Friday, May 19, 2006

Roger Scruton at on J.S. Mill

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was one of the leading philosophers of political liberalism, and his classic work "On Liberty," contains the foremost statement of freedom of speech in Western thought. For Mill, freedom of speech -- and particularly the free expression of ideas -- was vital to human development, and words or ideas should never be censored or suppressed, as even the most unpopular or flawed belief might contain a nugget of truth or wisdom, and that through the competition of countervailing ideas truth would emerge. Roger Scruton, in today's Wall Street Journal, has an informative piece on some contradictions found in Mill's thought, and especially his statist inclinations revealed in "The Principles of Political Economy." Here's Scruton on Mill's rebellion against Utilitarianism, the cost/benefit philosophy identified with Mill's father, James Mill, and Jeremy Bentham:

In response to his own wavering discipleship, therefore, he wrote "On Liberty," perhaps his most influential, though by no means his best, production. At the time, Benthamite ways of thinking were influencing jurisprudence, and arguments based on the "general good" and the "good of society" appealed to the conservative imagination of the Victorian middle classes. It seemed right to control the forms of public worship, to forbid the expression of heretical opinions, or to criminalize adultery, for the sake of a "public morality" which exists for the general good. If individual freedom suffers, then that, according to the utilitarians, is the price we must pay.

According to Mill's argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny--including the "tyranny of the majority." Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it--for in such circumstances one person's gain in freedom is another person's loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual's right to act and speak as he chooses.

This principle has a profound significance: It is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the "sovereignty of the individual." The problem lies in the concept of harm. How can I prove that one person's action does not harm another? How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs--beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability? How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life's meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms? These questions are as significant for us as they were for Mill; the difference is that radical Islam has now replaced Scottish puritanism as the enemy of liberal values.
Scruton goes on to note that the marriage of the ideas in "On Liberty" and the more statist connotations in "Principles" has provided the basis for modern (rather than classical) liberalism, and its interventionist propensities, which often conflict with traditional moral prohibitions. This is interesting food for thought and may cause a weekend divergence here at Burkean Reflections for some refreshment in the Western philosophical classics.

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