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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 24 -- Mill’s Liberty: A Friendly Ruthless Criticism

Whatever the ultimate value of individual liberty, Mill assumes that to defend it is to defend the individual. Take the example again, since it is so dear to Mill’s heart, of the drinking man. Mill is staunch in his defense of a “vice” like this, as long as it is self-regarding. No matter that it leads to heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, dementia, etc… It is better to allow this liberty than to invite the hordes of the narrow and petty-minded moralists among the masses to start legislating morality.

Fine, but what is really interesting in this debate is the question that never gets raised at all, the question of how did the alcoholic get to be an alcoholic in the first place? This is the sort of question that liberalism, even of Mill’s kind, cannot begin to raise without beginning to change into something other than liberalism. Liberalism cannot raise the issue of the very constitution of the individual, the issue raised by ancient political thought under the rubric of the “best regime”, or of “nature” in the sense of final causes governing a teleological development. It is the issue that post-liberal thought raises under the rubric of “false needs” or “mystification” or the “construction of desire”. But liberalism does not see that the harm done in the individual may not be so much in the interference with his will (or identity) as in the formation of his will (or identity). The individual is imagined to be the source of his own will, and it is imagined that this will is inherently, though imperfectly “rational”. Left alone, in the castle of purely self-regarding action, liberalism believes the individual will eventually discover the irrationality of excessive drink. But the individual is not really the source of his own will. As much as Mill tried to learn from both conservatism and socialism, he really did not begin to understand the idea of the priority of the community.

Two other ways of approaching the problem of liberalism’s inability to recognize the partness of the individual are, first, in terms of the problem of coercion and persuasion; and second, in terms of the problem of troubles and issues. For Mill, the alcoholic whose actions are self-regarding is only harming himself. We therefore have no right to interfere with him, no right to enforce any “duty to himself” he might have. But, just like earlier utilitarianism and in spite of Mill’s insistence on a qualitative distinction for “higher pleasures”, Mill does not raise the issue of how he got to be an alcoholic. Mill still takes the desire of the individual for granted, as a fact not subject to further investigation, criticism or questioning. He does not raise the question of the production of desire. He sees society not as the stuff of the individual, but only as something that imposes on the individual. At its very best, society is something that provides an education for the individual so that he can develop his own independent reason and become a really proficient judge of his long-term self-interest. This is about as positive as Mill can be about society. There is no conception of society within the individual, of the possibility that the very conception and feeling of the individual as essentially an independent reason steering the self-seeking desires is something formed by society. Just as the question of the production of the individual is not raised, the corresponding question of the production of society is not raised either. If the individual is simply given as a natural fact, then society is also given as a collection of such individuals.

Liberalism assigns you freedom of choice among alternatives, but it does not raise the question of the determination of those alternatives. It tells you that when you are choosing, you are free, that the choices you make are in the final analysis undetermined; such choice emerges, whether spontaneously, or deliberately, from within the unformed, primordial, rational self. Society can interfere with them or not, but it has nothing to do with the formulation of the choices or the formulation of the self that does the choosing. All that Mill would say is that the sphere of choice should be made as broad as possible and people should be given the best education possible to make them rationally capable of handling these choices. In trying to bring in the post-liberal question about false needs, Mill could only say the same thing: needs are false to the extent that they do not coincide with my long-term self-interest; and the higher pleasures, do so conform for Mill. There would be no way Mill could take Rousseau’s perspective, that simple submission to “my own” particular will is actually slavery to the opinion of others.

The liberal ideal of freedom is the absence of the determination of my inside by my outside. To be free is to allow my rational-appetitive nature unobstructed movement or expression. Aside from natural forces, society, whether it is the State or the Majority, is the only possible source of interference. The truly liberal society will therefore establish manifold forms of protection against coercion. Now, that really is very nice. Who could dislike those protections against coercion? But how does one deal with something like the saturation of the print and electronic mass media with advertising? (or with it showing up even in public washrooms? Some companies want to project advertising into the night sky over cities…) Is that coercion? All of the choices I have been conditioned to make (not simply to buy this product over that product, but to buy…) as a result of advertising, all of those forces outside of my control, I am not normally aware of as coercion. Now Mill would not forbid an attempt to persuade the alcoholic to mend his ways. Attempts at persuasion are not only allowed, they are encouraged. What else could the utility of free speech be than that a better, more useful way of doing something might emerge? It is only forbidden to coerce. So the question becomes how to tell the difference between persuasion and coercion?

Now a brief reflection might be enough to arrive at the conclusion that there is really nothing that we do that is not the product of some combination of persuasion and coercion. So again, the question, if you are a liberal, is simply one of where you draw the line. Or, on the other hand, you might say, following Rousseau again, that persuasion is coercion that works. Persuasion is coercion that works so well that you are not even aware of it as coercion. And coercion would be persuasion that does not work, that therefore calls for higher and higher levels of force and resistance.

