[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: The light of other minds

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John Gray: The light of other minds
The Times Literary Supplement, 9.2.11

    Giants Refreshed - VI

    John Stuart Mill's neglected insights: his understanding of human
    variety and his plea for the wilderness.

    It is easy to think of John Stuart Mill as merely an eminent
    Victorian. So much in his thought belongs in an irrecoverable past.
    The history of the twentieth century stands, impassable, between
    Mill's hopes and ours. Mill's Enlightenment faith that the growth of
    knowledge and moral progress move in tandem, his narrowly Eurocentric
    vision of a universal civilization and his vaporous religion of
    humanity are far removed from the way we think now. Gladstone called
    him, not, perhaps, without a hint of malice, "the Saint of
    Rationalism"; and for all the immense power and restless agility of
    his intellect, there is something in Mill's turn of mind akin to the
    simplicity that is sometimes said to go with sanctity. He never
    doubted that unreason and savagery would be banished from human
    affairs by the spread of education. He could not have imagined that
    humanity's worst crimes would be committed in Europe, the most
    educated and therefore, in his view, the most civilized region of the
    world. Had he been able to foresee even a fraction of the horror of
    the twentieth century, we can imagine Mill reacting - as his godson

    Russell did throughout much of his long life - with a furious
    uncomprehending despair, as

    his rationalist hopes were again and again


    Yet it is quite wrong to think that Mill's thought is just another
    Enlightenment museum piece. On the contrary, because he sought
    illumination from sources as disparate as French Positivism and German
    Romanticism, it is less dated than that of most of his contemporaries.
    More than any other nineteenth-century thinker, Mill anticipated later
    concerns with the limits of economic growth, the ambiguities of
    technological progress and even - much against his official
    Utilitarian outlook - the intrinsic worth of the natural environment.
    He was an avowed defender of the Enlightenment project of a

    universal rational morality. Even so, he injected into liberal thought
    the insight that humans thrive not in one but in many, widely
    divergent ways of life - an idea that must qualify, if it does not
    actually subvert, some core Enlightenment ideals. He insisted that
    modern societies need the disciplines of market competition; but he
    viewed the market as a fallible instrument of society, not its master.
    He was a consistent advocate of individual liberty. Nevertheless, he
    understood that the liberties that are most worth protecting vary with
    time, place and circumstance - an insight that has been neglected in
    recent schemes for the globalization of human rights. Flawed as it is
    in a great many ways, Mill's liberalism is a better guide to the

    dilemmas we face today than the rights-based legalism that, by the end
    of the twentieth century, had led liberal political philosophy into a
    blind alley.

    Over the past thirty years, political philosophy has become a
    self-referential discourse, one of whose defining features is its
    non-existence as far as the real political world is concerned. This
    disconnection of political philosophy from political practice has many
    causes, but some of the most important come from within the subject
    itself. Under the influence of John Rawls and his many disciples,
    liberal thought has been captured by the project of removing basic
    liberties and requirements of social justice from political
    contention, and entrenching them in law. Political philosophy has come
    to be seen as a branch of jurisprudence, whose central task is the
    design of an ideal constitution according to the principles of a
    "theory of justice". Within this liberal orthodoxy, little of
    importance is left to political decision. Once the requirements of
    justice have been determined by philosophical inquiry, they need only
    be interpreted and enforced. The core institution of recent liberalism
    is not a parliament, or any other sort of deliberative assembly, but a
    Supreme Court. Though it describes itself as "political liberalism",
    Rawls's doctrine is in fact a species of anti-political legalism.

