Some Of Our Books


« October is "S" Month at PEA Soup | Main | Monday: Julia Driver »

October 18, 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi David. The Mill quote is interesting and I had been unaware of it (thanks). As I read the passage (in context), Mill sides with the speculative (rather than practical) Tories, who express faith in principles of government and stress the importance of being guided by moral authorities of various kinds, against this kind of liberal temperament, though he goes on to express skepticism about Tory faith in government. I guess I would see Mill making a distinction between liberalism as a political or jurisprudential thesis about the limits of governmental regulation, which presumably Mill endorses, and a certain kind of liberal ethos of rugged individualists who see themselves as individually sovereign with little to learn from social institutions and practices and other individuals (this is crude but it’s the direction in which I think Mill is going). This sort of liberal ethos ignores Mill’s claims about individual fallibility and the epistemic and constitutive benefits of collective reasoning of the sort he describes in On Liberty, Considerations on Representative Government, and The Subjection of Women. If this is what Mill has in mind, then he is not criticizing liberal ethos as such, but rather a particular conception that is individualist in the wrong way. If so, then there is no inconsistency in Mill (a) criticizing this brand of liberal ethos, and (b) defending liberal claims about the limits of governmental regulation, and (c) elsewhere defending his own different conception of liberal ethos.

I like your idea for the thread. Now I’ll have to try to think of other passages in Mill or others that trigger the Say What? response.

Sorry, Dale. Not sure why I thought OP was David Shoemaker. Perhaps all the Davids from the thread on ethical falsifiability ....

An understandable mistake in view of my poor record of participation here! You're more sanguine than I am about the possibility of reconciling this passage with On Liberty (not that I'm especially disturbed by the thought that Mill's views changed over time, even radically). Notice that Mill incorporates the idea of being open to persuasion by others within the description of the liberalism that he's criticizing, so I don't think that the criticism is only meant to apply to the excessively individualist attitude that one has nothing to learn from anyone else. Also, right before the passage that I quoted, Mill describes the speculative Tories as being "duly sensible that it is good for man to be ruled; to submit both his body & mind to the guidance of a higher intelligence & virtue." Surely 'ruled' here implies the use of coercion.

Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor ... .- Adam Smith Chapter I, Part II, 775, Book V Wealth of Nations.

Dale, both of your points are well taken. I guess I would make two observations. (1) The letter to Sterling is written in 1831 after Mill spent some time with Wordsworth, who clearly impressed and surprised him. He praises Wordsworth’s ability to see many sides of a question, which he contrasts with the radicals and utilitarians. Mill goes so far as saying “Hence all my differences with him [Wordsworth], or with any other philosophical Tory, would be differences of matter-of-fact or detail, while my differences with the radicals & utilitarians are differences of principle …” (81). So it’s noteworthy how early this is and its proximity to his mental crisis, where he tends to emphasize differences with the Philosophical Radicals and embrace ideas from the Romantic and Conservative traditions. So this may reflect a phase that is in some ways immature and reactionary. (2) If the liberal ethos criticized on p. 84 reflects Radical doctrines, then there may be some truth in my suggestion that he means primarily to criticize a certain conception of liberalism associated with the Radicals. It may be that at this stage in Mill’s thinking, he tends to associate liberalism with the Radicals. That’s compatible with thinking that Mill will eventually develop his own conception of liberalism and the right kind of liberal ethos that is different from the ethos he criticized earlier, since his own view of the justification, content, and implications of liberalism 25 years later will differ in important ways from earlier Radical views. That is, his condemnation here of the liberal ethos is a little too sweeping and indiscriminate, reflecting his early reaction to the Radicals and sympathy with Romantic and Conservative ideas. But perhaps its real target is a Radical form of liberalism that Mill himself consistently rejects, even later when he elaborates and defends his own form of liberalism.

Of course, one could accept these two claims and still experience the Say What? reaction you describe.


That's a great passage -- I hadn't seen it before. In my view, it is not that surprising, however, because I believe Mill's work is over time consistently marked by the problem of balancing the rightful authority of competent parties (who have what Bentham called "official aptitude") with the educative value of placing limits on that authority. In some essays he emphasizes one side more than the other, but resists going too far in either direction. And so a reading like that suggested by David Brink above seems sensible to me, though I would emphasize not just the benefits of collective reasoning but the fact that Mill also designs institutions in order to facilitate competent decision-making within basic liberal constraints.

I don't lose many rounds of "who can read Mill most charitably," although David and Piers may be putting me to the test here. Or maybe not; I'm not sure how far apart the three of us are here (or how far away I am from the two of you, at any rate). I'm completely on board with the first of the points that David raises in his last post; we know that the conservative influence on Mill was strongest at this point in his life, through figures like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. But I just don't see any way to read this passage on which it's not fundamentally inconsistent with his later views in On Liberty, and I'm not sure whether David and/or Piers is trying to suggest that this could be done. ". . . making every man his own guide & sovereign master,& letting him think for himself & do exactly as he judges best for himself, giving other men leave to persuade him if they can by evidence, but forbidding him to give way to authority; and still less allowing them to constrain him more than the existence & tolerable security of every man's person and property renders indispensably necessary." That's really quite a nice summary of the "one simple principle." Although despite my earlier joke, I don't think that I'm being uncharitable to Mill in suggesting that over the course of many years there was a fundamental change in his thinking on this point.


Sorry if my comment was too quick. Focusing on the quote you provide, I think roughly that the first half of it is something Mill accepts in On Liberty, but that the second half of it (starting with "but forbidding him...") is more stringent than Mill accepts in On Liberty. So--and I think this is in line with David's first suggestion--the view expressed in the quote you provided is something he always rejects, even if his own liberal view articulated later has some overlap with it. That's the thought... but I guess it depends on whether you believe later Mill thought interference could be justified only for those very limited reasons he mentions in the quote you provided. -- Piers

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ethics at PEA Soup

PPE at PEA Soup

Like PEA Soup

Search PEA Soup


  • Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in any given post reflect the opinion of only that individual who posted the particular entry or comment.