Mill and Liberty as the Cardinal Moral Virtue

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This essay first appeared as an Editorial in the journal Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, vol. II, no. 2 April-June 1979 published by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio. Although the editorials were unsigned, they were probably written by the Editor Leonard P. Liggio or the Managing Editor John V. Cody. It is republished with thanks to the original copyright holders. The original editorial has been modified by the addition of a title and endnotes which provide full bibliographical information about the texts mentioned.

John Stuart Mill: Liberty as "the cardinal moral virtue"

The resurgence of interest in John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) began in the early 1940s stimulated by F. A. Hayek whose efforts and enthusiasm inspired new publications of collections of Mill's works, his letters, and biographies. Hayek's own study, The Constitution of Liberty (1960), commemorated the centenary of the publication of [1]

Hayek was particularly fascinated by Mill's views of the influence of intellectuals on public policy. A statesman adopts a policy, not because of objective reality, but because of public opinion. The statesman takes public opinion for his objective reality, and he is successful to the degree that he operates within the accepted framework of thought. On a deeper level, however, the framework of thought which guides human action is derived from those intellectuals whose profession it is to apply abstract ideas. Hayek comments on "The Rule of Ideas," in chapter 7 of The Constitution of Liberty:

The belief that in the long run it is ideas and therefore the men who give currency to new ideas that govern evolution, and the belief that individual steps in that process should be governed by a set of coherent conceptions, have long formed a fundamental part of the liberal creed. It is impossible to study history without becoming aware of 'the lesson given to mankind by every age, and always disregarded - that speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interest of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears any influences save those it must itself obey.' Though this fact is perhaps even less understood today than it was when John Stuart Mill wrote, there can be little doubt that it is true at all times, whether men recognize it, or not.[2]

Mill keenly appreciated the indispensable and complex role of the intellectuals. Indeed, he understood the need both of developing abstract ideas and of disseminating these ideas to wider intellectual publics. The active intellectual's role as a disseminator of ideas - whether moral or economic views, political or scientific beliefs - complemented the contemplative intellectual role. John Mill was himself influenced by his father's role as scholar-activist in the radical politics of his day.[3] Accordingly, Mill both edited and subsidized the London and Westminster Review, and wrote editorials or articles for the radical Examiner and Morning Chronicle. By financially supporting Herbert Spencer's periodical and his books, Mill intended such ideas might begin their process of influencing public opinion. Mill attributed his political education to assisting his father James, in the preparation of the History of British India (1817). What impressed Mill was his father's repeated expression of "opinions and modes of judgment of a democratic radicalism then regarded as extreme," and James Mill's severity in examining "the English Constitution, the English law, and all parties and classes who possessed any considerable influence in the country." Mill's economic education had begun in the period of his first visit to France where he stayed at the Paris home of Jean Baptiste Say. Mill went on to assist his father in writing the Elements of Political Economy (1821) which was modelled on Say's Treatise on Political Economy (1803, 1814).

Later, reflecting the influence of Say and Principles of Political Economy (1848) made an original contribution in his discussion of laissez-faire. Mill appreciated Smith's and Say's refusal to separate political economy from the philosophy of society. As a result of Smith's example, Mill sought to provide social applications as well as principles. This led to the charge that Mill changed from a young noninterventionist to a collectivist. The falsity of this charge has been argued by Pedro Schwartz in The New Political Economy of J. S. Mill (1968).[4] Along with other Utilitarians of the Bentham school, the young Mill did not oppose State intervention. As Elie Halevy points out (The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, London, 1928)[5] Utilitarianism was rife with nonliberal elements, and the utilitarian disciples of supporters of individual rights or opponents of state intervention. Thus, it was a natural progression for John Mill as a young man to accept the tenets of early socialism which was rooted in some of the ideas of the Utilitarians.