    The anti-political animus of the prevailing school of liberal
    political philosophy is compounded by its neglect of recent history. A
    careful reader of Rawls and most of his disciples could come away from
    their writings without knowing that social democracy is everywhere in
    retreat, that Communism has ceased to exist, that in the most
    important case - Russia - the transition from central planning to a
    market economy has failed and that, in much of the world, ethnic
    nationalist and fundamentalist movements are the most powerful
    political force. He would be unaware that in many countries modern
    states have collapsed or become so deeply corroded as to be virtually

    This comprehensive disregard for the historical circumstances of the
    late twentieth century is not inadvertent. It flows from a
    philosophical method in which the values and institutions of modern
    democratic societies are taken as given. In this view, moral inquiry
    should aim for an equilibrium between unreflective liberal intuition
    and a simple ideal of rationality. Law is seen as an institution whose
    dependency on the power of the State is accidental. Liberal values are
    elucidated from an "overlapping consensus", presumed to exist in all
    or most democratic societies. This method is not confined to Rawls and
    his followers, where it articulates the egalitarian intuitions of
    sections of the liberal Left. It is found also in thinkers such as F.
    A. Hayek and (the earlier) Robert Nozick, where it expresses the
    intuitions of the libertarian Right regarding private property and the
    free market. These seemingly opposed doctrines have some crucial
    assumptions in common. They take it for granted that justice is the
    first virtue of social institutions, and that its requirements are to
    be removed from political control. They

    differ chiefly on a question of detail. Their views of a just society
    are at odds at nearly every point.

    The contrast with Mill's thought is stark. He could only have found
    outlandish the notion that we can decide which liberties are most
    worth having by consulting a "theory of justice" which is based
    primarily on the intuitions of a few philosophers. His political
    philosophy was shaped not by any narrow, intra-academic agenda, but by
    the great social and political transformations of his time - the
    nascent socialist and feminist movements, trade unions and growing
    popular demands for democratic representation. For Mill, the central
    task of political philosophy was not to design an ideal constitution.
    It was to formulate principles that are practically useful to
    legislators. He hoped to make political discourse more reasonable. He
    believed political philosophy should, and could, make a difference in
    political life. (He was for some years himself a Member of
    Parliament.) He never sought to replace political argument by judicial
    interpretation of a theory of justice.

    In Utilitarianism, Mill presented an account of justice; but it was
    framed in severely minimalist terms. For Mill, justice was a set of
    practices protecting the human interest in security, not a theory that
    prescribed the structure of

    society. As he put it:

    The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt another (in which we must
    never forget to include wrongful interference with each other's
    freedom) are more vital to human

    wellbeing than any maxims, however important, which only point out the
    best mode of

    managing some department of human affairs.

    Again, in On Liberty Mill wrote:

    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. That principle is, that the sole end of
    which mankind are

    warranted, individually or collectively, in

    interfering with the action of any of their number, is
    self-protection. That the only

    purpose for which power can be rightfully

    exercised over any member of a civilised

    community, against his will, is harm to


    In this justly famous passage, Mill stated an uncompromising principle
    of liberty; but he made no attempt to supply a list of freedoms, fixed
    once and for all by philosophical inquiry, that are to be removed from
    political decision. On the contrary, Mill believed that we can know
    which liberties to protect in any given

    context only by applying a Utilitarian ethical

    theory with the aid of a great deal of empirical knowledge; he is
    clear that, when we do so, we will find that different liberties are
    required in different historical contexts; and he takes for granted
    that the choice of liberties is best made through representative
    political institutions.

    Mill's historical and empirical approach has decisive advantages over
    the rights-based

    philosophies that have dominated recent liberal thought. To begin
    with, it allows for clear thinking about conflicts among liberties. In
    Rawls's theory, as in most theories of rights, basic liberties are
    "contoured", so their demands are guaranteed to be compatible. But
    this is not much more than a sleight of hand. In the real world, vital
    freedoms are rivals. Freedom of expression and protection from racist
    abuse; the freedom of investigative journalists and the privacy of the
    individual; the freedom of schools to hire whom they will and the
    freedom of citizens from religious and sexual discrimination - these
    are not dovetailing liberties. They are competing freedoms, protecting
    human interests that are often in conflict. No doubt there is much
    that is vague or disputable in Mill's Utilitarianism; but it is better
    to seek a balance, necessarily imprecise and never wholly fixed,
    between the claims of liberties whose conflicts we admit, than to
    pretend that they can be reconciled in the spurious harmonies of
    theories of justice.

