Chapter Six: Enforcing Shared Values -- Mill's Stable Society

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

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Chapter 6, part 3, 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.

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decorative initial 'B' ut it may now be suggested that Devlin's arguments help to focus on the limitations of Mill's individualism. The sources of harm are numerous, and Mill's individualism made him very sensitive to harm caused by one individual to another. But, on the other hand, it also led him to ignore the cohesive effects of having shared values and institutions. Mill therefore failed to appreciate a very important source of harm -- the harm to society caused by the undermining of these institutions and the violation of the shared values. Although such harm can be assimilated into his concept, he tended to ignore it and concentrate on harm to assignable individuals.

This criticism of Mill is unjustified. In a passage in his essay on 3, Mill himself stresses the importance of shared values in maintaining a stable society. According to the Autobiography (p. 185), essay was written for Radicals and Liberals, and so he underlined, and perhaps even overemphasized, those aspects of not in print version Coleridge's view from which he believed that they had most to learn. However, although he made some amendments to the passage when he reprinted the essay later on in Dissertations and Discussions, he never gave up its crucial points, and the passage is reproduced in successive editions of his A System of Logic [I discuss some of these amendments in Chapter 9; the passage is collated in the Collected Works, Vol. x, Appendix D, pp. 503-8]. The context of his discussion is his attack on the radicalism of the eighteenth-century French thinkers. He argues that in their attempt to wipe out old beliefs, institutions, and practices which they found defective, they overlooked the cohesive effects and the sense of unity which these institutions and practices generated. They destroyed without replacement, and thereby subverted not merely what was bad in society, but also the very conditions of a stable society. Mill mentioned three such conditions.

First, there is to be a system of education which disciplines and restrains people from giving vent to their selfish and anti-social impulses.

Next, there must be a feeling of allegiance or loyalty to something or other -- to a common God or gods, to certain persons, to laws, ancient liberties and ordinances, and, Mill later adds, to "the principles of individual freedom and political and social equality, as realized in institutions which as yet exist nowhere, or exist only in a rudimentary state" [Collected Works, Vol. x, p. 134]. [92/93]

Finally, it is important to have a feeling of common interest among those who live in the same society. Here Mill has in mind the feeling of nationality, though not, as he says, in its "vulgar sense" where it is identified with hostility to foreigners, and foreign ideas and institutions. In Representative Government he writes:

This feeling of nationality may have been generated by various causes. sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language, and community of religion, greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of its causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past. None of these circumstances, however, are either indispensable, or necessarily sufficient by themselves. [Utilitarianism, p. 360]

But it is Mill's second condition which is most relevant to our immediate concerns. Mill evidently believes that some shared values are necessary to the stability of society. There must be

something which is settled, something permanent, and not to be called in question; something which, by general agreement, has a right to be where it is, and to be secure against disturbance, whatever else may change.... But in all political societies which have a durable existence, there has been some fixed point; something which men agreed in holding sacred; which, wherever freedom of discussion was a recognized principle, it was of course lawful to contest in theory, but which no one could either fear or hope to see shaken in practice; which, in short (except perhaps during some temporary crisis), was in the common estimation placed beyond discussion. [Collected Works, Vol. x, pp. 133-34]

These shared values would presumably embrace what Hart calls "universal values", which are incorporated, at least to some degree, in the common morality of all societies (Law, p. 70). They include the safety of life and the protection of persons from deliberately inflicted harm. But obviously Mill has in mind something more than the universal values. In referring to the necessity of loyalty to common gods, to laws, ancient liberties, and ordinances, he acknowledges the importance to particular societies of specific institutions and practices which are of no use to other societies. He adds that what enables a society to weather the storms caused by the collisions between different interests and groups is that the conflict does not affect the fundamental basis of the social union (Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 134). [93/94]

In interpreting Mill's remarks, it should be noted that e three conditions he lays down for a stable society are not intended to be the criteria of a good society. A good society must of course be stable, and a stable society will satisfy these conditions. But not all stable societies are good. The feeling of loyalty may therefore attach itself to undesirable objects, such as outdated customs and practices. Mill is not committed to maintaining that the particular objects of this feeling should never change. His many remarks in the essays on extlink Bentham and Coleridge on the reform of existing institutions and practices give a clear indication that it is not change as such, not even radical change, which he opposes. Thus, commenting on the extlink Reform Bill of 1832, he states: "The good it has done, which is considerable, consists chiefly in this, that being so great a change, it has weakened the superstitious feeling against great changes" (Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 153). Nor, it appears, does he seek to exclude the questioning of any particular belief which is essential to the stability of society. "A person", he says,

accustomed to submit his fundamental tenets to the test of reason, will be more open to the dictates of reason on every other point. Not from him shall we have to apprehend the owl-like dread of light, the drudgelike aversion to change, which were the characteristics of the old unreasoning race of bigots. [Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 163]

