Monday, May 14, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty, Part Two

[For the summentary of Part One of this chapter, "John Stuart Mill," click here.]

“With Mill’s values, I for my part find myself in complete agreement [p. 133].” Individual liberty should be central to morality, though the term “liberty” has been expropriated by reactionary forces. The main culprit is Marx, “who substituted Prussian discipline for freedom as both the means and the end of revolutionary action [p. 134].” Marxian notions met with success in part thanks to the growth in large organizations, which allow greater control over people’s lives. Look at how the individualistic Western pioneers of America found themselves at the mercy of railroads. The power of distant governments and markets does not preclude intellectual liberty, but it does massively constrain economic liberty. The peasants in Communist countries feel the yoke of state power to a degree never imagined by their forebears in serfdom. “The totalitarian State is the last term of organization, the goal toward which, if we are not careful, we shall find all developed countries tending [p. 136].” A truly democratic State might be more favorable to liberty than is the power of capitalists, but really existing Communism is much, much worse. And even in democratic countries, the police are repressive and dissenters are marginalized.

Were Mill to undertake the writing of On Liberty today, his opinions on the benefits of liberty would not need to be altered. But Mill might look at the main threats to liberty as arising from two sources, society’s attempt to impose its moral code and the existence of unjust power. Mill himself gives several examples of the attempt to impose morality. Recent cases that Mill would condemn are the suppression of so-called obscenity and the criminalization of homosexuality. [In the case of obscenity, Russell writes: “I cannot think that the feeling of shock which an elderly man experiences on being brought in contact with something to which he is not accustomed is a sufficient basis for an accusation of crime [p. 139].”] If we still believed that homosexual relations would bring about Divine retribution on whole cities, we would have grounds to suppress it, but we cannot criminalize consensual adult homosexual acts just because we find them sinful. [This discussion echoes a point Russell made about beliefs concerning witches in Human Society in Ethics and Politics.]

The post-Enlightenment world has been concerned with the unjust power of monarchs, religious authorities, and empires. The new danger comes from bureaucrats: look at what happened to independent labor unions in Russia when capitalists were replaced with the State. The monopoly of power in the State is worse than having rival blocks of power -- unions and capitalists -- even though the competitive arrangement involves some restrictions on liberty, too.

While Mill insisted on the necessity of educating children (even over parental objections), he didn’t say much about how the educating should proceed. Presumably Mill would want to make sure that children were given the means to learn about and develop their own opinions on important matters, so that they would be poised to use well their adult freedom to act. But today’s approach to education valorizes making the right choice by society’s lights, as opposed to celebrating the freedom to choose (which might result in wrong choices). This commitment to straitjacketing choice is shared by Communist and Catholic schools, as well as by state schools in many places. [Russell is re-iterating points he has made in Unpopular Essays and Education and the Good Life.] “Its purpose is to produce mental slaves, who have heard only one side on all the burning questions of the day and have been inspired with feelings of horror toward the other side [p. 142].” But different nations instill different dogmas in their drones, who will turn into reliable soldiers and persecutors when summoned. If no one had ever thought of state education, the world might have been better off.

Russell again makes the economist’s distinction between rival and non-rival goods, using a poem as an example of a non-rival good. Rival goods, chiefly of the material ilk, need to be justly distributed if democracy is to be preserved against a man on horseback. But perfect liberty will not secure a just distribution, and instead will lead to the man on horseback. Non-rival goods, however, chiefly those in the intellectual sphere, can be consumed by anyone and everyone, simultaneously. “There is not, therefore, any prima-facie case for restrictions of liberty in this sphere [p. 143].” Government lacks the standing to control ideas or art or music. Books cannot be censored; let a hundred publishers bloom. Requiring imprimatur before publishing brings on intellectual degradation of the sort that Stalin’s control of music brought to Russian rhythm.

Russell will not grant Mill the mantle of a great philosopher; his ideas were derivative of Hume, Bentham, and James Mill. The severity of Bentham and James Mill was advantageously softened in John Stuart Mill through Romantics such as Coleridge and Carlyle, and through Harriet Taylor. Mill nonetheless (and again, advantageously) avoided the excesses of the Romantics. His moral standing was majestic. Mill was fair though pointed when engaged in controversy.

The world is a better place for Mill’s contributions, especially his advocacy for women’s rights and liberty. “The present world would both astonish and horrify him; but it would be better than it is, if his ethical principles were more respected [p. 144].”

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