Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: Mill, Thoreau & Freedom

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 CE) was born in London, influenced by Ancient Greek, French, and liberal thought. He is considered the major founder of Utilitarianism and one of the first champions of individual freedom, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. His father wrote a history of India, and Mill was for a time involved with his father in the British East India company, the corporation that helped Britain maintain their hold over India. Mill’s family was friends with the Bentham family, from whom Mill took up his consequentialist, ‘happy principle’ thought.

In fact, Mill’s father had Bentham tutor Mill as a child with the idea that Mill would become a champion of consequentialist thought. However, it was Mill who found the name ‘utilitarian’ in a Christian text that used the term to describe an evil way to strive for good without principles. Mill picked up the name and developed the thinking in line with Bentham, his mentor, becoming its famous spokesman. Mill is a central thinker in Logic, Economics and Ethics. In all of these subjects, he advocated rethinking basic principles and assumptions based on the ongoing experiences of their usefulness. For Mill and Utilitarianism, the true is not true in itself but true because it is useful for creating happiness and avoiding pain. Like Rousseau, Mill does not argue based on natural rights but rather on the natural liberty and freedom of the individual.

We can see two sides to the Utilitarian Principle, maximizing positive and minimizing negative. Bentham argued that one should always act in order to maximize happiness. Mill agrees, but says the MOST important thing is to minimize pain. It is important to add that Mill argues we must look at consequences in terms of the social view (for the most people) and the long view (for the greatest length of time). While Bentham and Mill are two sides of the same coin, they are different in important ways. There are times when striving for maximum happiness can cause much pain (majority happiness at the expense of the minority), and there are times when striving for minimum pain impairs much potential happiness (overprotective parenting, insurance issues, have to break some eggs etc).

Consider that Communism often sacrifices freedom for equality, providing structure for all but imposing this on those who dissent (much like Bentham) while Capitalism often sacrifices equality for freedom, providing little structural support but imposing very little on the lives of the people (much like Mill). Mill is considered one of the big influences on American law, and American Capitalism leans very much towards Mill. Consider also the example of the Dutch house where the socialist state provides allowances and living space for alcoholics to drink themselves to death vs. homeless people (including Vietnam veterans) drinking themselves to death in the streets in America.

Mill admits that there will be continuous problems whichever way we use the principle, but he argues that we must try to evolve in a positive direction and so we should stick to the Utilitarian social & long view even when there are problems if we want the best society. Some problems with Utilitarianism include the paradox of the bad example and the problem of authority.

The paradox of the bad example is used by critics to argue that Utilitarianism/Consequentialism causes contradictions such as the bad being always useful, and thus good. Any bad act is useful as a good example not only to the one who acted but to everyone else. Consider PBS documentaries on the US overcoming slavery as freedom and the average American of South Africa. Consider a prosecuting attorney arguing that an offender is bound to offend again vs. a defense attorney pointing at the same offender and arguing that they had a bad upbringing but are reformed and pulling their life together. Dennett uses three mile island as an example, arguing it caused nuclear standards to follow. Consider that we love villains who go from good to bad and heroes who go from bad to good. We can very easily see bad as good and good as bad. Is this a problem for Utilitarianism, as critics claim, or a problem for Ethics and humanity in general?

Nietzsche and Marx attack Utilitarianism with the problem of authority: guess who are the ones to tell you what is useful or makes us most happy? For Marx, it is the rulers, the privileged, and the upper class, who use the lower class as labor. For Nietzsche, it is the group, the majority, who cow the individual into agreement with the thinking and tastes of the masses. Mill in fact approves of war to advance civilization, and he approves of colonialism as improving the uncivilized.

Mill was a champion against the enslavement of black people and the second class status of women. His wife was brilliant and a significant influence on this thinking as well as On Liberty. He was one of the first passionate voices in philosophy, in fact one of the few, who argued that we must evolve to overcome slavery and second class status for any type of people. He writes, in 1850 on ‘The Negro Question’ words I love: “It is curious, withal, that the earliest known civilization was, we have the strongest reason to believe, a negro civilization. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilization; and to the records and traditions of these negroes did the Greek Philosophers to the very end of their career resort (I do not say with much fruit) as a treasury of mysterious wisdom.” I must say that we still are not wise to this in many of our texts and museums today.

