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Utilitarianism, Liberty & Representative Government Paperback – November 5, 2007
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About the Author
John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher, politician and economist most famous for his contributions to the theory of utilitarianism. The author of numerous influential political treatises, Mill s writings on liberty, freedom of speech, democracy and economics have helped to form the foundation of modern liberal thought. His 1859 work, On Liberty, is particularly noteworthy for helping to address the nature and limits of the power of the state over the individual. Mills has become one of the most influential figures in nineteenth-century philosophy, and his writings are still widely studied and analyzed by scholars. Mills died in 1873 at the age of 66.
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Bentham had argued that "good" and "evil" were not useful concepts and what mattered was "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". This was to be determined by a "felicific calculus", wherein no one pleasure was to be thought superior to another except by duration, intensity, number of people affected etc. In "Utilitarianism" Mill disagrees with Bentham and argues that quality is more important than quantity. "It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others." Who was to determine this? Those with "higher faculties" - which is the elitism Mill carries forward to the other books. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if some pleasures are superior to others, thought Mill, then it was proper to encourage all people to strive to achieve the ability to enjoy them. We thus have Mill's revised utilitarianism that stresses we must strive for the advancement of mankind.
Mill was a libertarian who chose not to base his defence of liberty on natural rights but on his revised utilitarianism
"I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions...grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being."
Mill argues that freedom is required for man to be able to explore all the avenues of human development that allow the human race to progress. Total freedom is impossible so what determines the legitimate boundaries of freedom? Mill distinguishes between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. The former should never be interfered with and the latter subject to limitation only if they harm the legitimate rights of others. For Mill free thought is a self-regarding action which should not be curtailed, and free thought is worthless without free speech. Mill then adds a utilitarian argument in favour of free speech: if an opinion, whether true or false, is silenced then mankind is necessarily the loser. He advances a number of arguments to support this, concluding with the claim that a climate of freedom is essential for "great thinkers" (elitism) and "it is as much, and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature they are capable of" (revised utilitarianism). People do not have the right not to be offended. Hence Mill's opposition to the blasphemy law.
Mill concedes that actions cannot be as free as speech and proposes that "the sole end for which mankind are warranted...in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection." Because he emphatically rejects paternalism one cannot interfere with self-regarding actions. Mill would not have prevented people from taking drugs and he would have led the opposition to seat belt legislation. Mill believes we cannot do things that interfere with the "rights" of others but he defines "rights" narrowly; they are not synonymous with "interests". Hence he advocates laissez-faire in economics. Mill wants to limit any restrictions of behaviour because he believes any a restriction may the thin end of the wedge, used to argue for further restrictions. A prostitute should be free to ply her trade and a man should be free to get drunk - unless, of course, he is a policeman or soldier on duty.
Though Mill is a very determined anti-paternalist he makes three exceptions: children, primitive societies and the disabled. Children must be guided until they reach maturity and they must be given compulsory education - something not given legislative force until 1871. As for primitive societies Mill was not a typical Victorian believing in the "inherent differences between races. He simply observed the reality of the world at the time but made it very clear any intervention in backward societies must be temporary with the aim to bring about self-government as soon as possible. Hence Mill was a much more determined libertarian than most modern writers on the subject and would no doubt be troubled by many modern developments.
CONSIDERATIONS ON REPRESENTATIVE GOVERNMENT
There are three related principal themes in "Representative Government":
1. The application of his revised utilitarianism to government.
2. How to reconcile the competing claims of efficient government and the popular voice.
3. How combat the danger of the "tyranny of the majority".
Mill's version of utilitarianism led him to say that the first question to ask is whether a form of government develops the desirable moral and intellectual qualities of the citizens. Mill believed that "active" rather than "passive" people create human progress, and political institutions should foster active citizens, and this is best done by giving (almost) everyone, including women, the vote. He also favoured local government and citizen participation on juries.
Though Mill wanted citizens to have the vote he did not want them to play too important a role. He was opposed to direct democracy, and favoured representative government because it enabled him to reconcile bureaucratic expertise with the popular voice. As in "On Liberty" Mill insists on the importance of the elite. Elected representatives should act It should act as a sort of check on government without trying to control it. Parliament must not select members of the Cabinet, and civil servants must be recruited via competitive exams.
In discussing the electoral system Mill reveals his concern with the dangers of a "tyranny of the majority" and advocated Hare system of STV, which most closely mirrors votes. Mill justified this on the grounds of representing minorities, but it is clear that the minority he was primarily concerned with was the educated elite, which Mill wished to bolster via plural voting. Extra votes were to be allocated to people based on educational achievement, but Mill was writing before universal education so in the meantime bosses should have more votes than employees (because they had to think more in their duties) and foremen should have more votes than those under them. Today he would no doubt wish to give extra votes for passing exams at 16, 18, and at degree level. After Mill's lifetime representative government became the norm in the advanced world, but plural voting has been abolished everywhere and only the Israeli electoral system comes close to the mirror image of the electorate achieved by the Hare system.
Were Mill to return now I suspect he would be relieved that his worst fears over a "tyranny of the majority" have not come to pass but would be concerned that politicians are too often more concerned with popular policies than good policies.