Who then is Mill's opposition? Surely "the negative, or destructive philosophers; those who can perceive what is false, but not what it true; who awaken the human mind to inconsistencies and absurdities of time-sanctioned opinions and institutions, but substitute nothing in the place of what they take away" ("Bentham", Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 79); those who "threw away the shell without preserving the kernel; and attempting to new-model society without the binding forces which hold society together, met with such success as might have been anticipated" ("Coleridge", Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 138).

The foundations of a particular society may be undesirable, but they should not be destroyed without first of all laying new foundations of common loyalty. All that a society holds sacred may be questioned, but not all should be questioned at the same time. At any particular moment there will be something settled, but what is settled is not necessarily the same from one moment to another. [94/95]

Mill is concerned with Promoting social reforms within a stable framework which preserves whatever residual value existing institutions and practices may have. In Representative Government he says that "when Order and Permanence are taken in their widest sense, for the stability of existing advantages, the requisites of Progress are but the requisites of Order in a greater degree; those of Permanence merely those of Progress in a somewhat smaller measure" (Representative Government, p. 189). In the essay on Coleridge he uses "permanence" in this same sense of stability. He wants to promote both "permanence" and progress. And it is social stability through change that he stresses, and not the absence of change as such, even in fundamental institutions and practices.

For Mill, a good society must rise above the requirements of a stable society. The presence of a high degree of individual freedom is one of the conditions of a good society. Of course it is possible that respect for individual liberty can itself become an object of common loyalty, and thereby a source of social stability. Indeed, as we shall soon see, this possibility is envisaged by Mill. But at the moment it is important to note that although all societies need a degree of stability in order to survive, it does not follow that the greater the degree of stability, the better is the society. So suppose that it is true, as it has sometimes been alleged, that the cost of having a large measure of individual liberty is a degree of instability in social life, for allowing Millian "experiments in living" may introduce an element of uncertainty into social life. We cannot be sure how individuals will exercise their freedom, what new styles of life will arise, and what values will be accepted or rejected, But for Mill this would be a small price to pay for the far greater benefits of freedom. Certainly such "instability" is compatible with the existence of. the necessary degree of regularity and security in social life, and is a very far cry from the chaos and social dissolution that Devlin's disintegration thesis conjures up.

Various versions of the idea, similar to Mill's, that some shared values, over and above the universal values common to all societies, are necessary for the continued existence and stability of society, have been expounded in the writings of sociologists and political scientists. The notion of a consensus [95/96] is used to express this point of view [Partridge, Chs. 4-6]. It is interesting to note that on some accounts, shared values are necessary at a rather general level, and not with respect to specific issues like the importance of monogamy and Christian sexual morality that Devlin has in mind when he propounded his disintegration thesis. Thus some consensus theorists argue for the necessity of agreement about the basic constitutional rules of the society, and the values which are embedded in them (Partridge, pp. 89f; Partridge critizes such theories at pp. 93-95). These rules and values will of course vary from society to society. In complex societies one may not be able to find widespread agreement on anything so specific as particular moral codes regulating areas of conduct like sexual activity.

In The Division of Labour, Durkheim stresses the decreasing importance of "mechanical solidarity" as opposed to "organic solidarity" in providing the basis of social cohesion in modern societies. By the former he refers to the solidarity which arises out of the resemblances between members of a society, out of their common beliefs and sentiments. Durkheim calls the set of common values and beliefs the "conscience collective". The "conscience collective" is the source of social cohesion in traditional societies. However, as societies get more complex, the extent to which beliefs and values are held in common diminishes, and mechanical solidarity is gradually replaced by organic solidarity, a solidarity based on the differences between men. The growth of division of labour results in the interdependence of individuals who pursue different occupations. This interdependence is the source of organic solidarity. But even in modern societies, mechanical solidarity has a residual role although the content of the "conscience collective" changes drastically from that in traditional societies where it is religious in character ( Durkheim, pp. 141-50 and Giddens, Introduction, pp. 3-12; see also Hart, "Solidarity"). In an essay, "Individualism and the Intellectuals" published a few years after The Division of Labour, Durkheim argues that the values of individualism form the "only system of beliefs which can ensure the moral unity of the country"34. Individualism recognizes the sacredness of the human person, and stresses the importance of safeguarding his rights and freedom. The weakening of individualism will lead to social dissolution, and hence the defence of the rights of the individual is also a defence of society's vital interests. [96/97]

