Chapter Nine: Mill and Liberty -- Cowling's Mill

Chin Liew Ten, Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore

[Victorian Web Home —> Religion —> Philosophy —> J. S. Mill]

Chapter 9, part 2, of the author's Mill on Liberty, which Clarendon Press published in 1980. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author and of the Clarendon Press, which retains copyright.

  1. Numbers in brackets indicate page breaks in the print edition and thus allow users of VW to cite or locate the original page numbers.
  2. Where possible, bibliographical information appears in the form of in-text citations, which refer to the bibliography at the end of each document.
  3. Non-bibliographic notes appears as text links.
  4. This web version is a project supported by the University Scholars Programme of the National University of Singapore. Scanning, basic HTML conversion, and proofreading were carried out by Gerhard Rolletschek, a Postgraduate Visiting Scholar from the University of Munich, working under the direction of George P. Landow, who added links to materials in VW.
  5. not in print version indicates a link to material not in the original print version. [GPL].

decorative initial 'T' he falsity of Cowling's picture of Mill is most conspicuous in his short chapter on the essay On Liberty. He concedes that at first sight the essay seems to be more liberal and individualistic than he is prepared to allow; he concedes that Mill's notion of self-regarding actions appears to limit the area of interference with individual conduct; he concedes [145/146] further that Mill pleads for non-interference 'for the sake of the greater good of human freedom"; but he still succeeds in concluding that "On Liberty does not offer safeguards for individuality; it is designed to propagate the individuality of the elevated by protecting them against the mediocrity of opinion as a whole" (Cowling, p. 104). If Cowling merely means that Mill prefers one type of personality to another, he is surely right, but then Mill's advocacy of individual liberty is in no way compromised. A Christian is not illiberal if he prefers Christianity to all other religions, so long as he is prepared to allow others their freedom of worship. Cowling seems to make the tacit assumption that the holding of any substantive doctrine, the support of any group in society, is ipso facto a renunciation of a belief in individual liberty. It is only on this assumption that he can profess to find any incompatibility between Mill's liberalism and his belief in the Religion of Humanity or in the "elevated individuality". Thus in one place, when he is considering Mill's discussion of not in print version Comte's views, Cowling argues that Mill's ethical injunctions leave no room for the belief that there could be more than one road to human happiness, for Mill is saying that "there is a doctrine, one doctrine, defining the nature of happiness and the means achieve it, and that that doctrine is binding" (p. 33). Cowling is thus able to play down, or even completely ignore, the many passages in the essay On Liberty where Mill defends different "experiments in living" and explicitly denies that liberty is desired for the "elevated" alone. Thus Mill writes:

I have said that it is important to give the freest scope possible to uncustomary things, in order that it may in time appear which of these are fit to be converted into customs. But independence of action, and disregard of custom, are not solely deserving of encouragement for the chance they afford that better modes of action, and customs more worthy of general adoption, may be struck out; nor is it only persons of decided mental superiority who have a just claim to carry on their lives in their own way. There is no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or small number of patterns. If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode. [On Liberty, p. 125; my emphasis]

Letwin makes the same mistakes when she says that "On Liberty was not a defence of the common man's right to live [146/147] as he liked; it was more nearly an attack on him" (p. 301). There is no doubt that Mill preferred one type of personality to others. He admired the man who had "character", who could think for himself. He criticized very strongly those who followed custom blindly and mechanically, who merely displayed "the ape-like" faculty of imitation; but he did not claim that they had no right to live as they liked. Nor did he provide what Letwin accuses him of, namely, "a justification of withholding personal liberty from any claimant unable to demonstrate that he was pursuing the 'right' ideal and was possessed of sufficient will power to pursue it steadily and energetically" (p. 308). He believed, or at least hoped, that in conditions of freedom men would think for themselves, and order their actions according to their own conceptions of what is good or bad, under the guidance but not the dictatorship of customs and traditions, and with the experience and wisdom of others. But if, having been freed from the imposed tyranny of custom, they stiff voluntarily submitted themselves to it blindly, or failed to live up to the ideal of rationality, there is no evidence in the essay On Liberty to indicate that Mill would deny them their right to live as they wished, so long as their conduct was not harmful to others, though there is much evidence to show that he would indeed be contemptuous of them. Mill denied that we had the right to compel the Mormons "to conform to the opinions of other people" even though he strongly disapproved of their institution of polygamy, and felt that it was a "retrograde step in civilisation" (On Liberty, p. 148). His reason for this is that "all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied." In promoting his own ideals of personal excellence Mill is committed to argument and persuasion, and not force and coercion. Letwin is sometimes aware of this, but she allows it to slip too easily into the language of "imposition" and intolerance.

