law tradition – such men as Chief Justice Edward Coke and Chief Justice Sir John Holt, in truth, meant little to him. Mr Mill was a follower of Jeremy Bentham (he of the 13 Departments of State – who admired by Sir Francis Bacon and Thomas Cromwell as well as Thomas Hobbes), as long as Parliament acted for the “greatest good of the greatest number” anything it said was law – indeed “law” simply meant the COMMAND of the WILL of the ruler or rulers. Such a position reduces the Bill of Rights from an expression of natural law (natural justice) to worthless paper and ink. It is like extreme Calvinism or extreme Sunni Islam in religion – both determinist and defining “good” and “evil” as simply what God (by arbitrary will) orders or forbids. Thomas Hobbes as God.

The stress upon men of property in political life? Most certainly not – Mr Mill wished everyone to have the vote. That may attract us to him today – but it would not have warmed the hearts of the Old Whigs to him, unless one means warmed with anger.

The natural harmony of long term interests between employers and employees? No Mr Mill thought there was a “distribution” problem (economics “proved” this) – which would be solved by private owners being replaced by worker cooperatives.

The central importance of landed property?

No again. In fact just as Mr Mill clamed that everyone agreed with the Labour Theory of Value (the did not and he know they did not – which means he was LYING), and that “everyone agrees” that local government should do XYZ (everyone did not agree – but Mr Mill may have meant “everyone who matters to me” so he may not have been lying on this point), so he held the “unearned increment” of land should be taxed away – again economics (at least of the David Ricardo type) supposedly “proved” this.

If your land became more valuable then this value should be taxed – and rent itself was a bad thing. And…..

Well on and on really – because the man was not just prepared to say “I want to steal your land”, as with his opposition to agency (moral responsibility – Free Will), Mr Mill seems to have a problem with “spitting it out” and prefers a mist of words – very Victorian and very irritating to those of us prefer 18th century English. However, Henry George was to make basic message rather clearer.

Yes Mr Mill was in favour of Freedom of Speech – although he presents the matter as something to be argued for on the basis of the benefits of having the strongest critic to oppose in debate. This does not sound like a right (to put it mildly – Ayn Rand had sharper words for Mr Mill on this point) – and it is not what Mr Mill did himself. On the contrary he usually tried to bury people who opposed the doctrines he was supporting (shove them down the “Memory Hole” as it were – by ignoring their existence) – but Mr Mill could have replied to this point “do not do as I do – do as I say” and that might be a valid argument. However, Mr Mill was not in favour of allowing”parading” disapproval – say turning one’s back on himself and Mrs Taylor if one spotted them walking out together. Who is to decide what is “parading” disapproval?

There is also the weird stuff about restrictions on selling things not being the same sort of thing as restrictions on buying things (actually it is basically the same) and such things as Freedom of Trade being a different sort of thing from Civil Liberties (it is NOT).

But leave that all that aside – if we return to the principles of the British Whigs (of 1688 and all that) it is hard to see any points in common with Mr Mill – apart from opposition to absolute monarchy, and even there Mr Mill was full of praise for “Akbar and Charlemagne” as long as one was dealing with people on low cultural level – or even a higher one if the absolute ruler or rulers were under enlightened advice (Sir Francis Bacon “New Atlantis” springs to mind). Certainly it is hard to see him supporting the landed interest having a bigger say in government – as he and the rest of the Westminster Philosophical Radicals (those lovers of Thomas Hobbes, they put a copy of his works in every library in Britain – and they did NOT put a copy of his opponents in those libraries, – the arch enemy of human personhood and arch supporter of political tyranny) spent their time trying to get landowners OUT of government, replacing them with paid “intellectuals” (like themselves – the Civil Service was their dream, so that Britain could be ruled like India), indeed only their hated of the Church was greater than their hated of the landowners – although they covered their hate in that mist of polite words that so marks 19th century prose.

Bottom line?

If this man, Mr John Stuart Mill, was a British Whig – I am Alexander the Great.

30 comments to The British Whig tradition and Mr John Stuart Mill

  • Zerren Yeoville

    ” “Death to the rich – apart from me and my fiends” seems to be the motto of many rich people in our times. ”

    Fiends? Was that a typing error – or a deliberate evaluation?

  • Julie near Chicago


    “Death to the rich – apart from me and my fiends”

    A common enough typo, but in this case the double meaning makes it hilarious!