    Mill's approach to questions of liberty

    enables us to think more realistically about the globalization of
    human rights. There can be no doubt that Mill favoured something like
    a worldwide regime of enforceable human rights. That much is evident
    in what he says about justice. But Mill's grasp of the economic,
    social and political conditions that are necessary if vital freedoms
    are to be secured is such that he could not endorse the project of
    global regime of rights without entering some serious reservations. He
    would surely accept that some rights warrant universal enforcement.
    Rights against genocide and torture plainly belong in that

    category, since they embody the most rudimentary requirements of
    individual security. But Mill is not thereby committed to the belief
    that the same liberties should be enforced everywhere.

    Unlike latter-day liberal legalists, Mill understood that law is not a
    free-standing institution than can be taken for granted. Before there
    can be any talk of protecting rights, there must be a modern State
    that has the capacity to define and enforce them, together with a
    decent level of wealth. In most cases, there are conditions that come
    into being only as the result of long historical development. Even
    when a stage of economic and political development has been reached
    when it makes sense to talk of protecting rights, Mill does not
    suggest they will be the same everywhere. As his Utilitarian moral
    outlook implies, basic human freedoms are not derived from any a
    priori idea of what is right; they are conventions, whose
    justification depends on their consequences. How far a basic freedom
    can be realized, and how it may clash with other such freedoms, are
    matters that can be decided only on the basis of a detailed know-ledge
    of particular circumstances. Mill knew that vital human freedoms
    cannot be listed as if they are items on a fixed-price menu. They come
    a la carte, and often we must choose among them. For Mill, such
    choices cannot be made by reference to any idea of abstract right, but
    only - as he puts it in On Liberty - by appealing to "utility in the
    largest sense, grounded on the permanent interest of man as a
    progressive being".

    As is well known, Mill's account of utility leaves much to be desired.
    Isaiah Berlin observed, rightly, that Mill valued individuality,
    social diversity and free inquiry independently of whether they
    promoted utility - even "utility in the largest sense". Mill asserted
    that the justification for a liberal society is that it promotes
    better than any other the well-being of humankind; but when we ask
    what that well-

    being consists in, we are not answered, but instead given examples of
    the different ways in which humans can thrive. In Utilitarianism, Mill
    tried to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures. He was
    evidently swayed by the Victorian notion that intellectual and moral
    satisfactions are somehow inherently more valuable than aesthetic and
    sensuous pleasures; but the test he proposed is simply the verdict of
    experienced judges - as if those judges were not themselves often in
    conflict. He nowhere gives any means of comparing the value of
    different kinds of human flourishing. It is as if, despite his avowed
    Utilitarian belief that different forms of life can always be compared
    in value, Mill suspected that some among them might be incommensurable
    - as some of the German Romantic thinkers had obscurely intimated. In
    any event, he could offer no account of how we are to reconcile the
    claims of rival freedoms, other than to say that we must do so in
    awareness of the consequences of our choices for the diverse ways in
    which human beings can live well.

    Voltaire - an Enlightenment thinker if ever there was one - never
    doubted that civilization was animated everywhere by the same values;
    but he was no less clear that these values could be, and indeed should
    be, expressed in a variety of political systems. In this earlier
    Enlightenment view, it was accepted that a universal

    civilization will be embodied in a variety of regimes. The English
    classical Utilitarians followed Voltaire in combining ethical
    universalism with a wise political relativism. So did John Stuart
    Mill, but with an all-important qualification. He believed that, as
    the species progressed, it would tend towards a single,
    liberal-democratic type of political regime. In Considerations on
    Representative Government, he observed: "To determine the form of
    government most suited to any particular people, we must be able,
    among the shortcomings and defects which belong to that people, to
    distinguish those that are the immediate impediments to progress; to
    discover what it is which (as it were) stops the way." Here Mill is a
    political relativist, acknowledging that different political systems
    are best in different cultures and circumstances.

