Mill's Liberty: A Study in Contradictions

"The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance
is a wondrous trait and a prerequisite to
success in the ideological professions."(1)
--Noam Chomsky

My original intention in this paper was to focus wholly on Mill's theories of liberty, individualism, and morality as applied to the reality of the burgeoning British Empire of his day. During the course of my research, however, I found ever increasing evidence of self-contradiction in his writings; while the issue of Empire vs. Liberty is herein addressed, I shall also be discussing the problems involved with Mill's utopianism, as well as looking at the legacy of his economic theories as applied in the present-day multi-national capitalistic superstructure.

"Utility," writes Mill, "or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." (2) This fundamentally hedonistic concept is further elaborated by Mill to equate happiness with pleasure and the absence of pain. This sounds good so far, until we consider the very real necessity of pain in the process of growth, both as individuals and as


(1) Noam Chomsky, Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era, p. 46.

(2) John Stuart Mill, "Utilitarianism" (excerpt), p. 327.

societies. In this regard, Utilitarianism seems to be a static philosophy, in that it fails to address fundamental processes of human development. In addition it is excessively simplistic and myopic in it's attention to the pleasure principle. Such a doctrine could never realistically be applied to a system of colonization such as advocated by one John Stuart Mill of the East India Company; part and parcel of the colonization is to place the "Greatest Happiness Principle" of the colonizers over that of the colonized.

The ideal of individualism and individual liberties also play a large role in Mill's writings. These individual liberties included liberty of conscience, thought, opinion, and pursuits. Mill is very specific as to when individual liberties may be violated when he states "...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."(3) Yet, in the same essay (pages 75-95), as Mill discusses what he believes an individual owes society, careful reading reveals that he considered many types of rebellious behavior against the government or status quo should be regulated and restrained. Therefore, a colonized population, such as India, is not allowed to express their desire for individual freedoms if those freedoms pose a threat to the prevailing system, in this case the East India Company and, as of 1858, the British Empire. Hence, the prohibition of Indians to make their own salt, to grow their own indigo, or produce their own _______________

(3) John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, p. 9.

cloth. In the light of such restrictions, the idea of individual liberty seems secondary at best.

Mill goes on to apply these admittedly problematic ideals of individual liberty to economic entities. "Restrictions on trade, or on production for purposes of trade, are indeed restraints; and all an evil."(4) England exercised this policy, commonly known as "Free Trade," with great vigor during the Nineteenth Century in its economic dealings with its colonies. However, the "freedom" implied by the term was (and is) somewhat one-sided. This is due to the fact that in those instances wherein the liberty of the individual clashes with the liberty of the economic entity, according to the doctrine of utilitarianism, the economic entity will predominate, in that it presumably provides the greater amount of happiness to society, and is, hence, more useful. In short, when all is said and done, the rights of the individual are put on the back burner, so to speak; individual liberty is co-opted by larger economic interests which, as we have seen, have now taken the ideological place initially reserved for the individual in the first place.

Add to this already murky philosophical soup the overt elitism present throughout Mill's writings and what is revealed is a generally inimical attitude towards the principles of democracy.

Mill's attitude toward democracy is sounded as he proclaims that one of the main conditions essential to good government is "that it be government by a select body, not by the public collectively: _______________

(4) Ibid., p. 96.

that political questions be not decided by an appeal, either direct or indirect, to the judgement or will of an uninstructed mass, whether of gentlemen or of clowns; but by the deliberately formed opinions of a comparatively few, specially formulated for the task."(5) Here, Mill is clearly advocating an oligarchical system wholly suited to an imperialistic ruling class, yet not terribly concerned with liberty on an individual to individual basis. In fact, in regards to India, his opinion of the superiority of the English race is stated in no uncertain terms as he writes "...the conquerors and the conquered cannot in this case live together under the same free institutions."(6) He goes on to express his opinion that "...these less advanced people...must be governed as subjects."(7) The reasoning behind these views is made clear in a subsequent essay in which he defends Britain's retention of her colonies: "And in the case of the British possessions it has the advantage, specially valuable at the present time, of adding to the moral influence, and weight in the councils of the world, of the Power which, of all in existence, best understands liberty."(8) This last reference to liberty is particularly ironic, in light of what has thus far been gathered regarding Mill's rather specialized theories on the subject.

At this point, it is important to juxtapose what appears to be a cynical, elitist mentality with those utopian concepts which form the basis of utilitarianism and free trade. On the one hand we have _______________

(5) John Stuart Mill, Essays on Politics and Society, p. 649.

(6) Ibid., p. 550.

(7) Ibid., p. 550.

(8) Ibid., p. 565.

a Mill who expresses contempt for the masses and a general lack of confidence in the principles of democracy, advocating instead an oligarchy ruled by an intellectual aristocracy; then, on the other hand, we find an almost sentimental Mill, expressing confidence in a mankind whose own drive for happiness will lead it inevitably towards that perfect society in which, if not impeded by outside interference, the greatest good will come to the greatest number. Which Mill are we to believe?

The overriding flaw in Mill's utopian vision of human intercourse is his stated belief that, given the chance (i.e. no interference from outside entities such as governments) the best in human nature will ultimately prevail. Even the most superficial reading of history will show that this is simply not the case. It is interesting to note that modern ultra-conservatives, while paying lip-service to many of his doctrines, (such as free trade) have just the opposite opinion of the run of mankind, namely that law and order and strict obedience to the edicts of society are the way to go. Ironically, while seeming to contradict him, they are, in reality, in perfect accord with his actual views. This is due to the inescapable conclusion that Mill didn't believe in individual liberties, in and of themselves, and tended to sacrifice such ideals to the larger goal of commerce and imperial conquest.

Mill's ideological legacy thrives to this very day. The endowment of individual liberties upon economic entities advocated by Mill has become the cornerstone of modern capitalism. Indeed, in America, the foremost industrial power in the world, Mill's concept has been adopted and sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Bellotti ruling of 1980 granted corporations first amendment free speech rights, thus equating, in the realm of expression, the corporation with the individual. According to Professor Herbert Schiller, author of Culture Inc. and Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, this ruling makes it "...a foregone conclusion that the corporate speaker will be the loudest voice in town."(9) Again, we see the internal conflict in this fundamentally Millian development. With the enhancement of corporate power by such Supreme Court rulings, the inevitable consequence is the diminishment of the liberty of the individual.

Another consequence of Mill's theories is the current state of affairs brought about by a decade of relatively unrestrained free trade. As Professor Schiller points out, "'Economic freedom' is a euphemism for private enterprise unfettered by social accountability."(10) This same social unaccountability has left us with savings and loan scandals, corporate domination of the media, and a vast concentration of wealth at the top of the economic food chain the likes of which this country has never seen. How does this figure into the greatest-happiness-for-the-greatest-number paradigm? In my opinion, it doesn't.

In conclusion, let me just state that while I admire John Stuart Mill's brilliance, his prolific output, and his exquisite prose style, I feel it important to point out that he was, in my opinion, _______________

(9) Herbert I. Schiller, Culture Inc., p. 54

(10) Ibid., p. 12.

the epitome of the "Ivory Tower Intellectual." He operated on two planes of thought simultaneously, one a priori, one a posteriori, and the two frequently came into direct conflict. When an individual holds ideals which directly oppose his actions, a psychological phenomenon can ensue known as cognitive dissonance, producing mental stress, anxiety, perhaps guilt. As the opening quote of this paper states, the ability to tolerate such a malady is a positive boon for the ideologue. I doubt seriously that the subject of this paper was plagued by such a condition, but it seems clear that if ever there was a thinker qualified to experience it, it was John Stuart Mill.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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