In his work On Liberty, which I gave you to read, Mill argues that society only has the right to check or limit individual freedom when the individual is harming others or significantly harming themselves. Otherwise, individuals should have the freedom to do anything. If the state destroys life or property, this affects not only the targeted individual but the entire community. Mill argues that failing to act can also be unjust when it causes harm, such as allowing a child to fall into a well (like the child discussed by Mencius). He argues that the Utility principle will not only protect the individual from the state, but also the minority from the majority (useful, considering the problem Rousseau shares with Hobbes as discussed last time). The state must have checks and balances to prevent abuse of the individual and minorities. Interestingly, in his work on economics Mill argued that managers and executives should be voted into positions of power by the laborers or else there will be economic dictatorship.

Unfortunately, Mill does argue that children and the “uncivilized” (read: native populations of Africa, India, and the Americas) can be limited by the family or state because they are not fully developed and so should not be given full freedom to act on their own. In such cases, strict yet loving parenting and benevolent despotism is justified. Sad to say, this is much in line with British and American foreign policy in Mill’s time and still is today.

Mill also argues for radical freedom of speech. Because offense does not constitute harm, the state has no right to regulate offensive speech or arguments. We learn more by hearing arguments we hate rather than prohibiting them, and any argument may contain an element of truth no matter how much we hate it. As a Utilitarian Mill believes in the evolution and progression of truth over dogmatism and tradition, and new truths are often offensive.


Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was a writer, naturalist, transcendentalist, and abolitionist who is most famous for his proto-environmental and autobiographical book Walden and his political work On Civil Disobedience. He advocated simple and natural living and the right of the individual to nonparticipation with unjust laws and states. Like Rousseau, Thoreau believed that modern society was corrupting and abusive and hoped that people would cease to participate in war, slavery and other brutal practices by returning to nature and simplicity. Like Rousseau, he argued that many comforts and luxuries are not aids but hindrances to the progress of humanity. Like Rousseau, at least one critic wrote that if Thoreau was right we may as well go back to walking on all fours.

Thoreau did not believe in leaving society or rugged naturalism, but balancing modernity and city life with an appreciation of nature and the transcendent unity of existence. He is sometimes called an anarchist, as he wrote, “That government is best which governs least,” in On Civil Disobedience. While Thoreau did love nature and despise much of modern society, he argued for balance and did not believe in leaving civilization or abolishing government. Many know that Thoreau wrote Walden while secluded in a cabin at Walden pond (on land owned by his mentor and fellow transcendentalist Emerson) but few know that Walden pond was not far removed from society and in fact Thoreau had accidentally burned down 300 acres of Walden Wood with the help of a friend several years before staying in the cabin.

In 1846, Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay past taxes on the grounds of opposition to the American slave trade and the Mexican-American War. Moved by the experience, he gave lectures on his experience and how it strengthened his convictions and later reworked these lectures into his famous On Civil Disobedience (published in 1849). Many great leaders have been profoundly influenced by the work, including Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Tolstoy, JFK, Hemingway, and John Muir. MLK wrote in his autobiography that he first found the idea of noncooperation with the unjust system as effective means of protest in On Civil Disobedience while studying at Morehouse College in 1944, and that he became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as important as cooperation with good.

On Civil Disobedience would make Xun Zi scream. Thoreau argues that government is supposed to be an aid but is most often a hindrance. He points to the Mexican-American war and says that a few, not the people, are benefited by using the state as a tool. Even democracies can dominate the minority and individual. The state does not make us more just and often uses us for great injustice such as war and slavery. We often serve the state as machines, not people, and being like a dog or horse is being a “good citizen”. How should we act toward the state today? Thoreau writes he can’t acknowledge his government as the government of the slave too. If the US is invaded, he says, he will take up arms for the US, but it is we who are the invaders!

We should refuse to follow unjust laws and governments, and be friction against the machine. If you live simply, and have less, then you can more easily not participate in the injustices of war and slavery. The rich are always indebted to the system that maintains the riches. Thoreau quotes Jesus: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, and Confucius, “In an unjust state, riches and honors are shameful”.

Thoreau acknowledges that there has been great progress for individual freedom in the transition from monarchy to democracy, but asks: is democracy the final step of this evolution?