    Thanks for this piece on the Whigs and Mr Mill. A pleasure to read. When I was in college in the early ’60s, Mr Mill was considered very much one of the philosophers whose thought had great influence on our Founders and Framers. It was somewhat disconcerting to find that his thoughts on Liberty might not have been entirely congruent with that of libertarians today.

  • Mr Ed

    Which illustrates that one can go wrong without importing ideas from Germany. I can see no reference to an obscure and evil German thinker, still less an infamous one.

    And the Left manage to distill their message down to ‘Hate! Rant! Steal! Kill!‘.

  • Paul Marks

    Julie do you mean David Hume? Normally academics pretend that he had a massive influence on the Founders – the opposite of the truth as the person who actually had a massive influence on the philosophy of the Founders was Thomas Reid (the foe of Hume).

    After all John Stuart Mill did not publish any books till after the most of the Founders were dead – and the famous books were written long after most of the American Founders were dead. “Principles of Political Economy” (that rehash of David Ricardo and J.S. Mill’s father James Mill) comes out in 1848, and “On Liberty” (the this book is NOT about economic questions – by the way regulating a seller is not the same as regulating a buyer….. and all the other weird stuff that is in that little book) comes out in 1859.

    Still you may be right. Take some of the nice paragraphs from “On Liberty” and say “that is what the Founders meant by Freedom of Speech” even though actually it is not (at least not fully) – but it is at least plausible.

    I wonder which side J.S. Mill would have been on as regards the “Gay Marriage” cake.

    I would like to say that I am confident that J.S. Mill would stand up for the freedom of a business owner not to be slave – to refuse to do business with anyone he does not want to do business with.

    But there is that nagging doubt – the “On Liberty” thing about regulating sellers (business enterprises) not being the same thing as regulating buyers.

    So Mr Mill would oppose people being forced to buy “Gay Marriage” cakes – but selling them?

    Perhaps Mr Mill would be on the right side – but perhaps he would do a Tim Farron (the Liberal leader who stresses his Christian niceness – and sells out Christians, and liberty, at every turn, at least Mr Mill did not pretend any religious belief).

    Ditto on many other matters. “Discussion” and “philosophical examination” is convenient.

    “Quote from Mill more Paul”.

    In case anyone says that – I am interested in conclusions (in what side Mr Mill was on), I am not interested in page-after-page-after-page of waffle. The works on formal philosophy are particularly irritating – even by the low standards of this form of writing. Endless “profound” seeming writing – which actually just constantly either misses the point or leaves out what actually matters.

    Bottom line? Human BEINGS do not exist. The “light” (or rather darkness) of David Hume. A reasoning “I” trying to “prove” that the reasoning “I” (the human soul – in the Aristotelian as well as religious sense) does not exist. A person trying to “prove” (by endless “philosophical argument”) that persons do not exist is like the bird in “Carry On Up The Jungle” vanishing up its own…..

    I used to do formal line-by-line examinations when I was younger – but it rarely did any good. If anyone wants one I suggest “An Examination of the Philosophy of Mr John Stuart Mill” by James McCosh.

    As for my me….

    Say what you mean and mean what you say – and be prepared to die for every word.

    That is all I ask for.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed – yes actually most of the German influence on John Stuart Mill is GOOD.

    It leads him to have doubts about the Hume-Bentham-James Mill stuff he was taught – fear that it takes something away from human beings.

    He never quite admits that what it takes from human beings is the fact that we are beings – but he sometimes hints that he knows (or at least I think he is hinting – it is hard to tell with him). But he never really formally breaks with what he was taught – he just tried to complicate it and make it seem nicer with a mist of words.

    Of course David Hume himself was really rehashing the Thomas Hobbes view of what a human is (a non being) – but uses very gentle and polite language. Thomas Hobbes uses machine language – the crudeness of his soul denying flesh-robot view of humans can not be honestly mistaken.

    However, there is bad side to the German influence on Mill – the positive use of the word state.

    That is from German 18th century thinkers (indeed before that) the idea that the state was something moral.

    But that is not just J.S. Mill – that is most writers of his time. For example Sir William Hamilton (an opponent of Mill) defines (it his definition of the term) a university as something created by “the state”.


    Historically that is wrong – as most universities were actually created by the Church.

