The authoritarian secularism of John Stuart Mill. .

AuthorCarey, George W.
PositionJohn Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity - Book Review

John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity, by Linda C. Raeder. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. 402 pp. $49.95.

I first encountered John Stuart Mill in an undergraduate political theory survey course. As I recall, the class read selections from On Liberty and the instructor emphasized that this treatise was the locus classicus for the defense of free speech, individuality, and toleration, the basic values of the genuinely open society I encountered Mill again in a graduate school seminar devoted exclusively to his writings, primarily his political works. We examined with care On Liberty, Representative Government, and Utilitarianism. At this point I began, however dimly, to perceive problems. For instance, we were asked to write a short paper on how Mill, if he had been a Supreme Court justice, would have ruled in the Dennis case--a relatively early "cold war" case involving the conviction of communist leaders under the Smith Act on the charge of "conspiring to advocate" the overthrow of the government. I don't recall where I came down on this question, but I do recall that his teachings regarding the acceptable range of individual liberty seemed to be somewhat contradictory. At the very least they raised legitimate questions that Mill did not address in the essay. To be sure, there is the "one very simple principle" statement up front, the one so dear to libertarians, that seems to limit any interference with another's liberty by the state, an individual, or the community to matters of "self-protection" or "preventing harm to others." But how, I wondered, did this square with his sanctioning punishment "by opinion" of those whose "acts may be hurtful to others or wanting in due consideration for their welfare," though they violate no "constituted right"? Mill tells us that we have every right to shun such an individual, "to caution others" against him, and to accord "others a preference over him in optional good offices." True enough, Mill is here treating of "severe penalties at the hands of others," penalties that come from social sanction, not the law. It occurred to me, however, that Mill was sanctioning a penalty, a form of social ostracism, that could be more severe and insidious than many forms of legal punishment. More generally, as Mill proceeds in On Liberty, he seems to take away a good deal of what he "gives" at the beginning, so that by the final chapter, "Applications," wherein he discusses specific issues (e.g., gambling, drinking) and state regulation, his conclusions fall well within the realm of conventional morality. It appeared to me that Mill's distinction between "self-regarding" and "other-regarding," so central to his thesis, had broken down as well. In sum, I didn't know what to make of On Liberty.

Then, to add to my perplexity, the Mill of On Liberty in his more audacious moments seems to praise and defend nonconformity; to view nonconformity as an essential ingredient of true individuality. In any event, there is no gainsaying that Mill provides grounds for challenging accepted truths, traditions, and conventional morality. This is the Mill civil libertarians have come to adore and adopt as their very own. On the other hand, I found a very sober Mill in the pages of Considerations on Representative Government, whose teachings are thoroughly traditional and whose prescriptions for the ailments of representative government are even cast in an Aristotelian mold. The differences I perceived between his approach in On Liberty and Representative Government were sufficient to make me wonder whether Mill's philosophical outlook had not drastically changed shortly after he wrote On Liberty. Years later, after reading Gertrude Himmelfarb's On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill, I was pleased t o see that I was not alone in noting the difference between the two works. Moreover, Himmelfarb constructed a plausible case to affirm what I had suspected as a graduate student, namely, that this difference could be attributed to the fact that during the time Mill was writing On Liberty, he had fallen under the spell of Harriet Taylor.

Finally, while I understood the principal message of Mill's Utilitarianism, I regarded it as an effort to "save" utilitarianism by acknowledging what anybody with any sense knows: that there are higher and lower forms of pleasure. In fact, I felt that he actually demolished the utilitarian principle with the introduction of this "qualitative" dimension, but, in any event, with others, I had difficulty in seeing how his arguments and positions in On Liberty could be based, as he contended, on the principle of utility, particularly on his "modified" version. On Liberty, Representative Government, and Utilitarianism were, in my estimation, three substantial works that raised profound questions. They did provide fuel for spirited seminar sessions, but their relationship to one another was not evident to me, other students, or the instructor. We treated them as separate, largely unrelated works.

The first inkling I had that I (along with just about everybody else) had totally misunderstood Mill came after reading an article the late Joseph Hamburger wrote for a Mill symposium in the Political Science Reviewer. One of Hamburger's points was that Mill subscribed to the traditional view that a stable political society rested upon an "orthodoxy" or, if that seems too strong a word, on the society's unquestioning acceptance of values, assumptions, opinions that, to serve their purpose, ought to remain outside the realm of public dispute or contention. My first reaction to this was one of disbelief because its implications are so enormous. If true, it not only brings into question the standard interpretation of On Liberty, but leads one to ask, Why did Mill write this book? Can we make sense of his teaching in light of what he regarded as requisites for social stability? I was also curious (I still am) why Mill scholars--i.e., those familiar with the whole range of his enormous output--had not pointed out and dealt with this aspect of Mill's thinking before.

Alas, as Hamburger makes abundantly clear, Mill's treatment of "social statics" in his Logic and elsewhere leaves no doubt about his seeing the need for an orthodoxy. Of course, Hamburger had much more to say about...

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