Caplan holds that Mill ascribes to both an Ultimate Principle
“It is proper to state that I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent of utility. I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions….”
And an Absolute Principle
“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion.”
Caplan then claims that Mill “forgets” his Ultimate Principle in favor of his Absolute Principle,
“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right”
and then charges that he admits of significant exceptions to the Absolute Principle
“It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”
This, claims Caplan, is “awful philosophy”.
But it’s not obvious why he thinks this.
Mill’s view is clear: utility is the ultimate determinant of whether an act is (ethically) right or wrong. Given certain empirical assumptions, utility will be maximized overall by restricting the exercise of force over “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” to that which is required to prevent harm to others. Acting paternalistically towards children and incompetent adults is justified, for Mill, for to accord them the same range of liberty as competent adults would not (again, given certain empirical assumptions) maximize utility. To be sure, Mill’s views here are ripe for criticism, especially his (frankly appalling) claim that “barbarians” require a despotic government for their own good. (We might ask, for example, whether any acts can be completely self-regarding, and so harmless to others, and whether Mill’s empirical assumptions are correct.) But this isn’t “awful” philosophy by any means—and it doesn’t require any appeal to “fine and subtle distinctions” to be defended against this charge.
But what if we were to try to defend Mill by making such distinctions? Caplan charges that Mill “piles confusion on confusion” when he attempts this. Quoting Mill’s “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” Caplan writes “But a man’s “own good, either physical or moral” surely includes his “utility in the largest sense.” And Mill says that’s ‘not a sufficient warrant’ for violating his liberty.”
But the error here is Caplan’s, not Mill’s. Caplan fails to recognize the difference between the interests of “a man”, and “man as a progressive being”—the former refers to an individual man, the latter to mankind as a whole. A man’s own good thus doesn’t include “utility in the largest sense”, and to think that it does is to commit a simple category mistake.
Turning to address the role that discussion has in Mill’s work, Caplan claims that “Mill’s Ultimate Principle commands coercion and his Absolute Principle forbids it.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t say why he thinks this—an omission that is especially problematic since neither of Mill’s “Principles” seem to support this claim. There’s nothing in the “Utilmate Principle” that commands coercion, although it would certainly allow coercion were this to maximize overall utility. And the “Absolute Principle” would allow coercion of those (incompetent) humans that fell outside its protective scope. To be sure, these “Principles” might conflict. But that’s a different line of objection than that which Caplan offers.
Mill might not, in the end, be right—but his work isn’t cringeworthy by any means. And nothing that Caplan has written shows that it is.