    Later in the same book, however, he wrote that the ideally best form
    of government is that in which the sovereignty, or supreme controlling
    power in the last resort, is vested in the entire aggregate of the
    community; every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of
    that ultimate sovereignty, but being, at least occasionally, called on
    to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of
    some public function, local or general. Here Mill specifies not merely
    liberal democracy, but a liberal democratic regime with some classical
    republican characteristics, as being ideally the best mode of
    government for all of humanity. To be sure, since circumstances vary,
    there will always be different political systems, some of which might
    embody different choices among vital freedoms. (That is why Mill's
    support for recent projects of universal human rights could only have
    been qualified.) Yet, though they are important, the variations in
    political systems Mill expected came within a fairly narrow range. The
    only regimes that could ensure continuing progress in Mill's view were
    representative governments of a particular kind. Following the French
    Positivists, Mill believed that, as scientific knowledge advances and
    becomes a necessary part of life in societies throughout the world,
    there is bound to be a species-wide

    convergence in both values and institutions. It is this old
    Enlightenment faith, and not his

    quasi-pluralist moral philosophy, that sustains Mill's belief that
    liberal societies are destined to encompass all humankind.

    If we are guided by history, it is clear that this faith is
    groundless. Considered as a predictive theory, the Enlightenment view
    of history that Mill took over from the French Positivists is
    practically worthless. Science and new technologies flourish in
    societies, such as the United States, that are awash with religiosity,
    some of it fundamentalist; and they can thrive in countries, such as
    post-Mao China and postcommunist Russia in the aftermath of its
    ruinous neo-liberal experiment, whose attachment

    to Enlightenment values is tenuous. Late

    nineteenth-century Japan modernized by

    making numerous strategic borrowings from Western societies, but
    without embracing their Enlightenment values; and twenty-first-century
    India could conceivably do the same. No systematic, enduring link
    exists between the development of modern science and technology and
    the adoption of an Enlightenment world-view.

    There is a crux here for Mill's thought, and for liberalism. Mill's
    positivist philosophy of history suggests that the growth of knowledge
    engenders a universal civilization; but his tacitly expressed
    value-pluralism implies that the powers that are conferred by science
    and technology will be used in the service of a variety of ends,
    between which rational choice is not always possible. In that case,
    different cultures will deploy science and technology in the service
    of different ideas and projects, not all of them consistent with
    Enlightenment ideals. Take away Mill's philosophy of history, and his
    claims for the universal authority of liberal values are empty.

    Nothing is more commonplace than the view that liberalism and
    value-pluralism go together. Yet nothing supports this view other than
    a discredited philosophy of history. If it is true that ultimate
    values collide, with reason sometimes leaving us in the lurch, we have
    to choose between them; there is no reason to expect our choices to
    converge on a single political ideal. Recent liberal thinkers trade on
    the belief that the consensus which they imagine exists in some late
    modern societies will come to prevail wherever modernity has been
    achieved. Once the positivist interpretation of history is abandoned,
    however, liberalism and value-pluralism come apart, and Enlightenment
    values are seen to embody only one way of being modern. To be sure,
    disciples of Mill can doubtless still be found who affirm that
    modernity and Enlightenment are bound in the end to be one and the
    same; but this is a confession of faith, notable chiefly because it
    shows how little Mill's followers have learnt from the century that
    has just ended, rather than a conclusion of any sort of rational
    inquiry. When it is combined with a consistently empirical view of
    modern history, Mill's value-pluralism points towards a liberalism in
    which there can be many modernities and the ideal of a universal
    civilization has no place. In a time in which the hegemony of purely
    Western values is at an end, this is the only kind of liberalism that
    has a future.

    Mill's discussion of economic growth and technological progress shows
    him more clearly aware of their moral hazards and limits than any of
    the Marxists, Fabians and free-marketeers who followed him. In the
    remarkable chapter "Of the Stationary State" in Mill's Principles of
    Political Economy (1848), he argues that the increase of wealth has no
    value in itself. In his view, no modern society can do without the
    growing surplus made possible by a competitive market economy; but
    mere economic growth is as little to be desired as the increase of
    human population. In a striking anticipation of late twentieth-century
    anxieties. Mill foresaw that technological innovation can generate new
    scarcities of time and opportunity. Technological innovation adds
    little to the sum of human well-being, he observes, if it does not
    yield an increase in leisure. In that case, it is

    purposeless. What is the point of an economy founded on perpetual
    motion, if it has no goal? Far better a stationary state of capital
    and population, Mill argues, than the pursuit of ever-greater
    affluence for ever-larger human numbers. In such a stationary-state
    economy, as Mill conceives of it, technical progress is used to
    improve the art of living rather than merely to satisfy ever-expanding
    wants. Mill's refreshingly humane view of the purposes of technology
    and the role of a market economy contrasts sharply with the dystopian
    vision that was later propagated by free-market economists such as F.
    A. Hayek. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek articulated the
    neo-liberal philosophy of unending growth in the nihilistic dictum,
    "Progress is movement for movement's sake." The distance between this
    view and Mill's is a measure of the loss that results when economic
    theory is divorced from any understanding of society.