The young Mill's movement toward collectivism was partly his response to Thomas Macaulay's critique of James Mill's "On Government." Mill's father had endorsed Bentham's recognition that the state was a fiction since it was merely a sum of individuals. However, Utilitarians reached the non-individualist conclusion. that the sum of the most individual goods or wills created a basis for a majority's ability to rule. To Utilitarians the concept of individual rights was suspect as a potential sanctuary for the politically dominant classes. Macaulay's emphasis on the Whig view of 'rights' thus awakened Mill's doubts about Utilitarianism, but John Mill rejected the inconsistent position of the Whigs and turned to the more consistent expression of emerging socialism. Mill came under the influence of the socialist digression from the school of J. B. Say, represented by the followers of Henri de Saint-Simon.[6]

Mill's movement away from his youthful collectivism and toward an individualist position began by the challenging of his original interventionism by discussions with Alexis de Tocqueville. Mill, in fact, lent his efforts to popularize Tocqueville's Democracy in America (vol. I, 1835; vol. II, 1840) in England.[7] Through Tocqueville, Mill discovered the importance of local self-government in America, including its role in the political education of ordinary people. The danger of majoritarianism, originally pointed out by Tocqueville grew in clarity for Mill.[8] Mill saw the danger of government "trampling meanwhile with considerable recklessness, as often as convenient, upon the rights of individuals, in the name of society and the public good." Mill's individualism, inspired by Tocqueville, was reflected in his advocacy of laissez-faire as a general rule in his Principles and On Liberty (1859).

Liberty functioned as a cardinal moral virtue for Mill. A distinguishing trait of Mill's personality and style is his liberality of spirit or his elaborate fairness to all intellectual positions - a trait that informs his writings and was vital to his analysis of progress in human history. In On Liberty, he defends the concept of liberty as intellectual autonomy, the cultivated habit of being "intellectually active" and fearless when advancing "heterodox speculation." Those periods of human history brilliant for their "high scale of mental activity" were those that allowed free, untrammeled thought and discussion to break "the yoke of authority" and to throw off the "old mental despotism." Mental freedom alone could sustain such liberating impulses that led to progress and improvements in human personal character and social institutions. But mental freedom and truth-seeking are nurtured only by the clash of debate and continuous Socratic examination of rival ideas, however one-sided, or non-conforming, or heretical. Any intellectual position "however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed ... will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth." Even partisan one-sided truths, "compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole."

Thus, in the judgment of Mill in On Liberty, Rousseau's one-sided ideas critical of modern science and civilization had the healthy effect of supplementing the defective, one-sided idea of the eighteenth-century philosophes. "With what a salutary shock did the paradoxes of Rousseau explode like bombshells in the midst, dislocating the compact mass of one-sided opinion and forcing its elements to recombine in a better form and with additional ingredients." Posterity gained through such a dialectic a greater appreciation of "the superior worth of simplicity of life" and "the enervating and demoralizing effect of the trammels and hypocrisies of artificial society."

Mill's On Liberty is the most widely known defense of individualism in the English-speaking world. As the epigraph for On Liberty Mill chose a quotation from the recently published (1852) English translation of The Limits of State Action (1791): "The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity."[9] Mill argued against state intervention because of the free market's efficiency when compared to political direction. However, Mill's major argument was founded on the evil effect of state intervention on the development of the individual, and thus, on the progress of society. Mill noted: "A people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest ... have their faculties only half developed; their education is defective in one of its most important branches. [Government] substitutes its own mode of accomplishing the work, for all the variety of modes which would be tried by a number of equally qualified persons aiming at the same end."[10


[1] Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960) (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1972).

[2] ibid., pp. 112-113.

[3] Joseph Hamburger, James Mill and the Art of Revolution, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963); and Jopseph Hamburger, Intellectuals in Politics: John Stuart Mill and the Philosophic Radicals, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965).

[4] Pedro Schwartz in The New Political Economy of J. S. Mill (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968; Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973).

[5] Elie Halevy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism, London, 1928).

[6] Elie Halevy, "Saint-Simonian Economic Doctrine," The Era of Tyrannies, (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1965).

[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (vol. I, 1835; vol. II, 1840). Many editions, but see the Schocken Books edition of 1974 which reprints John Stuart Mill's "critical appraisal" of each volume.

[8] See Leon Bramson, The Political Context of Sociology, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).

[9] Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action, ed. J.W. Burrow (Iindianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993). This book is available from the Liberty Fund Online catalog. The edition Mill used was the English translation of Wilhelm von Humboldt's The Limits of State Action (1791) which appeared as The Sphere and Duties of Government. Translated from the German of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, by Joseph Coulthard, Jun. (London: John Chapman, 1854).

[10] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays, ed. John Gray (Oxford University Press, 1991), or John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).