Mill in the 21st Century

Matt Zeitlin’s response to David Marquand, who argues (absurdly) that John Stuart Mill is irrelevant to contemporary political discussion, is really good:

What Mill doesn’t do is make any foundational or contractual claims about individual rights. He didn’t just write On Liberty, but also Utilitarianism. What Mill does so wonderfully is to reject the false claim that the primacy of the individual and a concern for average utility are necessarily conflicting. Instead, his politics of an individual protected from the state and society is preferred because it is the most likely to promote happiness. And this is what modern liberal or social democratic politics is at its best. It recognizes that people face two threats to freedom and autonomy — the state and societal structures. It acknowledges that individual rights, while important, are not absolute in their strongest forms and are in no way “natural.” Thus, we can pursue a pragmatic politics that constantly strives to answer the question, “how can we protect the individual’s ability to be happy best?” And as long as we have a politics that doesn’t do that, then Mill is relevant.

That more or less covers the meat of Marquand’s argument, but I thought this passage from his essay warrants a response as well:

The question that matters for 21st-century liberals and social democrats is not whether Mill was a good man who fought the good fight. Manifestly, he was. The question is whether his ideas – and above all, his political ideas – deserve the iconic status the liberal and social-democratic left of our day has given them. Reeves has no doubt that they do; and has said so repeatedly and persuasively, not only in this biography, but in newspaper and magazine articles. I am not so sure. Of course, there are several Mills. Like most political thinkers, he wrote for the moment, not for eternity; and, over 50 years of incessant ratiocination and furious writing, he changed his mind several times.

As Matt says, Mill may have written for the moment, but his conceptual frameworks (specifically the harm principle and his variation on utilitarianism) are as relevant, and as correct, as ever. But Marquand also overestimates the degree to which the political debates of Victorian Britain differ from those of today. No one can argue that the patriarchy isn’t still a powerful force of oppression today, and Mill’s The Subjection of Women is a forceful argument against it. Capital punishment is as burning an issue today as it was in Mill’s day, and his speech in favor of it remains compelling. And while its references to “barbarous peoples” are still jarring, Mill’s comments on failed states in “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” have obvious implications for American foreign policy today.
Also, Marquand’s assertion that Mill’s changes in opinion somehow render his views irrelevant is patently ridiculous. Consider Wittgenstein. The Wittgenstein of the Tractatus and the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations are practically two different people, with vastly different views on the philosophy of language and logic. But the argument contained in each book are still analyzed and debated today, and are not made any less important by their contradiction. An about-face by a philosopher does not invalidate in any way his work before or after it, and it’s silly of Marquand to suggest otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Mill in the 21st Century

  1. I’m now almost convinced that we’re long lost twins or something along those lines. After writing the post, I thought that I hadn’t talked about Mill’s personal life and activism enough, specifically the Subjection of Women…lo and behold, you had already done so.

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