Liberalism is exquisitely conscious of the problem of coercion. And it and Mill get extremely high marks for their efforts to minimize the amount of coercion brought to bear upon individuals. Does liberalism, however, really have much awareness of the problem of persuasion? Some would say it does, because the liberal individual doesn’t even like to be persuaded. He tends to think of it as a trick to get him to do something that someone else wants him to do. So it is not much of an exaggeration to say that you would really have to go into a catatonic stupor from the age of two (at least) to escape persuasion. (But as you’re sitting there in your catatonic stupor, you might decide that the choice you made to be there in the first place was the determined result of all of the persuasive and coercive forces that had been brought to bear on you during your lifetime – and then where would you be?)

It seems that when we become conscious of some aspect of the self that is changing, and which we do not like, we see that as a result of “conditioning”: that was not the real me; that was conditioned into me – I’m going to get rid of it. So we imagine that because we do change, and because we like some of the changes that take place, we can get rid of external conditioning and move towards a real and authentic internal self apart from all of the persuasive and coercive forces of society. That which wed do like, we don’t think of as conditioning, but as the real self. But it is just as much a result of conditioning, of persuasion and coercion, as anything else. Many women, and not a few men, for example, have become acutely conscious of parts of the “feminine” and “masculine” personality which they see as unreal and the result of oppressive conditioning. Other parts of the personality are real, and are to be liberated. But 100 years ago both of these genders had a very different idea of where to draw the line between the real me and the false me. What has happened to enable them to be aware of the “true” self in a way that their grandparents were not?

So there may literally be nothing that is not the result of some combination of persuasion and coercion in the individual. We are born with a few simple reflexes and a few very general tendencies, and beyond that, everything is a matter of persuasion and coercion. But to raise this problem of persuasion is not to minimize the problem of coercion. Violence which is failing or which has not yet succeeded is obviously an important element in any conception of freedom. But the problem of false needs is not based upon the notion of conditioning as opposed to an absence of conditioning. The more fundamental question might be not how to limit coercion so that people might develop in the absence of conditioning, but what are the best ways of life for human beings, constituted as they are, constituted as creatures of conditioning, and as creators of their own conditions. What kinds of persuasion do we want? What kinds of individuals do we want to form in society? What kinds of society do we want individuals to form?

Liberalism, on the other hand, does not wish any formation of the individual, only the provision of “opportunities”. The individual is to form himself, based on his own response to these opportunities. The pre-liberal and post-liberal would say that the things in yourself that you might accept most unquestioningly, the apparently most spontaneous, least derived, least conditioned wants, opinions, orientations, motivations and tastes – it is precisely in that area of seemingly highest privacy and autonomy that you have been most perfectly determined. It is precisely in the area where you experience acts as free, because identical with the self, that you are most determined. This is something that Mill cannot see. It is the territory you might begin to open up when you raise the question of how the alcoholic got that way.

The forgetting or suppression, by liberalism, of the question of how individuals (and individuality) are constituted can also be seen in the strict distinction that it attempts to make between private troubles and public issues. In arguing against the enforcement of morality on the basis of the distinction between self- and other-regarding acts Mill is encouraging us to make this distinction. On the one hand, this distinction protects me to some extent from the state acting as an agent of the powers that be. On the other hand, it also means that there are some matters than be discussed and solved politically, and others which are my own personal affair. Personal troubles have nothing to do with social issues. The self-regarding sphere of purely personal troubles is the sphere of my own, often illusory, self-responsibility. It is the world in which I am totally responsible for myself and totally to blame for everything that happens to me. In order to give me its version of freedom, the liberal society must also leave me completely alone and isolated with my inadequacy, shame and guilt. This very Protestant sphere is the sphere of Puritan guilt.

How do troubles become issues? And how do issues become troubles? Who draws the line that separates these as two separate things? There was a man who a few years ago wrote a letter to the local newspaper stating that hew was going to kill himself because he had been unemployed for too long and had no hope left of ever again being a worthwhile person. How did he ever develop in the first place the notion that his joblessness was a personal defect? Why, because he was denied something that he needed, did he begin to think that there was something wrong with him? This is also the result of having a sphere of “self-regarding actions”, just as much as protection from the “tyranny of the majority”. It is the sphere of suicide. Half of the teenage suicides in this country are made up of people with “learning disabilities”. Recent feminism, as well as the type of radical and socialist thinking that emerged from the “new left” of the 1960’s has been very concerned with making an argument opposed to this. They have been saying that troubles are issues that have been denied expression as issues, that the personal is also the political. They were trying to break down this strict separation and dichotomy between the private and the public spheres. All that Mill is doing is arguing that people should not be prevented by force from raising such questions. He is not raising such questions themselves. How do we get to be the way we are? What are the alternatives? What could our grandchildren be like? How can society change so that people might be different? Mill is perhaps yearning to raise these questions. But because he has not really learned from both his conservative and socialist teachers, because despite all his reforms of liberalism he cannot get beyond the priority of the individual, he cannot.

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