    And philosophically it is nonsense as a university could be created by any group or association or individual – why should some person with a sword (a King) get involved in this?

    So why does Sir William Hamilton say “the state”?

    He says it because “the state” is treated as a sacred term in the 18th century German writing that Hamilton read so much.

    There is a similar effect in Mill – but actually not nearly as bad in his language.

  • Julie, I recommend Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions” for placing Mill within the evolution of thought that leads to modern PC (even though I disagree with one of his minor points on Mill – see below).

    Sowell evaluates Mill’s position as more mixed than some. On the one hand, Mill’s free speech analysis emphasised protecting him and like-minded thinkers from the social impact of regressive popular attitudes. Far from protecting these ordinary victorian people from the impact of his attitudes, Mill saw it as right and proper that “the most advanced thinkers” should impact them and that “in their best times” the public welcome this guidance. However he was also keen that “no fragments of truth be lost in the ruins of exploded error” and this meant he studied thinkers he disagreed with, making him unlike the no-platformers of recent times. He also argued that these wise thinkers should not go further and faster than the public can bear: “When he cannot establish what is right, he will not disdain to ameliorate what is wrong”. Today, he might be among those con selling their lefty friends to cool it a bit for now.

    The point where I (trivially) disagree with Sowell is Mill’s discussion of the power of the state to assign income. In a long paragraph, Mill asserts the absolute power of the state to divorce the assignment of wealth entirely from those whose work created it. In a long following paragraph Mill asserts that the state has no power to repeal the laws of economics. Sowell suggests a contradiction – the unconstrainedness of the state is asserted in a ringing declaration, then withdrawn again. I see rather the 19th century (German?) philosopher’s habit of pulling a subject apart into its parts and considering each in isolation. You can read Mill as saying that a communist state can exist, but cannot avoid its economy becoming a basket case.

    The same habit can be studied in the early part of Clausewitz “On War”. He considers separately how the intent of war calls for the most rapid and aggressive action, then how the physical fact of the defines having advantages over the attack prevents this intent from looking like real war. You can read Clausewitz as saying that a war in which defence had no advantage – a nuclear war where neither side had realistic intercept or shelter capabilities – would be a very sudden “launch it or lose it” event.

    The contrast between Mill’s ringing endorsements of what we might call the PC view and his cautious qualifications of how to get there can, of course, be viewed as another example of this analytic habit. Mill’s rhetoric places him firmly in their camp but his cautious approach would be an immense improvement on today’s “Don’t listen; shout down these islamophobe, racist, transphobe, homophobe, sexist, … more insults please … types”. Of course, Mill wrote in the Victorian era which gave him practical motives to be calm and persuasive (a lot less than the modern PC view of the Victorians would claim, but he could never have dreamed of silencing anybody, and had the sense to know his society was unusual in not silencing him). How his character would have been affected by the power of today’s intellectuals I do not know.

    Mill’s father hated Burke. For all that the son believed in studying those he disagreed with, I think he followed his father enough to learn far less than he could from Burke. Burke said the method was more important than the goal (“doubly uncertain: whether the chosen means will reach the goal and whether the goal will prove itself a good when reached”). Thus we could regard the moderation of Mill’s method as more important than the unwisdom of his goal. It would certainly be an improvement on his successors.

  • As well as putting ‘defines ‘ for ‘defence’ at one point in my post above, I see the spell-checker (doubtless aided by a typo from me) turned my

    “those counselling their lefty friends to cool it”


    “those con selling their lefty friends to cool it”

    I gather some lefties do indeed regard friends who advise them to “dial back the rage a bit” as con-sellers. 🙂

  • JohnW

    Which illustrates that one can go wrong without importing ideas from Germany. I can see no reference to an obscure and evil German thinker, still less an infamous one.

    Alas, no. Mill was heavily influenced by Kant both directly and indirectly via Comte and Von Humbolt.

    The reason people support J.S. Mill is because he says stuff like this:

    “Such being the reasons which make it imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; and such the baneful consequences to the intellectual, and through that to the moral nature of man, unless this liberty is either conceded, or asserted in spite of prohibition; let us next examine whether the same reasons do not require that men should be free to act upon their opinions—to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either physical or moral, from their fellow-men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril. This last proviso is of course indispensable. No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.”

