Happy Birthday J. S. Mill!
Happy Birthday John Stuart Mill
The 19th-century British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was born 200 years ago today, and although he has been dead for more than 130 years, he still undeniably lives. His thoughts fashion our laws, enliven our scholarly debates and shape our political opinions. Best of all, his genius still inspires and provokes us.
As an undergraduate I had to take a required history of philosophy course that covered the territory from Kant to the turn of the 20th Century. Kant was ok, though it seemed to me needlessly complicated but the rest of the stuff was perfectly awful--except for Mill. When I told the instructor that I wanted to write my term paper on Mill he was disgusted: "You have been given Fichte and Schelling, Nietzshe and Kierkegaard, and yet you choose to write on Mill??!!?" he said. Needless to say, the only other philosopher in the 2 volume anthology we had who interested me was Mach--and he wasn't on the syllabus.
Cutting to the chase what always struck me, pace Plato, was the irreconcilable conflict between Beauty and Goodness. Butterflies and Wheels has a link to a piece by Scruton on Mill with the blurb "'Harm' doctrine has subverted laws founded in inherited sense of the sacred and prohibited." And that is it: utilitarianism, the harms principle, the whole Enlightenment package that Mill bought into, which I myself buy, is inimical to romantic notions of moral heroism and honor, of goodness as beauty and nobility. Goodness as Mill conceived of it is strenuous but practical and pedestrian--achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, not interfering with people who aren't interfering with that project, fighting the dead hand of tradition that imposes pointless constraints. The good people are the political activists, licking envelopes for the cause, and the humane technocrats making tedious adjustments in policy.
This is a tragedy. I understand the pull of Beauty, of heroism and honor, of the Great Chain of Being. I learnt about all this in English classes--Spenser and the Court of Glorianna, the Great Chain of Being, the juicy, religious, vermin-infested 17th Century, with the Metaphysical Poets, the hopelessly romantic Stuarts and all the baroque eccentricity of the old world expiring. Further back, I've read The Waning of the Middle Ages at least 20 times and thrilled to the introduction, describing a world where the colors were brighter, the emotions more intense, the rituals, hagiography and iconography of the Church dominated everyday life and everyone lived in a costume drama. It amazes me that the undergraduates I teach are completely cut off from this romance and that most people, apparently, aren't susceptible to the seduction of it: I am.
But it always struck me how costly that fantasy was--how the opulence of the high aristocracy ate up resources, how the Great Chain of Being cashed out for the bulk of the population who worked to eat and ate to work ground under the heel of their social betters higher up on the food chain, how notions of honor wasted people and wealth, how utterly constrained people were by the circumstances of their lives, how utterly unlovely it was on the ground.
That's where utilitarianism comes into the picture for me: better a population living in little boxes made out of ticky-tacky and spending their evenings vegging in front of the TV than a population of peasants in picturesque cottages without indoor plumbing drudging all their waking hours; better real opportunity for all to improve their lives than the Great Chain of Being where everyone knows his place; better a world tarmacked over, with clean water, medicine, food and clean cinderblock houses for everyone than an expensive fantasy at the cost of widespread human misery; better dishonor than death.
It's a horrible choice, but that is the choice for now.