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Friday, May 19, 2006

John Stuart Mill And Utilitarianism

Roger Scruton remembers John Stuart Mill on the eve of the philosopher's 200th birthday.

Mill was originally a proponent of utilitarianism, which Wikipedia defines as "a theory of ethics that prescribes the quantitative maximization of good consequences for a population." He eventually recognized a fatal flaw to the theory: the lack of checks and balances against a state's subjective interpretation of what maximizes the common good:

As Mill recognized, the "greatest happiness principle" must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant. In response to his own wavering discipleship, therefore, he wrote "On Liberty," perhaps his most influential, though by no means his best, production.

Scruton cites Marxism and socialism as two examples of utilitarianism run amok. Nothing summarizes Marxist utilitarianism better than Mao's famous statement, "To make an omelet, you must break a few eggs." The analogy is perhaps more illustrative than Mao would have recognized; as one consumes one's breakfast for personal nourishment, Communist elites (literally and figuratively) consume a nation's population for their own enrichment.

Scruton mentions another example of unbridled utilitarianism, that promoted by his contemporary Jeremy Bentham which formed the essence of Victorian-era law:

At the time, Benthamite ways of thinking were influencing jurisprudence, and arguments based on the "general good" and the "good of society" appealed to the conservative imagination of the Victorian middle classes. It seemed right to control the forms of public worship, to forbid the expression of heretical opinions, or to criminalize adultery, for the sake of a "public morality" which exists for the general good. If individual freedom suffers, then that, according to the utilitarians, is the price we must pay.

The Benthamite argument is essentially the same as that of Marxism, socialism, the Jim Crow South, and academic political correctness, although the specific policies vary widely: government must be the cornerstone of culture. Recall the conversation between Josh Lyman and his Donna Moss on The West Wing. The utilitarian state doesn't trust us.

Mill failed to correct one serious philosophical flaw (emphasis added):

Mill's hostility to privilege, to landed property, and to inheritance of property had implications which he seemed unwilling or unable to work out. His argument that all property should be confiscated by the state on death, and redistributed according to its own greater wisdom, has the implication that the state, rather than the family, is to be treated as the basic unit of society--the true arbiter of our destiny, and the thing to which everything is owed. The argument makes all property a temporary lease from the state, and also ensures that the state is the greatest spender, and the one least bound by the sense of responsibility to heirs and neighbors. It is, in short, a recipe for the disaster that we have seen in the communist and socialist systems, and it is a sign of Mill's failure of imagination that, unlike Smith, he did not foresee the likely results of his favored policies.

Update: I have posted a follow-up.

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