فصل 24

دوره: تاریخچه کوتاهی از فلسفه / درس 24

فصل 24

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chapter 24

Space to Grow

John Stuart Mill

Imagine that you had been kept away from other children for most of your childhood. Instead of spending time playing, you would have been learning Greek and algebra, taught by a private tutor, or you’d be in conversation with highly intelligent adults. How would you have turned out?

This is more or less what happened to John Stuart Mill (1806–73). He was an educational experiment. His father, James Mill, a friend of Jeremy Bentham, shared John Locke’s view that a young child’s mind was empty, like a blank slate. James Mill was convinced that if you brought a child up in the right way, there was a good chance that he or she would develop into a genius. So James taught his son John at home, making sure that he didn’t waste any time playing with children his own age or learning bad habits from them. But this wasn’t simply cramming, forced memorization, or anything like that. James taught using Socrates’ method of cross-questioning, encouraging his son to explore the ideas he was learning rather than just parrot them.

The stunning result was that by the age of three John was studying Ancient Greek. By six he had written a history of Rome, and aged seven he could understand Plato’s dialogues in the original language. At eight he started to learn Latin. By 12 he had a thorough appreciation of history, economics and politics, could solve complex mathematical equations and had a passionate and sophisticated interest in science. He was a prodigy. In his twenties he was already one of the most brilliant thinkers of his age, though he never really got over his strange childhood and remained lonely and a bit distant throughout his life.

Nevertheless, he had turned into a kind of genius. So his father’s experiment had worked. He became a campaigner against injustice, an early feminist (he was arrested for promoting birth control), a politician, a journalist, and a great philosopher, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century.

Mill had been brought up as a utilitarian, and Bentham’s influence was immense. The Mills would stay at Bentham’s house in the Surrey countryside each summer. But, although Mill agreed with Bentham that the right action is always the one that produces the most happiness, he came to believe that his teacher’s account of happiness as pleasure was too crude. So the younger man developed his own version of the theory, one that distinguished between higher and lower pleasures.

Given the choice, would it be better to be a contented pig rolling about in a muddy sty and chomping through the food in its trough, or a sad human being? Mill thought it was obvious that we would choose to be a sad human rather than a happy pig. But that goes against what Bentham thought. Bentham, you will remember, says that all that counts are pleasurable experiences, no matter how they are produced. Mill disagreed. He thought that you could have different kinds of pleasure and that some were much better than others, so much better that no quantity of the lower pleasure could ever match the smallest quantity of the higher one. Lower pleasures, such as those an animal can experience, would never challenge the higher, intellectual pleasures, like the pleasure of reading a book or listening to a concert. Mill went further, and said that it would be better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied fool. That’s because the philosopher Socrates was capable of gaining so much more subtle pleasures from his thinking than the fool could ever achieve.

Why believe Mill? His answer was that anyone who has experienced both higher and lower pleasures prefers the higher ones. The pig can’t read or listen to classical music, so its opinion on this wouldn’t count. If a pig could read it would prefer reading to rolling in mud.

That’s what Mill thought. But some people have pointed out that he assumed that everyone was like him in preferring reading to rolling in the mud. Worse still, as soon as Mill introduces different qualities of happiness (higher and lower) as well as different quantities, it becomes much harder to see how you could ever calculate what to do. One of the great virtues of Bentham’s approach was its simplicity, with every kind of pleasure and pain measured in the same currency. Mill gives no way of working out an exchange rate between the different currencies of higher and lower pleasures.

Mill applied his utilitarian thinking to all aspects of life. He thought that human beings are a bit like trees. If you don’t give a tree enough space to develop, it will be twisted and weak. But in the right position it can fulfil its potential and reach a great height and spread. Similarly, in the right circumstances, human beings flourish, and that produces good consequences not just for the individual concerned, but for the whole of society – it maximizes happiness. In 1859 he published a short but inspiring book defending his view that giving each person space to develop as they saw fit was the best way to organize society. That book is called On Liberty and it is still widely read today.

