20 May marked the 200th anniversary of John Stuart Mill's birth. There's no doubt that the self-taught (Mill recieved no real formal education, instead recieving only heavy reading lists from his father) philosopher is at once the intellectual backbone of modern secular government and the whipping-boy of contemporary intelligentsia. Mill was, to use ironic college vernacular, "kind of a big deal."

    In a piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Roger Scruton writes that Mill's legacy may have lacked a crucial dimension: morality. We've talked politics and emotion on this blog recently, but the question is rearing its ugly head once again. What role in politics should we give "non-rational" elements? Is there a danger in relying too heavily on reason?

    Scruton details an important rift between J.S. Mill and his utilitarian predecssors. Both Bentham and the senior Mill succumbed to a conservative politics that based all sorts of regulation (religious, moral, and otherwise) on a notion of "the public good." Scruton writes:

"According to Mill's argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny–including the 'tyranny of the majority.'"

    Most of us would agree, to some extent, with that argument. The "public good," we can admit, is often twisted by those who define what that good is. In his famous work, "On Liberty," Mill fleshed out an argument that would protect the individual from oppressive notions of public morality. Scruton criticizes this secular, reason-based approach, arguing that it leaves out morals, emotions, and tradition. The question, for Scruton, becomes this: "What if we want public morality?"

    This is an interesting attack against Mill, and I'm not sure how to take it. Scruton's anticipated problem is decidedly conservative. He argues that, "this doctrine [liberalism] has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators." As a libertarian, I find it easy to dismiss Scruton's attack wholesale. But most of us aren't libertarians. And whether it's pornography, gay marriage, or hate speech, many of us have cases in which we want morality to trump reason. Mill would leave us with a libertarian bright-line test. Mill's critics, from all ends of the spectrum, want no such test. So where should we bring in morality, emotion, and the like? Is there any sort of guiding principle we can take with us? If so, on what is this founded? Community consensus? Individual rights? Something else?

Daniel Corbett

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