    It’s good but it’s not sufficient to withstand the assaults on reason initiated by the main proponents of reason.

    You need Ayn Rand for that.

  • Julie near Chicago

    No, Paul. Actually we read a bit of James Mill as well, but On Liberty was required and was an important part of the course. (Basically, the writers who most influenced the Founders. So, including most definitely Mr. Locke, and a Mr. Smith, A. *g* And more, of course, but those are the gents I recall.) I honestly don’t remember much mention of Hume, not in that course.

    That would have been in 1961 or -62. Fifty-five years ago at least. Curricula have changed a good deal since my day. Do they still even teach that kind of course? It was taught by Dr. Harris, a quiet sort of man of ripening age. Happened to be Negro, and it was said he was a conservative. He was engaged with the material, not combative at all, but not standing for utter nonsense from the assorted first- and second-years in attendance. I think the students liked him, in a distant sort of way. He seemed fairly human, for a Prof. *g* An economist (as I just found out!). He was very interested in improving race relations here … as is explained in the WikiFootia article at the link below. He died in 1963.

    There’s an abstract of a paper he wrote on J.S. Mill at



    The Foot of All Knowledge has an article on him:


    From the article:

    In reference to black complaints against Jewish businessmen, Harris said:

    “ In their confusion, the masses are led to direct their animus against the Jew and against whiteness. The real forces behind their discomfort are masked by race which prevents them from seeing that what the Negro businessman wants most of all is freedom to monopolize and exploit the market they provide. They cannot see that they have no greater exploiter than the black capitalist who lives upon low-waged if not sweated labor, although he and his family may and often do, live in conspicuous luxury.[8]”

    Toward the end:

    Harris expressed deep concerns about the Soviet Union’s totalitarian direction led by Joseph Stalin in works such as “Black Communist in Dixie,” published in the National Urban League magazine, Opportunity.[2]

  • Julie, the wikipedia article’s phrasing raises questions in my mind in a couple of places.

    Firstly, the quote you give above: “In their confusion…”. To a hasty reader, Harris could sound like an anti-capitalist here, as if offering the standard left view that racism is an intentional distraction from the fundamental reality of class warfare, used by wicked capitalists (including black capitalists) for this purpose. However it could mean something much more specific: that black businessmen in the 30s used racial feeling to exploit their black market by excluding Jewish and other business competitors. This would be a thoroughly pro-Adam-Smith point. After reading the article attentively, I think the second reading is more the one meant. Perhaps I am being unfair to the article or to any likely reader in thinking that a hasty skim-reader could get the first impression. Indeed, this may be a point about how the fashionable ideas of today distort reading, not about the article as such at all.

    A second sentence also struck me: “However, Harris became silenced on the topic of race, and did not write about it for the remainder of his academic career.” Had it said, “Harris became silent on the topic of race…”, the meaning would have been clear. Instead, the phrasing implies some kind of pressure, but there is no hint of a reference or an explanation. I would have expected to see a [REFERENCE NEEDED] or an explanation of why that word was used. On the one hand, I’ve seen plenty of occasions where events are wildly re-interpreted today, without evidence, to become examples of what the ideology is sure must have been the case. On the other hand, it would be interesting if this early example of a black academic received a hint – or else more than a hint – that his career required writing about fashionable academic topics instead of black topics (like politicians, universities were far more prejudiced against blacks than the business world was until they abruptly switched to being far more prejudiced in favour of blacks; I have a very vague impression that Chicago back then was better than some).

  • Julie near Chicago


    Thanks for reading the article. Two things:

    First, perhaps everyone should know that none of the racial stuff came up in our class. It was not about race, nor the problems that either the Negroes nor the country were having. In short, we stuck to the topic.

    Second, I didn’t take it from the article that Dr. Harris was anti-capitalist, although I agree that the first part of it might be taken as hinting in that direction. I would say he was more of a harbinger of Thomas Sowell. (Yes, I have read several of his books, by the way. I was especially taken with The Vision of the Anointed and Black Rednecks. I can’t say I remember much of what he said about Mill I think I read A Conflict of Visions — it was quite ago, and at the time I was more interested in his Big Picture, so to speak.)

    It seems to me that what he was against was Communism, and the quote should be taken as an example of this. I think he was probably unhappy at the Communists’ involving themselves and their cause in the Civil Rights movement of the late ’50s and early ’60s (until his death). For instance, Martin Luther King’s willingness to work with them.

