Tag Archives: Christianity and Politics

Classic Revisited: Hamburger, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control

The historian of political ideas, Joseph Hamburger, who spent nearly all of his long and distinguished professional career in the Yale Department of Political Science, was an expert in 18th, but particularly 19th, century British intellectual history.  My little essays on Sir James Fitzjames Stephen as well as some book-related research on Edmund Burke have brought with them the great good luck of an introduction to the writing of this immensely thoughtful and erudite scholar.  Fairly recently, I picked up Professor Hamburger’s book on John Stuart Mill: John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control (1999).

The thesis of the book is that the strong and unqualified libertarian understanding of Mill — the view that Mill was an unadulterated champion of freedom for its own sake — is very much mistaken.  Relying on the major works (the Logic, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, The Subjection of Women, etc.) as well as on many less well-known writings and letters, Hamburger argues that what interested Mill was liberty and control, and fairly substantial and intrusive types of state and social control at that:

[A]n explanation of Mill’s overarching argument in On Liberty must explain the coexistence of these two apparently opposite positions.  This is made necessary because the provisions for controls were not small exceptions to a general presumption that in most circumstances an expansive liberty ought to prevail . . . . [T]he range of cases in which [Mill] would punish, his approval of punishments for mere dispositions toward conduct that would injure others, and above all, his explanation of his purposes to [his friend] George Grote indicate that his rationale for liberty in combination with control  requires a different explanation.  It is also necessary to explain how, for Mill, the provisions for both control and liberty were not contradictory, but in fact were compatible means of implementing a coherent plan of moral reform.  (18-19)

Professor Hamburger proceeds in the following chapter to discuss the movement of Mill away from an interest in institutional reform (something which always greatly interested Bentham) toward a more ambitious plan for cultural and moral reform (in tandem with and inspired by his wife, Harriet).  He then spends several very interesting chapters discussing Mill’s aim to vanquish Christianity as the de facto social morality and replace it with a “religion of humanity” — the new moral system which would strike the balance between liberty and control properly:

The real task of religion was to direct emotions and desires away from low objects and to be “paramount over all selfish objects of desire.”  Moreover, it ought to make us disinterested: “It carries the thoughts and feelings out of self, and fixes them on an unselfish object, loved and pursued as an end for its own sake.”  Christianity, however, in Mill’s view, did anything but this:

The religions which deal in promises and threats regarding a future life, do exactly the contrary: they fasten down the thoughts to the person’s own posthumous interests; they tempt him to regard the performance of his duties to others mainly as  a means to his personal salvation; and are one of the most serious obstacles to the great purpose of moral culture, the strengthening of the unselfish and the weakening of the selfish element in our nature.  (43, quoting “Utility of Religion”)

Continue reading