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Conservative Icons: James Fitzjames Stephen

Together with Rousseau, John Stuart Mill supplied nearly all of the arguments and most of the emotional fuel – the octane of sentiment – that have gone into defining the progressive vision of the world. His peculiar brand of utilitarianism – a cake of Benthamite hedonism glazed with Wordsworthian sentimentality – has proved to be irresistible for the multitudes susceptible to that sort of confection. It is also a recipe that has proved to be irresistible to those infatuated with the spectacle of their own virtue. 

By far the most concentrated and damaging attack on Mill’s philosophical dispensation is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity by the lawyer, judge, and journalist Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Leslie Stephen’s older brother and hence – such is the irony of history – Virginia Woolf’s uncle. Published in 1873, the last year of Mill’s life, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity aroused, as Leslie Stephen observed at the time, “the anger of some, the sympathy of others, and the admiration of all who liked to see hard hitting on any side of a great question”. A later commentator noted that Stephen made “mincemeat” of Mill. But it didn’t matter. For nearly one hundred years Liberty, Equality, Fraternity disappeared almost without a trace. After 1874, it was not, as far as I know, republished until Cambridge University Press brought out a new edition in 1967. Written directly after Stephen completed a stint as Chief Justice of Calcutta, the book is full of the justified confidence of flourishing empire. Stephen saw the great good that the English had brought to India in health and education, in maintaining civic order, in putting down barbaric customs like suttee. He recognised clearly that following Mill’s liberal principles would make carrying out that civilising mandate difficult if not impossible. And he decided forthrightly that the fault lay with Mill’s liberalism, not with civilisation.

The refusal to criticise results in a moral paralysis. That paralysis is the secret poison at the heart of Mill’s liberalism. 

As Stephen explains in his opening pages, the book is an effort to examine “the doctrines which are rather hinted at than expressed by the phrase ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.” Stephen notes that although the phrase had its origin in the French Revolution, it had come to express “the creed of a religion” – one “less definite than most forms of Christianity, but not on that account the less powerful”. Indeed, the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” epitomized “one of the most penetrating influences of the day,” namely the “Religion of Humanity” – the secular, socialistic alternative to Christianity put forward in different ways by thinkers like Auguste Comte, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill. “It is one of the commonest beliefs of the day,” Stephen wrote, “that the human race collectively has before it splendid destinies of various kinds, and that the road to them is to be found in the removal of all restraints on human conduct, in the recognition of a substantial equality between all human creatures, and in fraternity in general.”

Stephen shows in tonic detail why these beliefs are mistaken and why, should they be put into practice, they are bound to result in moral chaos and widespread personal unhappiness.

The phrase “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” suggests the immense rhetorical advantage that Mill’s brand of liberalism begins with. One can hardly criticise the slogan without arousing the suspicion that one must be a partisan of oppression, servitude, and dissension. “Liberty,” Stephen notes, “is a eulogistic word.” Therein lies its magic. Substitute a neutral synonym – “permission”, for example, or “leave” (as in “I give you leave to go”) – and the spell is broken: the troops will not rally. It is the same with equality and fraternity. The eulogistic aspect of liberalism means that its critics are practically required to begin with an apology. So it is hardly surprising that Stephen stresses at the beginning of his book that he is “not the advocate of Slavery, Caste, and Hatred” and that there is a sense in which he, too, can endorse the phrase “liberty, equality, fraternity.” 

Stephen begins by pointing out that Mill and other advocates of the Religion of Humanity have exaggerated the advantages and minimized the disadvantages that these qualities involve. For one thing, taken without further specification “liberty, equality, fraternity” are far too abstract to form the basis of anything like a religion. They are also inherently disestablishing with regard to existing social arrangements; that indeed is one reason they exert so great an appeal for the radical sensibility. Take Mill’s doctrine of liberty, which boils down to the exhortation: Let everyone please himself in any way he likes so long as he does not hurt his neighbour. According to Mill – at least according to the Mill of On Liberty – any moral system that aimed at more – that aimed, for example, at improving the moral character of society at large or the individuals in it – would be wrong in principle.

But this view, Stephen notes, would “condemn every existing system of morals.”

Strenuously preach and rigorously practise the doctrine that our neighbour’s private character is nothing to us, and the number of unfavorable judgments formed, and therefore the number of inconveniences inflicted by them can be reduced as much as we please, and the province of liberty can be enlarged in corresponding ratio. Does any reasonable man wish for this? Could anyone desire gross licentiousness, monstrous extravagance, ridiculous vanity, or the like, to be unnoticed, or, being known, to inflict no inconveniences which can possibly be avoided?

As Stephen dryly observes, pace Mill, “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.”

