A review of Reforming Liberalism: J.S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities, by Robert Devigne

Technology, market economies, representative government, the rule of law, individualism – how familiar all these remarkable things are to us. Since the Renaissance, they have gradually and increasingly come to dominate our world. That is to say, the world has more and more become a liberal world. Few serious thinkers are more identified with this liberalism than John Stuart Mill. Two hundred years after Mill's birth and 133 years after his death, Robert Devigne, in Reforming Liberalism, reminds us of Mill's Herculean efforts to understand liberalism and to shape it.

Scholars will appreciate Devigne's careful and scrupulous review of all the major secondary literature on Mill. It is no surprise to find that such a pivotal figure has often been turned into a cardboard caricature. Intellectual partisans have blamed him for being too liberal, not liberal enough, or the wrong kind of liberal, and have praised and blamed him for holding positions that he never held and for not holding positions that he did hold. Devigne rescues Mill from these partial readings and in doing so brings us back to the major issues confronting liberalism.

Mill clearly and unabashedly accepted modern economic, political, and social institutions. He was indoctrinated into this view by his father (James Mill) and Jeremy Bentham, who were themselves descendants of the British liberal tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Scottish Enlightenment writers such as Hume and Adam Smith. Mill never doubted this tradition's legitimacy. He agreed (and so would Marx) with the Scottish Enlightenment's historical account of the movement from feudalism to the industrial revolution and the growth of commercial republics. He embraced political reform (greater democratization), legal reform (franchise and property rights for women), economic reform (along broadly free-market lines), and social reform (the emancipation of women). But he came to doubt the philosophical underpinnings of the liberal tradition, with its emphasis on rational and prudent self-interest.

Mill did not, as had his father, turn a deaf ear to the conservative critique of liberalism. From his reading of the ancients (especially Plato on the distinction between higher and lower pleasures), Mill learned about self-mastery and the responsibility to participate in and contribute to the public good. From both the ancients and Romantic writers such as Wordsworth, Carlyle (Sartor Resartus), and especially Coleridge (On the Constitution of Church and State according to the Idea of Each, published in 1830), Mill learned the importance of creative individuals-the aristocracy of achievement and production, as opposed to the aristocracy of birth and consumption. From all of them, and from Tocqueville and Macaulay especially, he learned to beware the "tyranny of the majority."

Technology, markets, and consumer societies led to democratization. Democratization meant the triumph of the laboring class. Would the laboring class be able to sustain the values of a creative liberal culture? Certainly no ancient or medieval writer would have thought it possible. Neither classical Christianity nor its contemporary spokespersons thought it either possible or desirable. In the 19th century the Catholic Church, much to the chagrin of Lord Acton, condemned what it took to be liberalism. The Anglican Church continued to be an apologist for a feudal hierarchical world that depended on responsible aristocracies and Tory philanthropy. As a member of the rising achievement-oriented middle class (not the consumption-oriented middle class), Mill had nothing but contempt for aristocratic pretension and Tory condescension.

He felt the same way about the natural religion of the Enlightenment, the attempt by such as Thomas Reid and William Paley to preserve classical liberal principles by an appeal to religion within the limits of reason alone. These thinkers had convinced themselves that a de-theologized God had created an orderly and people-friendly universe whose inherent values could be read in its structure. To follow this logic to its bitter end, Mill concluded, would lead straight to Comtean positivism, that is, to the view that "experts" on human nature could engineer a near-perfect, though hardly liberal, human society. But there was no need to yield to that reasoning, as Mill demonstrated, demolishing as only he could the shoddy arguments for natural religion. The demolition essays were published posthumously, for as Mill rightly surmised the apologists for these shoddy arguments would engage in relentless character assassination.


It is Devigne's great insight that mill attempted, really, to synthesize all previous thought about human ends. What did he accomplish with this reconceptualization? To the extent that he understood the human good as happiness, and understood happiness by reference to pleasure and pain, his view looks identical to the position of Bentham. But Bentham began with the notion that persons always act from a desire for pleasure; Mill rejected this psychological hedonism. There are, said Mill, differences between higher and lower pleasures, differences of quality as well as quantity. More significantly, the good is not pleasure but happiness. Pleasure is a property of happiness, the empirical confirmation of its existence. And happiness is not contentment. The chief ingredient of happiness is dignity, which Mill understood to be synonymous with autonomy, which he makes our ultimate end. Traditional utilitarians like Jevons were furious with Mill's transformation: "The view which he professes to uphold [utilitarianism] is the direct opposite of what he really upholds." Mill also made good on his claim that utilitarianism so conceived is neither atheistic nor a reduction of morality to expediency.

