Did Mill Go Too Far?

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill; drawing by David Levine

John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty has on the whole served conservatives better than liberals. From Fitzjames Stephen to Wilmore Kendall and Lord Devlin, critics of liberalism have been pleased to cite the essay as the most cogent philosophical defense of that theory, and then, by noticing the defects in its argument, argue that liberalism is flawed. Miss Himmelfarb uses the essay in the same way, but with this difference. She does not attack Mill’s arguments, but argues ad hominem against Mill himself. She says that he himself condemns, in his other writings, the philosophical premises upon which On Liberty is built. Friedrich Hayek made the same point years ago, and Miss Himmelfarb touched upon it in her 1962 edition of Mill’s essays. Now she documents her case in great detail.

If, as she believes, On Liberty runs against the grain of everything Mill wrote before or after it, then it is necessary to explain why he took such time and care, in that essay, to refute himself. She finds the answer in his long association with Harriet Taylor, who had become his wife when On Liberty was written, though she died before it was published. Mill dedicated On Liberty to her in extravagant terms; he said that her ideas inspired the essay, and that she was an active collaborator in the long process of revising and polishing it. Miss Himmelfarb argues that this was under-statement; that Miss Taylor was so much the dominant partner in the enterprise that she was able to drive him to unnatural intellectual positions. She also thinks that Miss Taylor’s outrage, which provoked the essay, was generated by the legal and social subjugation of women in Victorian England, a topic hardly mentioned in the essay, but of great concern to Miss Taylor.

But her only argument in favor of the hypothesis that Miss Taylor took over Mill’s mind is that no other explanation of the inconsistency in his thought can be found. There is no direct evidence, either internal or external to the essay. Miss Himmelfarb claims that the lack of internal evidence only shows how intimate the collaboration was, and explains the absence of external evidence by noticing that the Mills lived in isolation from all friends while the essay was being written. If there is in fact no genuine inconsistency between On Liberty and Mill’s other work, then no evidence remains for Miss Himmelfarb’s interesting speculation.

Her argument for the supposed inconsistency is this. Mill discusses liberty not only in the famous essay but in many books and papers, including his autobiography, his early essay “The Spirit of the Age,” his famous essay on Coleridge, and his major work on utilitarianism. In these other works, he argues in favor of both complexity and historicism in political theory. He condemns Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, for reducing social psychology and political…

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