Liberty Matters

The ongoing relevance of Harriet Taylor Mill

It is a delight to continue the conversation regarding Harriet Taylor Mill’s originality and the substance of her ideas regarding the equality of men and women. In this brief comment, I focus on three themes that warrant additional attention. First, I add to the question of the malleability (and potential improvement) of institutions and what might be termed “character.” Second, I turn to the question of individuality in Taylor Mill’s early essay on conformity. And finally, I turn to the issue of freedom of expression and choice.
Are people capable of improving themselves?[1] Most of the political economists and public commentators of the nineteenth century were preoccupied with this question. It underscored debates about whether the lot of the labouring classes might be improved, whether women were suited—or might become so—to entering the labour market, or whether former slaves would eventually become full participants in the social and economic fabric of their time. Giandomenica Becchio stresses that Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill both advocated for education to prepare women for life outside the home in the coming democratic world. Helen McCabe suggests that Taylor Mill, like her husband J. S. Mill, regarded the laws of distribution (of income) as “malleable,” subject to human alteration. As she and David Levy have noted, political economists of the time wrote frequently about institutional change, with J. S. Mill opining that while we can alter the institutional structure of our time, moving perhaps from a sort of capitalism to a form of socialism, there would be attendant consequences, that we are unable to control, from doing so.[2]
Would education change outcomes, or might it do more and alter people’s very being, their character? In her follow up comment, McCabe emphasizes that Harriet Taylor Mill recognized “the need to change character” to achieve social change. Indeed, Taylor Mill’s most famous essay, The Enfranchisement of Women, published in the Westminster Review in 1851, is replete with statements about how the subjugation of women degraded the character of both men and women (an argument J. S. Mill would repeat in his The Subjection of Women), and how character change would follow a change in institutions that offered women the same legal rights as men. Taylor Mill wrote that “The mental companionship which is most improving, is communion between active minds, not mere contact between an active mind and a passive” (Taylor Mill, p. 66) and “Thus, the position is corrupting equally to both; in the one it produces the vices of power, in the other those of artifice” (ibid., p. 68). In her view, a change in social institutions to offer economic and legal equality to women, would (eventually) reverse this terrible result.
As noted in my first contribution to this series, Taylor Mill also railed against social norms that enforced conformity, kept women (and others) dependent, and thus prevented social improvement. In her 1831 essay she opined that “The root of all intolerance, the spirit of conformity, remains; and not until that is destroyed, will envy hatred and all uncharitableness, with their attendant hypocrisies, be destroyed too” (Taylor Mill, 1998, p. 137). Taylor regarded the spirit of conformity as the imposition of moral judgment: “What is called the opinion of Society is a phantom power, … It is a combination of the many weak, against the few strong; an association of the mentally listless to punish any manifestation of mental independence” whose remedy was, in her view, to strengthen the independence of those on whom judgment is passed: “to make all strong enough to stand alone; and whoever has once known the pleasure of self-dependance, with be in no danger of relapsing into subserviency” (ibid., p. 138). As I noted in my previous essay, J. S. Mill also struggled against forced conformity, as he made clear in On Liberty.
And so we come to freedom of choice and expression. Becchio correctly recognizes that Taylor Mill and J. S. Mill stressed how important it is for women to have choice in the marriage decision. McCabe emphasizes that J. S. Mill defended freedom of expression as an antidote to mistaken choice. In his 1843 Logic, J. S. Mill recognized that people are subject to wishful thinking, believing things to be true and we tend to confirm our priors. He wrote that people are prone to what we would, today, call confirmation bias; they “look out eagerly for reasons, or apparent reasons, to support opinions which are conformable to [their] interests or feelings” (Mill, 1843, p. 738) and the expression of ideas freely is one antidote to this bias.  More than this, he offered a superb explanation for the importance of freedom of choice in On Liberty, where he insisted that we learn how to choose only by choosing and he predicted that women and grown children who are paternalistically kept from making choices will most certainly make poor choices, if allowed to do so without any previous experience. It would be well for today’s helicopter parents to read their Mills; indeed, it would be well for all of us to read both Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill!
Hollander, Samuel. 1985. The Economics of John Stuart Mill. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Harriet Taylor Mill. 1998. The Complete Works of Harriet Taylor Mill. Edited by Jo Ellen Jacobs. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Mill, John Stuart. 1843. A System of Logic Ratiocinative and inductive. Vols. 7 and 8 of The Collective Works of John Stuart Mill. Edited by John M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1974.