    Mill does more than reject the simplistic equation of economic growth
    with social welfare. He anticipates late twentieth-century anxiety
    about the integrity of the natural environment. When he argues that
    there is nothing inherently desirable in an increase of human
    population, Mill cites the quality of human life that is achievable in
    a less crowded world: but he also appeals to the intrinsic worth of
    other living things. Along with Utilitarians from Jeremy Bentham to
    Peter Singer, Mill is clear that it is not membership of the human
    species that grounds moral concern but rather sentience and the
    capacity for pleasure and pain. He is therefore committed to including
    in consideration the well-being not only of humans but also of other
    animal species. But he seems to want to go further than this. He is
    not entirely unambiguous here, but he seems tempted to affirm that
    life-forms and ecosystems can have a value of their own.

    In "Of the Stationary State", he writes:

    It is not good for a man to be kept perforce at all times in the
    presence of his species . . . . Nor is there much satisfaction in
    contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity
    of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is
    capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or
    natural pasture plowed up, all quadrupeds, or birds which are not
    domesticated for man's use exterminated as his rivals for food, every
    hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left
    where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a

    Mill's conception of a highly progressive, technically innovative
    society which uses its growing productivity to raise the quality of
    life, rather than merely to increase production, consumption or
    population, is perhaps the most attractive social vision to have
    emerged from liberal thought. Certainly it is the first clear
    statement of an ideal of ecological modernization. A century and a
    half later, it is more valuable than ever before as a corrective of
    the vulgar prejudice that environmental concern is necessarily Luddite
    or anti-modern.

    Yet Mill's vision raises some extremely difficult questions. The idea
    of intrinsic value at which it hints is opaque. Even if it can be
    stated clearly, there is nothing in it to show us how to balance the
    claims of human beings against those of other animals - still less
    against those of insentient living things. Of course, if Mill is at
    bottom some sort of value-pluralist, this should not be surprising. If
    some desires and satisfactions are rationally incomparable in value,
    so perhaps are some intrinsic goods. In environmental ethics as in
    other contexts, Mill's value-pluralism may leave some vital questions
    unanswerable. Equally, he says little as to how a "stationary-state"
    economy is to be achieved. The schemes of worker participation he
    discusses here and there in his writings were unworkable on any large
    scale, even in his time, and they are utterly impractical in the
    globalized markets that exist today. Nor is there anything in Mill
    which tells us how to control population in a world of massively
    uneven development. Without a doubt, Mill's stationary state is a
    utopia. But who among his successors has envisioned anything better?

    Astonishingly prescient though he was in his anticipation of the
    limits of growth, Mill had

    little of the prophetic gift. He could never have guessed - as
    Nietzsche did - the immensely destructive conflicts that would be
    waged between secular ideologies. At the same time, like nearly all
    Enlightenment thinkers, he failed entirely to foresee the return of
    religion as a deciding force in politics. Again, along with the social
    democrats he later inspired, he imagined that the anarchic energies of
    the market could be mastered by humane and reasonable policies. He had
    nothing of Marx's insight into the revolutionary dynamism of
    capitalism. Though the logic of his thought was to mark out the limits
    of rational choice, he placed irrational hopes in reason. Mill's
    liberalism is incomparably more profound than the callow legalist
    philosophies that have helped to make liberal thought politically
    marginal. Yet it is not Mill's liberalism that speaks to us today, but
    his empirical and historical approach to the problems of government
    and society, his questing pursuit of light from other minds and his
    unwilling glimpses of the limits of the Enlightenment

    ideals to which he was steadfastly committed.

    John Gray's next book, Two Faces of Liberalism, will be published in

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