    But it’s equally clear that he didn’t intend to give Negroes a pass on bad behavior; nor do Dr. Sowell and Walter Williams.


    I noticed that “silenced” too. Possibilities: (1) A typo or one of those moments when one comes up with the wrong word (I was trying to think of “abdicate” the other night and all I could get was “abrogate” and “abnegate.” “How embarrassing. How embarrassing!” Lost a word, we have!) (2) The writer isn’t a native-English-speaker and just plain got the wrong word. (3) The writer was stating a plain fact correctly: Dr. Abrams was “silenced” by professional colleagues or their treatment of him, or by physical threats, or for all I know by his own disillusionment or for other personal reasons. (Robert Bidinotto finally got tired of his heavy involvement with the Objectivist movement, and announced he was giving it up and going back to his other serious interest — some aspect of environmentalism, if I recall.)

    As for “wild re-interpretation of events,” a “typical British understatement,” as they say. Yes indeed, and I couldn’t agree more. Your question is very much worth asking.

    Richard Epstein said at some point (on UT) in the last decade or so that “The University of Chicago has something of a reputation as a [relatively ?] conservative institution. Hah! [Meaning, Oh brother!]” But it’s true that in my day UC was not in the category of The People’s Democratic Republic of Berkeley, for instance.

    I was quite thoroughly upset when UC decided to give up its required courses based on the “Great Books” idea, which included readings in Western Civ (history of), philosophy, intro to music, art, and literature, a foreign language (ultimately they let the math and physics majors use Fortran to fulfill the requirement, some sort of math, and at least one of the “hard sciences.” Oh, and a Social Science course of some kind; as I remember it, our subject course was presented by the “Soshe” Dept.

    On the other hand, UC (nowadays, “The U of C”) has been a big player in Chicago politics for a very long time, it is said, and I think that’s probably true. I also came across a quote from the famous Robert Maynard Hutchins that was not too hopeful from the point of view of us libertarians. :>(

    Anyway, it’s very interesting. As David Horowitz keeps pointing out, back then the profs kept their political opinions to themselves. For instance, Richard Weaver (Ideas Have Consequences) taught a course for the English Dept. that I think was on Rhetoric, heavy on the Aristotle. But I had no idea of his politics until I became Internet-obsessed in the Early Ought-ies.


    I wish it were possible to read the article mentioned above on Mill and the British East India Company. Alas, Sage Journals wants a $ 50,000 ransom or some such as the price of observing its pixels….

  • Julie near Chicago

    By the way, Niall, your comment above on Mill is very interesting. Thanks. :>)

  • Julie near Chicago

    UC “conservative”? Well, you can see how people would get that idea, from such things as the 5-minute snippet of Uncle Miltie’s remarks from Free to Choose on “government’s responsibility to the poor,” and the reception they got from the audience, at


    and various other rather radical statements from the same serious, shown in the sidebar. And of course even now Richard is quite big on the importance of property rights. But I do wish he’d base that on the morality of property rights (which, pace Objectivism, I do think he believes in his heart) instead of the “good of society” argument.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Maybe it is my conceit, but whenever Paul Marks mentions Hume and/or free will, i cannot help thinking that he is addressing me. Did i say “maybe”? no, it is most definitely my conceit that makes me think so. But that does not mean that it is not true.

    Anyway, i feel the need to state my position. If Paul was not addressing me, then the only good that this comment will do is to myself: it will lift a weight off my chest.

    If Paul does feel a compulsive need to harangue me, as my conceit leads me to believe, then this comment might do him good as well: it might relieve him of his compulsion.

    That was by way of introduction. With apologies for temporarily ignoring the comments, and indeed most of the OP, let me get to the point.

    I am offended by Paul’s implication that compatibilism is a disguise for “hard determinism”, and therefore a form of incompatibilism. (Where incompatibilism is to be understood as the belief that free will is impossible in a deterministic world.) I am strongly offended, because i hold incompatibilism to be idiotic. Let me state this as clearly as possible:

    The belief that free will is incompatible with physical determinism, is idiotic.

    I realize that this statement is offensive to Paul Marks, and to others who hold this idiotic opinion. I am sorry about that, but i cannot honestly apologize, because i honestly hold this view, indeed i am strongly convinced of its truth; and it is necessary to state it quite clearly: i do not just think that free will is compatible with a deterministic world, i think that it is idiotic to think otherwise.

