15 Sep

Was J.S. Mill an elitist, an egalitarian or a socialist?

Posted By Politybooks

Dale E. Miller, author of J. S. Mill ,sheds new light on the work of a classic thinker

J.S. Mill Mine is hardly the first book on the Victorian philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, and someone might well wonder why another is needed. Part of what I take to make my book distinctive is apparent from the table of contents.

I address a broad sweep of Mill’s views, as opposed to focusing on a single text. I attempt to show how Mill’s utilitarian moral philosophy, his liberalism, his theory of democracy and his views on economic organization fit together into a coherent whole.

In order to explore the topics that I cover in sufficient detail, while keeping the entire discussion to a tractable length,I do forgo any detailed discussion of Mill’s work in other areas of philosophy, such as epistemology, logic or metaphysics.

Nevertheless, I say enough about these topics that readers will have a sense of the foundations of his practical philosophy. In my chapter on the‘proof’ of the principle of utility, for instance, I explain how Mill’s much-maligned argument for the claim that happiness is desirable as an end is analogous to his vindication of the faculty of memory.

Needless to say, I believe that my book is also distinguished by the interpretation of Mill that it presents. This is not to suggest that I offer a radical rereading. Mill is a sufficiently lucid writer that we cannot have entirely misunderstood him unti lnow.

Still, his writings do present us with many interpretive quandaries. Mill scholars disagree about how he conceives of happiness, what he takes to distinguish right actions from wrong ones, what account he means to offer of the notion of harm, whether he is an elitist or an egalitarian and whether he is a socialist.

In brief, I argue that

– Mill is a consistent hedonist who conceives of happiness in terms of pleasure and freedom from pain and who conceives of pleasure and pain as mental states.

– He holds what we would today call a ‘rule-utilitarian’ theory of morality, according to which an action is wrong if it would maximise happiness for people generally to‘internalise’ a rule that forbids it, that is, to feel guilty about breaking such a rule.

– He understands harm — the pivotal concept of On Liberty — in terms of damage or a definite risk of damage to one’s interests, where interests bear a (very loose) resemblance to Rawlsian ‘primary goods’.

– His nuanced theory of democracy incorporates elitist and egalitarian elements, with neither clearly predominating. This is most clearly reflected in his endorsement of a plural voting scheme in which (nearly) everyone gets a vote but the better educated get more votes. (Contrary to several other recent commentators, I show that Mill’s endorsement of plural voting is not half-hearted, that it is not withdrawn and that it is not given merely to the idea of using plural voting as a temporary expedient.)

– Mill is a socialist only by his own overly broad definition of ‘socialism’. He is best viewed as an advocate of competition and limited (if not minimal) government who happens to believe both that market economies will spontaneously move in the direction of employee ownership and that this is a pleasing prospect.

In the book’s concluding chapter, I argue that Mill is a utopian — although not, I hasten to add, in the pejorative sense of the word.

Mill is a utopian inasmuch as he believes that it may someday be possible for nearly everyone to lead a life that is genuinely happy, that is, that contains little pain and is rich in the best and most valuable pleasures.

Moreover, he believes we must move society toward this end if happiness is to be maximised. While some interpreters may find Mill’s more utopian moments excessively romantic, I take this thread to serve an important unifying purpose within his moral, social and political thought.

Furthermore, I take the attractiveness of this vision of a possible future to account for much of Mill’s appeal as a philosopher, and I do not think that it can be dismissed out of hand as utterly unrealistic.

Finally, I hope that my book is distinguished by its ability to appeal to diverse groups of readers. My ambition while writing was two-fold.

On the one hand, I wanted to write a scholarly book that would be of interest to Mill specialists, one that defends a controversial interpretation by drawing on a wide range of Mill’s works and engaging with the secondary literature.

At the same time, though, I aimed to keep the discussion accessible and lively enough that it would be suitable for advanced undergraduates (and I am gratified that everyone who was kind enough to provide a blurb for the book’s cover commented favourably on its readability).

If the book has something to offer to these very different groups, it should have something to offer everyone in between, such as someone who already knows one of Mill’s texts well but wants to see where that work fits in the larger picture.