Bryan Caplan has recently argued that some of Mill’s arguments in On Liberty are “awful” and “cringeworthy” . But the arguments that he offers in support of this claim don’t justify it at all.

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.

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  • Dale Miller

    While it doesn’t sound like Caplan fell victim to this error, some editions of On Liberty actually contain the phrase “interests of a man as a progressive being,” a typo that occurred in one early printing of the essay and that then when on to infect later printings. Rawls actually had a riff on that passage that was based on the typo in the early printings of A Theory of Justice. When he discovered the mistake he replaced it with new text of the same length so that the pagination was maintained, with no indication that the text had changed.

    • djw

      Fascinating. I was going to comment that Caplan’s confusion between “a man” and “man as a progressive being” is a truly embarrassing error of Mill interpretation, one that my intro to political theory students could probably spot, but if Rawls made the same mistake I guess I should cut him a bit more slack.

  • Paugle

    Call it nitpicking if you like, but a rationale for the genocide visited upon indigenous people around the world is cringe worthy in my book. Especially when that rationale is contained in treatise on ethics.

  • Dharok

    Mill’s “barbarian” argument is not “appalling” at all.  Read in the context, it makes complete sense.  I think that this piece’s author has made a few unwarranted (negative) assumptions about the nature of the despotic governance.  Mill says that children require the same–surely Mill was not saying that children should suffer?  And if children should not suffer, why assume that Mill is arguing that barbarians should suffer?

  • http://millsrevenge.tumblr.com/ Mill’s Revenge

    Maybe Mill was a fine philosopher but a lousy writer?

    And yes — I do find that most libertarian critiques of utilitarianism start with absurd assumptions. “Well, if Mill assumed XYZ, then we’d end up with something horrible.” Well, yeah. Garbage in, garbage out. Says nothing about utilitarianism itself.

  • Paugle

    It’s pretty clear that Mill did not prescribe “suffering” for children or anyone else. What he DOES justify is the application of forceful coercion and/or state violence in cases of qualified groups i.e savages, or individuals i.e. children or other vulnerable people. Basically it’s an ends justify the means argument if utilitarian ends are the motive. The presumption is that any “suffering” will be of limited duration and  ultimately beneficial from a utilitarian perspective. Unfortunately history betrays those assumptions as rationales for oppression.

    • Brandon Turner

      I think you underestimate how easy it is to rationalize oppression.

      • Mike Rappaport

         If one is “rationalizing” oppression — that is, applying a mistaken argument for oppression — that does not mean utilitarianism is endorsing it.  That people mistakenly apply the principle of utility is not an argument against the principle (although it might be an argument against having people decide on their own what produces utility).  That some people believe there is a natural right to kill others does not count as an argument against natural rights philosophy.

  • JFJ

    Notwithstanding these points, Mill’s work is pretty cringeworthy.

    It is very obvious that the harm principle does not follow from utilitarianism.  This is one of Caplan’s points – that it would be “silly and dogmatic” to think the world made it so. It would depend on clearly outrageous empirical conjectures. Indeed, Mill ends up making outrageous empirical conjectures throughout the book.

    In addition, he makes the spectacularly weak ‘columbus argument’, which states that all good changes have come from innovators, who have nevertheless been ridiculed.  Therefore, we should encourage all innovators.  The obvious weakness being that granting that all changes for the better have come from innovators, all changes for the worse have too.

    I mean, the harm principle basically means that nearly all or all taxation is impermissible.  How this can be justified on utilitarian grounds is beyond me.

    • Dale Miller

      I’m puzzled about your claim that the harm principle makes taxation impermissible. I guess I can see two reasons that you might have for thinking this, but I don’t find either convincing. 

      The first is that you might think that the harm principle says that no one is allowed to harm anyone else, and that since taxing someone harms them, the harm principle says that no one (including the state) can do that. But Mill never says that no one can harm anyone else. He recognizes that in social life we are constantly harming each other (in his sense of ‘harm’), and that many of these harms ought to be regarded as permissible. Whoever wins a competition harms the other competitors, but Mill is far from being anti-competition. The harm principle sets out a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for stopping someone from causing harm to others. 
      The second is that the harm principle would prohibit the state from limiting people’s liberty in ways that aren’t conducive to preventing harm to others and that this entails that it can’t tax people for any purpose other than preventing harm to others. Mill, though, doesn’t see taxation as a limit on liberty, at least not in general. If the tax is being used as a tool for keeping people from engaging in a certain activity, e.g., if the tax on a pack of cigarettes were set a $1,000,000, then that tax would limit liberty. (One sign that a tax on an activity is really being used as a restriction on liberty is that if the tax rate were lower the tax would actually generate more revenue.) But in general Mill doesn’t think that you paid a certain portion of your income in taxes makes you less free. 

      And this is too big of a debate to have here, but if you read Mill as a rule rather than an act utilitarian then I don’t think that it’s quite so clear that the liberty or harm principle is incompatible with his rule utilitarianism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.petre Matthew Petre

    I assume that Mill defines barbarians as groups of people that disregard the principles of Liberty, Utility, and even Human Rights; and in that context those would be a group of people for whom it would be permissible to force into a more civil position. However, violence would never be an option for this force as it is in itself barbaric and against Mill’s principles. May seem to be a bit of a conundrum and I’m sure it drove him nuts at times, but Utilitarianism and it’s sister Libertarianism are still the best ideals we have to follow in my opinion. BTW, nothing in Mill’s philosophy justifies the atrocities waged against people like the Native Americans. However, it could possibly justify individual events where war is waged in retaliation to barbarian acts. Cringeworthy? Really… let’s discuss the contradictions of liberal communist governments if we really want some fertile ground for fallacious thinking.

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