    The only concession that i can make to people who think otherwise, is this: holding an idiotic opinion most definitely does not make you an idiot.
    The opinion that free will is incompatible with determinism, can only be held by people who have never thought seriously about what it means to make choices.
    If such people have not thought seriously because they are unable to think seriously, then they are idiots. But most often, not thinking seriously is the result of laziness — or of a strongly biased perspective, which is pretty much the same thing.

    You’ll have noticed that i do not provide any supporting argument for my position here. That is partly because i am not trying to convince people of the truth of my assertions: i am only trying to dissociate myself from an idiotic opinion.

  • Mr Ed

    I am strongly offended, because i hold incompatibilism to be idiotic.

    What on Earth is there to be offended about? You might be surprised, disappointed, smug or delighted at your superior insight, exasperated or some other such reaction to error, but why offended?

    That you are convinced of a statement’s truth is no argument, why not show us your reasoning?

    I do not think that this:

    The opinion that free will is incompatible with determinism, can only be held by people who have never thought seriously about what it means to make choices.

    contains a deduction that is inevitable, you cannot know how seriously anyone has thought about anything.

    As for this:

    If such people have not thought seriously because they are unable to think seriously, then they are idiots

    No, that does not follow. One who is unable to think seriously is not therefore an idiot.

    i am only trying to dissociate myself from an idiotic opinion.

    Keep striving, but may I suggest that you look at your methods, you seem to me to have achieved quite the opposite, I’m afraid.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – no I was not addressing you.

    As for what you say here – you are wrong, obviously wrong, so it is pointless to continue in further dialogue with you, as you are wasting my time.

    Julie – yes “On Liberty” is well worth reading and there is much good in it on Freedom of Speech, but even on Freedom of Speech it is not all good – as Niall.

    It is a bit unfair (I admit that) – but I am put in mind of what the head of what was later Princeton said during the Founding period said about the “Moderates” back home in Scotland (the Moderates were people who were “broad” in their theology).

    “The Moderates were very tolerant. They would tolerate anything, apart from Holy Scripture and the opinions of the common people – these things they would not tolerate at all”.


    “But Paul you are a semi Pelagian heretic” – so I am, but I would not have pretended to be Church of Scotland, tried to take control of the organisation (whose doctrines I did not believe in) and then crush the people who actually did believe in them.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Paul — I do love that quote! LOL

  • Paul Marks

    So do I Julie. I do not agree with the master of what is now Princeton on theology – but he had a point that the people who presented themselves as tolerant were actually intolerant.

    Actually the problem went back to the reign of Queen Anne – when the local election of ministers of religion in Scotland was replaced by the appointment of MOST ministers by a central bureaucratic structure (some ministers in Scotland were appointed by local landowners – as priests of the Church of England mostly were at the time, but most were appointed in the name of the Crown by a central bureaucratic structure). This marked the change from an Established Church to a State Church – the two are not the same.

    This was not the way in Ulster – where the Scots Irish continued to elect their local ministers of religion for their (dissenting) Churches (the Established Church being the Anglican Church of Ireland at the time) – this divide in 1707 (if my memory serves) marks the point of divergence between Protestant Scottish and Protestant “Scots Irish” culture – that led (for example) to most of them in America fighting on opposite sides after 1776. It may even have led to the great faith (and “faith” is not too strong a word) in bureaucratic rule that one sees in Scotland in modern times – although that is a controversial statement.

    And, of course, I should have said that Niall (someone who certainly does not live bureaucratic rule – thus refuting the stereotype of the state-worshipping Scot) pointed where the flaws in what Mr J.S Mill has to say even about Freedom of Speech (the one thing were he is held up as exceptionally good).

    Which way would Mr Mill have gone?

    Would he (like modern “liberals”) “reasoned” himself to a place where one should use force to suppress Freedom of Speech in order to “defend” tolerance?

    Or would Mr Mill have stood against “Critical Theory” and so on?

    I do not know.

    I just do not know.

    There would have come a moment (as this in all important questions) where Mr Mill would have had to make a CHOICE.

    Something that is not predetermined by a chain of series of causes and effects going back to the start of the universe – a true choice.