Paternalism, from the Latin pater meaning father, is forcing someone to do something for their own good (though it could equally have been maternalism from mater, the Latin for mother). If as a child you were made to eat your greens then you will understand this concept very well. Eating green vegetables doesn’t do anyone else any good, but your parents still make you do it for your own good. Mill thought paternalism was fine when it was directed at children: children need to be protected from themselves and have their behaviour controlled in various ways. But paternalism towards adults in a civilized society was unacceptable. The only justification for it was when an adult risked harming someone else by their actions or if they had severe psychiatric problems.

Mill’s message was simple. It is known as the Harm Principle. Every adult should be free to live as he or she pleases as long as no one else is harmed in the process. This was a challenging idea in Victorian England when many people assumed that part of the role of government was to impose good moral values on the people. Mill disagreed. He thought that greater happiness would come from individuals having greater freedom in how they behaved. And it was not just government telling people what to do that worried Mill. He hated what he called ‘the tyranny of the majority’, the way that social pressures worked to prevent many people from doing what they wanted to do or become.

Others may think they know what will make you happy. But they are usually wrong. You know much better than they do what you really want to do with your life. And even if you don’t, Mill argued, it is better to let each of us make our own mistakes than to force us to conform with one way of living. This is consistent with his utilitarianism since he believed that increasing individual freedom produces more happiness overall than restricting it does.

According to Mill (who was one himself), geniuses, even more than the rest of us, need freedom in order to develop. They rarely fit into society’s expectations about how they should behave and often seem eccentric. If you cramp their development, then we all lose out because they probably won’t make the contributions to society that they might otherwise have done. So, if you want to achieve the greatest possible amount of happiness, let people get on with their lives without interfering with them; unless, of course, they risk harming other people by their actions. If you find what they are doing offensive that is not a good reason for preventing them from living this way. Mill was very clear on this point: offence should not be confused with harm.

Mill’s approach has some quite disturbing consequences. Imagine a man with no family who decides that he will drink two bottles of vodka every night. It is very easy to see that he is drinking himself to death. Should the law intervene to stop him? No, says Mill, not unless he risks harming someone else. You can argue with him, tell him he is destroying himself. But no one should force him to change his ways; nor should government prevent him drinking his life away. That’s his free choice. It wouldn’t be his free choice if he was looking after a young child, but as he has no one depending on him, he can do what he likes.

As well as freedom in how to live, Mill thought it was vital that everyone was given freedom to think and speak as they liked. Open discussion was of great benefit to society, he felt, because it forced people to think hard about what they believed. If you don’t have your views challenged by people with opposing views, then you will probably end up holding them as ‘dead dogmas’, prejudices that you can’t really defend. He argued for free speech up to the point at which it incited violence. A journalist, he believed, should be free to write an editorial in which he declared that ‘corn-dealers are starvers of the poor’, but if he waved a placard with the same words on it while standing on the steps of a corn-dealer’s house in front of an angry mob, that would be an incitement to violence and so forbidden by Mill’s Harm Principle.

Many people disagreed with Mill. Some thought his approach to freedom was too centred on the idea that what matters is how individuals feel about their lives (it is much more individualistic, for example, than Rousseau’s concept of freedom, see Chapter 18). Others saw him as opening the doors to a permissive society that would wreck morality for ever. James Fitzjames Stephen, one of his contemporaries, argued that most people should be forced down a narrow channel and not given too many choices about how they live, because so many, given free rein, would end up making bad and self-destructive decisions for themselves.

One area in which Mill was particularly radical at the time he wrote was in his feminism. In England in the nineteenth century married women were not allowed to own property, and had little legal protection against violence and rape by their husbands. Mill argued in The Subjection of Women (1869) that the sexes should be treated equally both in law and in society more generally. Some around him claimed that women were naturally inferior to men. He asked how they could possibly know this when women had so often been prevented from reaching their full potential: they were kept away from higher education and many professions. Above all, he wanted greater equality of the sexes. Marriage should be a friendship between equals, he argued. His own marriage to the widow Harriet Taylor, which came very late in their lives, was like this and it brought both great happiness. They had been intimate friends (and perhaps even lovers) while her first husband was alive, but Mill had had to wait until 1851 to become her second. She helped him write both On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, though, sadly, she died before either was published.

On Liberty was first published in 1859. In the same year another even more important book appeared: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

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