Durkheim's view, that in modern societies the only mechanical solidarity possible is that built on the values of individualism, closely resembles Mill's later account of the conditions of social stability. In amendments to his discussion of these conditions, Mill writes that the feeling of allegiance or loyalty may attach itself to "the principles of individual freedom and political and social equality", and he believes that "this is the only shape in which the feeling is likely to exist hereafter" (Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 134). So we see Mill both acknowledging the importance of shared values in promoting social stability, and at the same time committing himself to a belief in the fundamental value of individual freedom and of political and social equality. Mill's emphasis on individual freedom also draws attention to the gap between maintaining, on the one hand, that certain shared values are necessary for social stability, and claiming on the other hand that these shared values may be imposed by legal coercion. For it is possible that at least in some cases, an enforced consensus will not produce the desired stability, and only the voluntary acceptance of shared values will do so. This seems to be Mill's view when he speaks of the general agreement in treating something as settled and not to be called in question [cf. Capaldi].

Finally, Mill's account of nationality reflects his belief that it is not just shared values which contribute towards social stability, but also many other factors like shared experiences, a common history, a common language, and identity of race. None of these, as he points out, is either indispensable or necessarily sufficient in ensuring stability, but each is often important. These factors may of course generate shared values, though not necessarily moral values. Similarities of tastes in food, dress, music, sport, forms of entertainment, and an enjoyment of, or participation in, ceremonies and rituals often draw people together. In looking for the sources of social stability, it is as much a mistake to ignore these factors as it is to exaggerate them. In any case it is certainly a mistake to assume that there is necessarily one set of values or factors which bind all the people in the society together. It is in this context that individual liberty acquires a special importance. It allows individuals to develop different interests, and to form or to join groups catering to these interests. [97/98]

Groups with common interests are not necessarily formed consciously and deliberately, nor are they always deliberately sought after. An individual is born into a group, and the process of growing up in a society exposes him to a variety of interests. But without the freedom to move in and out of certain groups, the individual will feel stifled and unable to develop some of his interests, or to dissociate himself from interests he no longer shares, or demands and pressures that have become oppressive. The mere process of living in a society generates many bonds of social union, even when there is no one set of values or interests which all or most people in that society share. Differences and conflicts between groups need not loosen these bonds except when these differences range over a very wide area, and different groups cease to have some important overlapping interests. For example, if the main groups in society are divided along racial, religious, cultural, and economic lines in such a manner that those of the same race also share the same religious and economic interests, then the mutual reinforcement of these powerful interests may be such as completely to overshadow all other interests. It is in this type of situation that conflicts between the main groups may have severely disruptive effects. On the other hand, in many societies, the absence of a shared sexual morality will in itself be no more disruptive than the absence of a fondness for the same type of food.


Capaldi, Nicholas. "Censorship and Social Stability in J. S. Mill" The Mill News Letter, Vol. ix, No. 1 (1973).

Devlin, Patrick. The Enforcement of Morals. London, 1965.

Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings, ed. Anthony Giddens. Cambridge, 1972.

Giddens, Anthony. "Introduction" Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings, ed. Anthony Giddens. Cambridge, 1972.

Hart, H. L. A. "Social Solidarity and the Enforcement of Morals" University of Chicago Law Reviews, 35 (1967).

Lukes, Steven. "Durkheim's 'Individualism and the Intellectuals'" Political Studies, 17 (1969).

_____ Emile Durkheim, His Life and Work. London, 1973.

_____ Individualism. Oxford, 1973.

The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. x, ed. J. M. Robson. Toronto and London, 1963ff.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government (Everyman edn).

_____ Autobiography (World's Classics Edn.).

Partridge, P. H. Consent and Consensus. London, 1971.

Rees, J. C. "Individualism and Individual Liberty" Il Politico, 26 (1961).

Wolff, Robert Paul. The Poverty of Liberalism. Boston, 1969.

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