A rare accurate assessment of John Stuart Mill, prophet of utilitarianism, father of libertarianism, and all-around Victorian egghead, in WSJ, via Arts and Letters Daily. Mill is an ideological touchstone, more than an author: he is either praised or condemned for what he now stands for — a kind of moral and economic laissez faire — rather than for what he actually said. Roger Scruton treats Mill with humanity, while pulling no punches on the consequences of his ideas.
Utilitarianism (“that action is right which promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number”) was a philosophy of the head which seemed to make no room for the heart. Mill recovered through reading Wordsworth, found consolation with Harriet Taylor, the wife of a tolerant gentleman who no doubt had good grounds for trusting in his wife’s chastity, and subsequently married the widowed Mrs. Taylor to continue in an apparently sexless union.
Mill’s rebellion against utilitarianism did not prevent him from writing a qualified defense of it, and his “Utilitarianism” is acknowledged today as one of the few readable accounts of a moral disorder that would have died out two centuries ago, had people not discovered that the utilitarian can excuse every crime. Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia. As Mill recognized, the “greatest happiness principle” must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant. [. . .]
Taking “On Liberty” and “Principles” together we find, in fact, a premonition of much that conservatives object to in the modern liberal worldview. The “harm” doctrine of “On Liberty” has been used again and again to subvert those aspects of law which are founded not in policy but in our inherited sense of the sacred and the prohibited. Hence this doctrine has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators. Meanwhile, the statist morality of “Principles” has flowed into the moral vacuum, so that the very same law that refuses to intervene to protect children from pornography will insist that every aspect of our lives be governed by regulations that put the state in charge.
. . .Yet Mill suffered from the same defect as his father. He never understood that wisdom is deeper and rarer than rational thought. He never understood that the intellect, which flies so easily to its conclusions, relies on something else for its premises. Those conservatives who upheld what Mill called “the despotism of custom” against the “experiments in living” advocated in “On Liberty” were not stupid simply because they recognized the limits of the human intellect. They were, on the contrary, aware that freedom and custom are mutually dependent, and that to free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.
This last line encapsulates the theme of this blog: that only by way of morality — of self-restraint — can we preserve our freedom.