14 Mar “One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam engine has character.” (MICHAEL J. SANDEL)
A generation after Bentham, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) tried to save utilitarianism by recasting it as a more humane, less calculating doctrine. Mill was the son of James Mill, a friend and disciple of Bentham. James Mill home-schooled his son, and the young Mill became a child prodigy. He studied Greek at the age of three and Latin at eight. At age eleven, he wrote a history of Roman law. When he was twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown, which left him depressed for several years. Shortly thereafter he met Harriet Taylor. She was a married woman at the time, with two children, but she and Mill became close friends. When her husband died twenty years later, she and Mill married. Mill credited Taylor as his greatest intellectual companion and collaborator as he set about revising Bentham’s doctrine.
The case for liberty
Mill’s writings can be read as a strenuous attempt to reconcile individual rights with the utilitarian philosophy he inherited from his father and adopted from Bentham. His book On Liberty (1859) is the classic defense of individual freedom in the English-speaking world. Its central principle is that people should be free to do whatever they want, provided they do no harm to others. Government may not interfere with individual liberty in order to protect a person from himself, or to impose the majority’s beliefs about how best to live. The only actions for which a person is accountable to society, Mill argues, are those that affect others. As long as I am not harming anyone else, my “independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
This unyielding account of individual rights would seem to require something stronger than utility as its justification. For consider: Suppose a large majority despises a small religion and wants it banned. Isn’t it possible, even likely, that banning the religion will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number? True, the banned minority would suffer unhappiness and frustration. But if the majority is big enough and passionate enough in its hatred of the heretics, its collective happiness could well outweigh their suffering. If that scenario is possible, then it appears that utility is a shaky, unreliable foundation for religious liberty. Mill’s principle of liberty would seem to need a sturdier moral basis than Bentham’s principle of utility.
Mill disagrees. He insists that the case for individual liberty rests entirely on utilitarian considerations: “It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”
Mill thinks we should maximize utility, not case by case, but in the long run. And over time, he argues, respecting individual liberty will lead to the greatest human happiness. Allowing the majority to silence dissenters or censor free-thinkers might maximize utility today, but it will make society worse off—less happy—in the long run.
Why should we assume that upholding individual liberty and the right to dissent will promote the welfare of society in the long run? Mill offers several reasons: The dissenting view may turn out to be true, or partially true, and so offer a corrective to prevailing opinion. And even if it is not, subjecting prevailing opinion to a vigorous contest of ideas will prevent it from hardening into dogma and prejudice. Finally, a society that forces its members to embrace custom and convention is likely to fall into a stultifying conformity, depriving itself of the energy and vitality that prompt social improvement.
Mill’s speculations about the salutary social effects of liberty are plausible enough. But they do not provide a convincing moral basis for individual rights, for at least two reasons: First, respecting individual rights for the sake of promoting social progress leaves rights hostage to contingency. Suppose we encounter a society that achieves a kind of long-term happiness by despotic means. Wouldn’t the utilitarian have to conclude that, in such a society, individual rights are not morally required?
Second, basing rights on utilitarian considerations misses the sense in which violating someone’s rights inflicts a wrong on the individual, whatever its effect on the general welfare. If the majority persecutes adherents of an unpopular faith, doesn’t it do an injustice to them, as individuals, regardless of any bad effects such intolerance may produce for society as a whole over time?
Mill has an answer to these challenges, but it carries him beyond the confines of utilitarian morality. Forcing a person to live according to custom or convention or prevailing opinion is wrong, Mill explains, because it prevents him from achieving the highest end of human life—the full and free development of his human faculties. Conformity, in Mill’s account, is the enemy of the best way to live.
The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used . . . He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties.
Mill concedes that following convention may lead a person to a satisfying life path and keep him out of harm’s way. “But what will be his comparative worth as a human being?” he asks. “It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.”
So actions and consequences are not all that matter after all. Character also counts. For Mill, individuality matters less for the pleasure it brings than for the character it reflects. “One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam engine has character.”
Mill’s robust celebration of individuality is the most distinctive contribution of On Liberty. But it is also a kind of heresy. Since it appeals to moral ideals beyond utility—ideals of character and human flourishing—it is not really an elaboration of Bentham’s principle but a renunciation of it, despite Mill’s claim to the contrary.
Michael J. Sandel