    A choice between good (painful good – one can not choose good, in anything important, without suffering) and evil.

    And I do not know which way John Stuart Mill would have gone.

    Indeed my heretical belief is that even God can not know in advance which way Mr Mill would have gone.

  • Paul Marks

    I should mention the great 19th century British critic of J.S. Mill – William Whewell.

    The Cambridge philosopher William Whewell made many similar philosophical points against Mill that James McCosh made in the United States in philosophy.

    A polymath (many subjects) William Whewell was also a wordsmith (for example he invented the word “scientist”) like his fellow Cambridge man – Ralph Cudworth in the 17th century.

  • JohnW

    I very much doubt that Mill, despite being a self-declared socialist, would have gone full-on.
    To go the whole hog you need to be a rationalist or immersed in a rationalist culture.
    Mill for all his faults was an empiricist – even Hume in his most sensible moments could not deny the wisdom of checking theory to realty.

  • Paul Marks


    David Hume rejects the starting point of reality – the first “is”, one’s own existence.

    David Hume denies the “I” – trying to explain it away with sophistry such as that a thought does not mean a thinker.

    And J.S. Mill follows Hume in this darkness which Mill calls the “light of Hume”.

    People who are prepared to do that are capable of any intellectual betrayal.

    However, you may be CORRECT, confronted with the horror to which their philosophy leads – they might have drawn back.

    I do not know.

  • JohnW

    Indeed, he does – he rejects everything: existence, identity, entities, causality, concepts, perception, free will, value, self, purpose, and consciousness and declares he has disproven reason too – but he cannot escape his culture, hence:

    “To begin with clear and self-evident principles, to advance by timorous and sure steps, to review frequently our conclusions, and examine accurately all their consequences; though by these means we shall make both a slow and a short progress in our systems; are the only methods, by which we can ever hope to reach truth, and attain a proper stability and certainty in our determinations.”

    Neither can Mill, who in economics did more damage to classical liberalism than Marx, deny his empiricist culture or its standards:

    “Whatever is known to us by consciousness, is known beyond possibility of question. What one sees or feels, whether bodily or mentally, one cannot but be sure that one sees or feels. No science is required for the purpose of establishing such truths; no rules of art can render our knowledge of them more certain than it is in itself. There is no logic for this portion of our knowledge.”

    To create a Robespierre, a Stalin, a Hitler or a Pol Pot you need abstract certainties – you need rationalism.

  • Paul Marks

    A lot to think about in your last comment JohnW.

    For example I would say that the quote from David Hume is exactly what he does NOT do – although he very carefully PRETENDS to do it (which, I think, is your point).

    The quote from J.S. Mill is also good – and again in practice he goes AGAINST it.

    Like Daid Hume, J.S. Mill then tries to explain-away consciousness. He starts by formally accepting it – and then puts all the efforts of his mind (his powerful mind) into an effort to undermine and destroy mind. To, in effect, deny the mind (the self) exists.

    But then you know all this.

    Your last point is the one that really gives my pause – it is something I have not really considered and will need a lot of thought.

    I am not sure if I am capable of giving you a proper reply on the last point you make.

    And I would rather not reply to the point you make at the end than write a bad or silly reply.

    This is not an attack by me on you – it is an attack by me on me.

  • JohnW

    Hume may have thought that he had proved the “inertness” of reason but at least you can understand where he is coming from and it’s hard to take umbrage with someone who openly declares his own views to be ridiculous:

    “I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

    You can’t blame him for the horror that follows – the real culprit for that was Kant.

    To destroy civilisations you need to start with a Grand Theory – some big overarching plan that trumps life and experience – call it common interest or the general good – either will suffice, but the results will always be the same.

    British Empiricism knew it – Continental Rationalism denied it – plus ca change, as they say in France.

  • Snorri Godhi

    This is vintage Paul Marks: first he says that free will exists and it is important that people believe in it; then when i say, most emphatically, that i do believe in it, he says that i am wrong. His bible must be How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

    What about you, Paul? why should i take your word that you believe in free will? You are a hard incompatibilist, you said it yourself: you believe that free will is compatible neither with determinism nor with indeterminism. It would be intellectually honest of you to draw the obvious conclusion that free will cannot possibly exist, and then either reject your premises (one or both of them) or else accept the conclusion — and if you are not intellectually honest, then how can i accept your claim to believe in free will?