Mill explicitly rejects the assumption that tolerance of another implies complete indifference to his behaviour. Coercion and the use of "whips and scourges, either of the literal or metaphorical sort" are ruled out, but "Considerations to aid his judgement, exhortations to strengthen his will, may be offered to him, by others: but he himself is the [147/148] final judge" (On Liberty, p. 133). A liberal does not cease to believe in individual liberty just because he holds certain substantive doctrines or standards of human excellence, or because he attempts to propagate them by argument and persuasion. He is to be distinguished by his belief that these doctrines and standards should not be imposed on others who should be free to choose for themselves, and Mill clearly passes the test.

Mill's acceptance of the idea of clerisy of superior minds is also misrepresented by Cowling. He is aware that Mill strongly opposed Comte's "spiritual despotism", and he mentions the fact that for Mill the moral consensus should not be arbitrary or imposed. But at the same time he speaks of Mill's assumption that "the subject of study -- Man in Society can be successfully pursued only so far as the higher rational impulses, imposing themselves on the lower ones, help to bring this unity about" (Cowling, p. 66). If Cowling accepts the fact that Mill rules out the use of coercion, how can be consistently maintain that the higher impulses are to impose themselves on the lower ones? Mill's liberalism never led him to deny that some men are wiser and nobler than others. But he did not believe that the wiser and nobler men have the right to compel or coerce others. In the essay On Liberty he addresses himself explicitly to this point, and comes out clearly in favour of individual liberty. The enlightened can claim the right to point out the way but "the power of compelling others into it is not only inconsistent with the freedom and development of all the rest, but corrupting to the strong man himself" (On Liberty, p. 124). If this much is clear, then the notion of a clerisy in Mill's hands need not have authoritarian implications. The equality of intellects was never accepted by Mill. There was always a place in his system of thought for superior minds, but the role he envisaged for them was not a tyrannical one, at least in the essay On Liberty. Cowling however, makes it appear to be otherwise by his constant emphasis on the fact that Mill believed that ultimately there would be a universal consensus. He apparently believes that the acceptance of such a consensus somehow reduces the significance of Mill's commitment to individual freedom, for he says:

Whatever the means Mill advocates in order to achieve solidarity and [148/149] and rational participation, there can be no doubt, and there is no ambiguity about the fact, that he believes this to be a proper function of human society: and there is, beyond the libertarian character of the means, an assumption of the fundamental homogeneity of all rational judgement. [Cowling, pp. 23-26]

If the suggestion here is that Mill only accepts freedom because it is an effective means of bringing about a rational consensus, and would reject it if there were other more effective means, then nothing can be further from the truth. Mill's fundamental objection to Comte's way of arriving at the consensus is not that it is ineffective, but that it is coercive and incolves the surrender of individual freedom. Thus in a letter to Harriet Taylor of 15 January 1855, Mill says that "opinion tends to encroach more and more on liberty, and almost all the projects of social reformers of these days are really liberticide -- Comte, particularly so" (Latter Letters, p. 294), and in his detailed discussion of Comte's doctrines in August extlinkComteand Positivism, this is the criticism to which he returns again and again. If Mill regards the achievement of a consensus as of overriding importance, and freedom as to be valued only so long as it achieves this end, it would be difficult to explain why he should object so strongly to the suppression of individual liberty as a means of achieving unanimity of opinion. The consensus Cowling speaks of is acceptable to Mill only if it is obtained without suppressing individual freedom. Mill believed that individual freedom and the consensus of opinion are compatible.

Cowling seems to imply that if they are not compatible, Mill would sacrifice individual freedom. But there is no evidence to support this, and much to suggest the opposite view that Mill would in fact reject the consensus simply because it is imposed and as such undesirable.

