Misreading Mill

  • June 16, 2023
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In his just-published book Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future (Sentinel, 2023), the political theorist Patrick J. Deneen indicts modern liberalism, in which he includes both classical liberalism and progressive liberalism. One of his main charges against liberalism is that it rejects the view, taught both by Christianity and classical political philosophy, that true liberty consists of virtuous conduct. In this view, people must hold their passions in check in order to be truly free. Modern liberalism thinks otherwise, claims Deneen, substituting individual autonomy for virtue. According to modern liberalism, assertions that there is an objective good to be discerned, rather than chosen, are mistaken.

Deneen sees John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) as a principal source of the view he rejects. In it, Mill said:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

Key to understanding Mill’s contention is that Mill didn’t limit his harm principle to cases in which force, or the threat of force, was used to suppress dissenting opinions or conduct, and Deneen rightly stresses this point. Mill had in mind also the “tyranny of public opinion,” about which he says:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

Deneen argues that Mill’s views about the need for individual autonomy have led to the stifling “woke” atmosphere of our own time.

The “harm principle” was once believed to be the redoubt of libertarian freedom, a minimalist appeal that would mostly be deployed to prevent exercise of political power in the moral domain.

However, embedded in its deepest logic was its potential, and inevitability, of being wielded as an aggressive tool of domination and even tyrannical power. Far from being a break on tyrannical power, it was the ultimate means of empowering the “experimental” over those who believed there ought to be limits to the libertarian dismantling of all norms, and the resulting social disruption caused by ever more extreme forms of experimentation.

Deneen suggests that Mill’s harm principle implies that those who do not support nonconformists should be sanctioned: “To be ‘mispronounced’ or ‘dead-named’ is to be harmed, and—in keeping with the Millian ethos—the full force and power of the state and its semipublic, semiprivate agents can be brought down on the malefactor.”

Even if Deneen’s criticism of Mill’s harm principle were correct, it would leave Rothbardian libertarianism unscathed. For Murray Rothbard, political philosophy is concerned only with the permissibility of the use or threat of force: issues of conformity to public opinion are outside its purview. But I’d like to examine whether Deneen’s criticism of Mill is, in fact, correct.

When Mill warns of the danger of conformity, what does he have in mind? The answer lies within a passage from On Liberty that I have quoted: it is the danger that “the prevailing opinion and feeling” will stifle dissent. But Mill does not say or imply that any criticism of an “experimental” practice, or failure to approve it, counts as a violation of the harm principle. Mill himself says about the nonconformist:

He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. (emphasis added)

Those who oppose same-sex marriage, for example, would be perfectly free to speak and write against it by Mill’s principle; nor is there the slightest suggestion in Mill’s essay that you cannot say anything that might offend a member of a “protected” group.

Deneen makes another dubious claim about what Mill says. Mill warns about the tyranny of public opinion, but he does not say what measures should be taken against this tyranny. He does not say, as Deneen claims he does, that force may be used to compel conformity to the harm principle. This again is an “inference” that Deneen has concocted from thin air. Long experience has taught me that when a political theorist who is not an analytic philosopher says that a proposition logically follows from a certain doctrine, it is usually the proposition’s negation that in fact follows.

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