    Claims made by a person who refuses to accept the logical implications of his own claims, are literally nonsense.

    Don’t think that i take satisfaction in telling you this, Paul.
    OK, a little temporary satisfaction, but when it’s gone, i remain sad, because you could do much better.

  • Snorri Godhi

    JohnW: if you are still around, you might care to comment on Rand’s view of compatibilism. I seem to remember reading that Objectivists are indeed compatibilists, both from friends and foes of Ayn Rand.

  • JohnW

    Yes, Objectivism upholds free will, see: “Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand,” by Leonard Peikoff and “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” by Ayn Rand.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes JohnW.

    Unlike “Snorri” David Hume admitted (at times he admitted – NOT all the time) that his work was ridiculous. But that did not cause him to not publish it.

    Kant’s error was not in accepting Hume’s absurd conclusions as truth, unlike “Snorri” Kant did NOT do that – the great error of Kant was to take David Hume with such vast seriousness, to feel that David Hume must be saying something that (even if it was in error) was profound – and that traditional reason (traditional understanding) needed to be radically changed in order to defend the existence of Free Will and objective morality against the “challenge of Hume”.

    The alternative was to treat David Hume as playing the part of the “sceptic” – who was (in truth) PLAYING INTELECUAL GAMES, and to respond to him by defending (not radically changing) traditional reason (traditional understanding).

    That is, basically, the response that Thomas Reid made.

    However, Kant never read Thomas Reid (none of the books of Thomas Reid) – Kant simply relied on third hand accounts that stated that Reid just said the “common man” was automatically correct (NOT what Reid was saying at all) and he dismissed Thomas Reid WITHOUT reading him.

    Thus the German language world got an incredibly complicated effort to “incorporate” the “insights” of Hume into Free Will and Objective Morality (of course David Hume is not really compatible with either of these things) rather than a straight forward PHILOSOPHICAL REJECTION of David Hume as we see with Thomas Reid.

    Today the English and French language world (not just the German language world) is also trapped in this mess – as the approach of Kant to Hume (trying to incorporate his supposed insights) is followed – which can only lead to madness.

    And who led the English language world into this mess – by treating Hume as “light” (rather than darkness)?

    John Stuart Mill.

    The refutations of John Stuart Mill by William Whewell and James McCosh are, today, as forgotten as the refutation of David Hume by Thomas Reid.

    This is no accident – and it is not the result of such writers as Whewell, McCosh and Reid being refuted. They have been “shoved down the Memory Hole” by people with a very strong POLITICAL agenda.

  • Paul Marks

    In answer to Snorri’s question – Ayn Rand did not reject normal language. To Objectivists (as to any normal person) a “choice” means a choice – i.e. that one could have chosen to do otherwise than one did.

    “Compatibilists” seek to redefine the word “choice” to mean that one could NOT have chosen to do otherwise than one did. This destroys the traditional meaning of the word “choice”.

    In short “compatibilism” is not really a philosophical positon – it is a piece of word play.

    Both Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff were quite clear that people could choose to do other than we do, that is why we are persons (that is part of the definition of the word person).

    Nor are choices “random” (as Ralph Cudworth pointed out in the 17th century, the identification of the Epicurians, in Classical times, of free will with the “random swerve of the atom” is a mistake) – choice is itself (it can not be reduced to something else – Reductionism is mistake), it is NEITHER predetermined or random.

    The chooser is the human (or non human) person. It is the capacity to make real choices (to do other than we do) that defines us as persons.

  • Paul Marks

    As for “how to lose friends”.

    If someone redefines the word choice to mean non choice – they are not friends of mine. I have no wish for such friends.

    I have no wish for friendship with people who redefine the term free will to mean (in the words of the late Martin Luther) “bondage of the will” – the inability to do other than we do.

    That the supposed difference between “compatiblism” and “determinism” is a “distinction without a difference” is shown by the inclusion of Thomas Hobbes as a “compatiblist”.

    Thomas Hobbes – of all people.

    If ever there was a philosopher who reduced humans to non agents (to flesh robots) it was Thomas Hobbes.

    Just as if there ever was a philosopher who stood for political tyranny it was Thomas Hobbes.

    If Thomas Hobbes was a “compatiblist” then the distinction between compatiblist and determinist is meaningless – it is a distinction without a difference.