It is difficult to see why Cowling places so much emphasis on Mill's belief in an ultimate consensus. Does he think that once the consensus is obtained freedom is no longer desirable to Mill? If so, he is quite wrong. Mill accepted the Saint-Simonian division of history into organic and critical periods. In an organic period there is some positive doctrine which is generally accepted and guides human behaviour. But in time the organic period gives way to a critical period when men [149/150] reject the old doctrine without at the same time replacing it by another. The critical period is one of scepticism and criticism. Mill believes that in such a period new opinions are likely to get a good hearing, but the critical period does not last for ever, and sooner or later a new doctrine will dominate men's minds; a new consensus is achieved. But in the Autobiography Mill states that it is in such a period, where there is a dominating doctrine, that "the teachings of the 'Liberty' will have their greatest value" (p. 216). He valued freedom not only in the critical but also in the organic period. While he welcomed an ultimate consensus on many issues he at the same time

looked forward, through the present age of loud disputes but generally weak convictions, to a future which shall unite the best qualities of the critical with the best qualities of the organic periods; unchecked liberty of thought, unbounded freedom of individual action in all modes not hurtful to others; ... [pp. 140-41]

Freedom is not for Mill merely a means to an end which may be discarded once the end is achieved. Freedom is a permanent part of Mill's system of beliefs. It is the only desirable means to the achievement of consensus, and its continued presence after consensus is obtained is what keeps that consensus desirable.

Cowling makes one more attempt to support his accusation of illiberalism and intolerance in Mill. Referring to Mill's Inaugural Address to the University of St. Andrews, where he had spoken of the importance of "general culture," Cowling asserts:

General Culture means ... critical reflection and mental doubt, sceptical scrutiny of existing habits, and, where habits are judged to be irrational or wrong, deciding which habits shall replace them. It means following the argument whithersoever it leads us; ... It means, in short, moral indoctrination ... [p. 117]

Mill, according to Cowling, supposed indoctrination to be the chief function of a university. Cowling may wish to define critical reflection and freedom of inquiry as moral indoctrination, but why should he suppose that this has anything to do with Mill? Cowling writes:

Any set of general principles excludes some other set; any set of intellectual injunctions involves rejection of many others. Freedom of [150/151] enquiry is an intellectual injunction, which inhibits commitment to injunctions hostile to it. [p. 115]

In a sense this is trivially true. If one is for freedom of inquiry, one must be against the imposition of a particular substantive doctrine in the sense that one wants it suppressed. Freedom of inquiry is a procedural injunction and is compatible with the existence of several conflicting substantive doctrines. Mill believed that the purpose of education is not to inculcate a particular doctrine which is now accepted as true, but to train men to think for themselves, and to judge for themselves what is true or what is right (Essays, p. 69). The belief that men should be trained to think and judge for themselves will of course be indirectly opposed to some substantive doctrines which are so irrational that they can be accepted only blindly and unthinkingly. Mill had confidence in his own substantive doctrines. Cowling, however, sometimes picks on this very confidence as a sign of illiberalism, as if Mill would not accept freedom of inquiry if he thought that this would lead to the rejection of his substantive doctrines like the Religion of Humanity. But surely Mill's arguments for freedom of discussion show that if his own doctrines do not survive freedom of inquiry, then they are false, and they, not freedom of inquiry, should be discarded.

Though Cowling may sometimes catch a fleeting glimpse of the truth about Mill, the total picture which emerges from his book is false and misleading. To get at the tiny element of truth in it, one has to be more discriminating about the different periods in Mill's life. For this one has to turn to Himmelfarb.


Cowling, Maurice. Mill and Liberalism. Cambridge, 1963.

Letwin, Shirley. The Pursuit of Certainty. Cambridge, 1965.

Mill, John Stuart. Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. New York, 1963.

_____ Autobiography (World's Classics Ed.).

The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1849-1873, ed. Francis E. Mineka. Collected Works. Vol. xiv. Toronto and London, 1972.

Victorian Overview Victorian Philosophy John Stuart Mill Contents Next Section

Last modified 22 April 2001