Without averting his glance from the abyss of democratization, Mill became one of the most admired and trusted champions of the working class. But he was not sympathetic to radical critiques. He did not deny during his first election campaign that he was the author of the statement that members of the working class were mostly liars. He insisted that charity undermined integrity; he was no advocate of victimization. He and his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill, both Malthusians, struggled with the problem of how to raise the moral level of the laboring class to the level of the achievement-oriented middle class. Like the radicals, he recognized that the economic and social divide between employers and employees was corrosive, but unlike the radicals he did not advocate the mirage of state ownership. Rather, he and Harriet argued for collapsing the troublesome distinction by making everyone self-employed. Mill had in mind workers' co-operatives; he certainly would have approved of labor union pensions being invested in the stock market.


Classical liberalism must solve two problems. First, if the ultimate ontological reality is the individual, how do we relate the individual good to the public good? Well-intentioned 18th-century liberals never could solve this problem. Devigne suggests that Mill embraced Aristotle's contention that "some forms of self-interested conduct are both higher forms of freedom and contributors to the general good." Here, I differ slightly from Devigne. I think that Mill resolved this issue in Hegelian fashion by appealing to the 19th-century Romantic notion of autonomy: Mill became a Romantic liberal. He regarded the true ultimate interest of individuals to be acceptance of responsibility for our inner freedom. Moreover, like Hegel, Mill went on to argue that autonomous people need recognition from other autonomous people (hence, e.g., his opposition to slavery, and the importance of autonomous spouses). Autonomy is not a zero-sum game; autonomous people have a responsibility to promote the autonomy of others. Mill certainly thought he was doing that, in practice, as part of his work for the East India Company. He also held the politically incorrect view that the British Navy should remain strong so as to protect classical liberalism throughout the world.

The second problem is more difficult, namely, how do we get people to recognize and embrace their inner freedom and accept responsibility for it? The difference between Romantic liberals like Mill and Romantic radicals like Marx is that Mill did not think removing environmental constraints was sufficient. Nietzsche rejected the whole idea of the self-emancipation of the working class and foresaw the "last man" as the ultimate legacy of liberalism. Is it possible for everyone, or almost everyone, or at least enough people, to become responsible for their freedom? Mill certainly thought that the embrace of one's freedom was the great good, and that it was in principle achievable by everyone. Liberalism has evolved since Mill's time; in fact, that evolution was taking place during Mill's own lifetime. In the essay "On Liberty," he calls attention to how liberalism started out as a defense against government tyranny but in an age of democratization, where presumably the state represents the people, liberalism has come to mean increasing the state's power to provide or redistribute resources. That is why we must now distinguish between classical liberalism and modern liberalism.


In the minds of many, modern liberalism has replaced classical liberalism. The difference between the two is in the conception of rights: in the classical formulation, the rights of life, liberty, and property are understood to be absolute, do not conflict, and are possessed only by individual human beings. Rights are morally absolute or fundamental because they are derived from human nature and God (or later the categorical imperative), and as such cannot be overridden. These rights reflect the human need and capacity to make individual choices; they impose only duties of non-interference. In modern liberalism, rights are means to the achievement of other ends (resources, power, etc., identified differently by different proponents). As such, rights are only prima facie, may be overridden, and may be possessed by any entity, not just individual human beings. Such rights can be welfare rights, i.e., they can depend for their efficacy on the positive obligation of others to provide certain goods, benefits, or means. This is not the liberalism of J.S. Mill.

On the other hand, classical liberalism continues to inspire inquiring minds. Consider Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul's 1990 essay, "Our Universal Civilization":

The universal civilization has been a long time in the making. It wasn't always universal…. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain…. A later realization…but I have understood it philosophically only during the preparation of this talk-has been the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness…. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

We read Mill, and we should read his careful expositors like Devigne, because Mill still offers the clearest and most defensible expression of the classical liberal outlook, the most honest and unflinching recognition of its dangers, and the most articulate call to retrieve and redeem those principles while we still can.