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John Stuart Mill: always right

In an RPG.net discussion, I asserted that liberalism (and AFAIK conservatism, but I didn't feel up to speaking for them) had no equivalent to Marx for Communists or Ayn Rand for Objectivists. There are various theories and theorists, certainly, but they don't have the same central importance. Someone suggested John Rawls; having read part of A Theory of Justice I disagreed; it's a nice exercise, but ultimately a big rationalization (and I say that as a social contract fan), not far off in principle but the whole abstraction of it bleeds away the relevance for me. I don't remember if someone suggested John Stuart Mill.

I'd still say we lack a central book or dogmatist, perhaps partly because liberalism permeates our culture so much we imbibe the ideas, but also because of the pragmatic nature and content of the ideas. But this article in the New Yorker makes me think John Stuart Mill deserves such a place if anyone does: "always right" by our standards, relatively early, and influential to boot.




Bentham’s real achievement was to squeeze the piety out of Enlightenment talk of “rights.” People didn’t have rights because their creator endowed them with rights; they had them because rights were useful to have.

When, in the eighteen-sixties, the English-appointed governor of Jamaica punished a native uprising with hideous cruelty—the accused were tortured and many hanged, after trumpery trials—Mill led the fight in England against him, chairing a committee to have him tried not for maladministration but for murder. (A committee formed in defense of the governor included Dickens and Carlyle.) When Mill said that his rights were worthless unless everyone else had them, too, he really meant it.


(Dickens!?)


On a list of modern words that changed the most lives, those which Harriet and John wrought together in “The Subjection of Women” must rank high. Before it, women were for all intents and purposes chattel; afterward, they would sooner or later have to be made citizens. You could argue against it, try to unmake it, but you couldn’t ignore it. The beach was taken, and the cautious odd couple by the rhino’s cage had taken it.

In a sense, social conservatives like Rick Santorum are right: there is a slippery slope leading from one banned practice to the next. Give rights to blacks, and the next thing you know you are giving rights to women and sodomites and then the sodomites are renting formal wear and ordering flowers for their weddings. The slippery slope is what Mill called liberty. Every time we slide a little farther down, what we find is not a descent toward Hell but more air, and more people breathing free.

...became notorious for having once described the Conservatives as “necessarily the stupidest party.” What he meant wasn’t that Conservatives were stupid; Disraeli, who was running the Tory Party then, was probably the cleverest man ever to run a political party, and Mill’s own influences from the right were immense and varied. He meant that, since true conservatism is a complicated position, demanding a good deal of restraint when action is what seems to be wanted, and a long view of history when an immediate call to arms is about, it tends to break down into tribal nationalism, which is stupidity incarnate. For Mill, intelligence is defined by sufficient detachment from one’s own case to consider it as one of many; a child becomes humanly intelligent the moment it realizes that there are other minds just like its own, working in the same way on the material available to them. The tribal nationalist is stupid because he fails to recognize that, given a slight change of location and accident of birth, he would have embraced the position of his adversary. Put him in another’s shoes and he would turn them into Army boots as well.



Although:


he had one great political triumph, just before he got elected to office: he helped to save the American Union. Few Americans learn that the cotton spinners of Lancashire were among the heroes of the Civil War. Out of work and starving, because of the Union blockade of cotton imports from the Confederacy, the workers nevertheless supported the Union out of pure anti-slavery principles. Had England recognized the South, and acted to end the blockade, as nearly happened several times, the Union would have lost, no matter what Grant or Lincoln did. It didn’t happen, because the Lancashire workers were so against it; when the great American historian John Jay Chapman listed the English liberals whose words were most responsible for the workers’ resistance to slavery, he placed first the name of John Stuart Mill.


The blockade making the difference between Union loss and victory isn't an idea I'm familiar with. Presumably Gopnik just means the South would have gotten its independence but even so, could food an arms shipments outweigh the inferiority in population, industry, and railroads?

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( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
dsgood
Oct. 10th, 2008 02:08 am (UTC)
I think the South would still have lost. But there's no way to know, of course.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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