As Stephen points out, Mill’s doctrine of liberty betrays a curious stereoscopic quality. One moment it seems to license unrestrained liberty; the next moment, it seems to sanction the most sweeping coercion. When Stephen says that “the great defect” of Mill’s doctrine of liberty is that it implies “too favorable an estimate of human nature,” we know exactly what he means. Mill writes as if people, finally awakened to their rational interests, would put aside all petty concerns and devote themselves to “lofty minded” relationships and the happiness of mankind in general. “He appears to believe,” Stephen writes with barely concealed incredulity, “that if men are all freed from restraints and put, as far as possible, on an equal footing, they will naturally treat each other as brothers, and work together harmoniously for their common good.” At the same time, Mill’s estimation of actually existing men and women is very unfavorable. “Ninety-nine in a hundred,” he tells us, act in ignorance of their real motives. He is always going on about “wretched social arrangements,” the bad state of society, and the general pettiness of his contemporaries.

Signs announcing a “commitment to diversity” that one sees at college campuses and businesses are so nauseating precisely because they are little more than badges declaring the owner’s virtue. The odour of political correctness surrounding them is the odour of unearned self-satisfaction.

Mill vacillates between these two caricatures. The friction between the two produces an illusion of benevolence; that illusion is at the heart of Mill’s appeal. Yet what Mill describes is an ideal that, in proportion as it is realised, tends to grow into its opposite. In his book Utilitarianism, Mill writes that “as between his own happiness and that of others, justice requires [everyone] to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” Stephen comments: “If this be so, I can only say that nearly the whole of nearly every human creature is one continued course of injustice, for nearly everyone passes his life in providing the means of happiness for himself and those who are closely connected with him, leaving others all but entirely out of account.”

And this, Stephen argues, is as it should be, not merely for prudential but for moral reasons.

The man who works from himself outwards, whose conduct is governed by ordinary motives, and who acts with a view to his own advantage and the advantage of those who are connected with himself in definite, assignable ways, produces in the ordinary course of things much more happiness to others… than a moral Don Quixote who is always liable to sacrifice himself and his neighbours… On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love of the human race – that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind – is an unaccountable person… who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular.

“The real truth is that the human race is so big, so various, so little known, that no one can really love it.” It would be nice if someone would inform Jean-Claude Junker of this homely fact. 

Mill champions eccentricity, diversity, and originality as solvents of “the tyranny of opinion.” But as we can see from looking around at our own society, the spread of Mill’s brand of equalizing liberty tends to homogenize society and hence to reduce the expression of genuine originality and individuality. Mill’s philosophy declares originality desirable even as it works to make it impossible. Uniformity becomes the order of the day. In a memorable analogy, Stephen says that Mill’s notion of liberty as a politically “progressive” imperative in combination with his demand for originality is “like plucking a bird’s feathers in order to put it on a level with beasts, and then telling it to fly.”

Furthermore, by confounding, as Stephen puts it, the proposition that “variety is good with the proposition that goodness is various,” Mill’s teaching tends to encourage a shallow worship of mere variety, diversity for its own sake with no regard for value of the specific “diversities” being celebrated. This is obviously a lesson we still have not learned. Notwithstanding the slogans of our cultural commissars, “diversity” itself is neither good nor bad. Signs announcing a “commitment to diversity” that one sees at college campuses and businesses are so nauseating precisely because they are little more than badges declaring the owner’s virtue. The odour of political correctness surrounding them is the odour of unearned self-satisfaction.

Mill writes as if people, finally awakened to their rational interests, would put aside all petty concerns and devote themselves to “lofty minded” relationships and the happiness of mankind in general. 

Today, we are living with the institutionalisation of Mill’s paradoxes – above all, perhaps, the institutionalisation of the paradox that in aiming to achieve a society that is maximally tolerant we at the same time give (in the philosopher David Stove’s words) “maximum scope to the activities of those who have set themselves to achieve the maximally-intolerant society.” The activities of the European Union, for example, daily bear witness to the hopeless muddle of this anchorless liberalism. Maximum tolerance, it turns out, leads to maximum impotence. The refusal to criticise results in a moral paralysis. That paralysis is the secret poison at the heart of Mill’s liberalism. Among other things, it saps the springs of civic education by weakening our allegiance to tradition and customary modes of feeling and behaviour, the rich network of inherited moral judgment.

Stephen noted that Mill’s “very simple principle” – the principle that coercive public opinion ought to be exercised only for self-protective purposes – was “a paradox so startling that it is almost impossible to argue against.” Mill might indeed have had the last laugh. But it turned out, as James Fitzjames Stephen knew, that the joke was on us.