Mill, Finally Untimely

It turns not not everything J.S. Mill wrote continues to read like it was written last week.

Of course, in some ways nothing he wrote reads that way; philosophers no longer write like Mill (which is mostly to the detriment of philosophy), and naturally enough he often makes reference to political and cultural phenomena that have long since changed. It’s in the generalities that so much of what he says could have been written last week, or yesterday, or tomorrow. The following, however, definitely could not have been:

The proper function of a University in national education is tolerably well understood. At least there is a tolerably general agreement about what a University is not. It is not a place of professional education. Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings…Whether those whose specialty they are, will learn them as a branch of intelligence or as a mere trade, and whether, having learned them, they will make a wise and conscientious use of them or the reverse, depends less on the manner in which they are taught their profession, than upon what sort of minds they bring to it — what kind of intelligence, and of conscience, the general system of education has developed in them. Men are men before they are lawyers, or physicians, or merchants, or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men, they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers or physicians. What professional men should carry away with them from a University, is not professional knowledge, but that which should direct the use of their professional knowledge, and bring the light of general culture to illuminate the technicalities of a special pursuit. Men may be competent lawyers without general education, but it depends on general education to make them philosophic lawyers – who demand, and are capable of apprehending, principles, instead of merely cramming their memory with details. And so of all other useful pursuits, mechanical included. Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives, and the habits it impresses. – Inaugural Address at St. Andrews (1867)

I have Internet access, and so I know that there is nothing so absurd that somebody isn’t typing it right now into a combox somewhere. But certainly nobody who knows anything about higher education in the United States today would write these things, except perhaps as cruel parody. In fact, one of the precious few things that mainstream politicians of both of our major parties agree on is that what Mill says here is false; their public rhetoric and their policy decisions show that they very much regard universities and colleges as places of “professional education,” intended to give people “some special mode of gaining their livelihood.” They know that they’re not trade schools; they don’t prepare you for some particular line of work like carpentry or plumbing or medicine or law. But the point of going to college is to get a good job, dammit. Of course, one reason they say these things is that their constituents believe them, but I suspect most of the politicians do too. I suppose there must be some politicians out there who not only believe, but publicly say, that higher education is or should be intended not to prepare people to make money, but to cultivate knowledge and intellectual virtue for their own sake. I haven’t heard them say it, but I freely admit I don’t stay up late at night watching CSPAN to make sure I’m up on the latest political rhetoric.

Politicians might also at times gesture toward the idea that higher education helps to prepare people for responsible democratic citizenship, but I haven’t heard that one from politicians very often (it’s dangerous, after all, for a politician to suggest that people without college education are less likely to be good democratic citizens). Further, while it’s closer to agreement with Mill — Mill thinks that good citizenship is part of what higher education should promote — it’s a far cry from the whole of what he has in mind. Mill thinks education should aim at the cultivation of the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic capacities of human beings, and that it should aim at this not as a mere means useful for bringing about something else, but for its own sake as an end in itself. And, details aside, he thinks of that as uncontroversial. Hence he spends most of the address considering how much and what kind of attention should be given to classical languages and literature, to the natural sciences, to logic, to religion, to poetry. In all of those respects, he takes himself to be presenting a contentious view, one among many rival alternatives. By contrast, the basic assumption that higher education is not professional training or preparation for earning a living — the assumption denied today, explicitly or implicitly, by most politicians and a good many ordinary people as well — is, for Mill, the subject of “tolerably general agreement.”

My goal here isn’t to argue in defense of the view that Mill took for granted; anyone who wants to read some good articulations of the ideals of liberal education against today’s opinio communis should read Kelly Dean Jolley and Roderick T. Long’s Two Lectures on the Idea of a University. It’s rather to show that times really have changed, and Mill is in some ways very much not our contemporary. Of course, that’s hardly a surprise. But the nature of this change might raise some, erm, complications for Mill’s optimism about the progressive tendencies of historical development. Here we are, 150 years since Mill delivered his address at St. Andrews, and the basic assumption about higher education that Mill took for granted seems, at least at times, to be on its last legs. We don’t have to worry that the spirit of liberal education will die out completely, but we may well soon come to see so-called colleges and universities reduced to professional schools and centers for research with direct practical applications. Perhaps Mill could find a way to regard that as progress.

11 thoughts on “Mill, Finally Untimely

  1. I graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice with a masters in forensic psychology in 2002, ready to take on the world. Only, I couldn’t find a decent job. For quite some time, I struggled, and it was only through lots of hard work and a little bit of luck that I obtained a license as a psychotherapist. Since I didn’t have the terminal degree in psychology, I couldn’t get licensed, but in 2005, I was grandfathered in when mental health counselors were licensed in New York State, an odd bit of luck in a fairly unlucky life. I say that without self pity. Well, perhaps I’m wistful, but do I expect a little bit of sympathy? Naw. None will be forthcoming. Let’s get real; life is harsh.

    I remember taking my feline to the veterinarian in the middle of the night for emergency care (I seem to be doing a lot of that lately), and I met a rather cynical fellow there who complained that he was out of work. Leaning over the counter in the most slovenly way, he said to me, “I have the most useless degree ever.” I’m chuckling now as I recall that moment when he replied to my question. Guess what he said when I asked him the fateful question? I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now but I’ll tell you . . . just . . . in . . . case . . . his degree was a masters in forensic psychology. LOL!

    I paid out $2.5K (!!!) to the veterinarian and felt about as screwed as I had been by the university. Since then, I’ve always purchased pet health insurance. It’s too bad there’s no such thing as education insurance, but then nobody would invest in it because they’d always be paying out — particularly these days as the universities turn out illiterate “graduates” who can’t file, can’t keep columns in an Excel spreadsheet straight, can’t show up to work on time, think they should make a six figure income for simply showing up, and can’t even type. I learned in 7th grade how to type, and I didn’t grow up using computers. I was 12 years old when I learned how to type and to type well.

    It mystified me when a young woman who had an administrative job at a local utility applied to work for me part-time. She typed 35 words per minute, and my guess is that that was on a good day. She wanted $25 an hour cash for her “services.” I asked how quickly she typed numbers as I needed her to do a crude form of bookkeeping. She didn’t know but I think we can all guess. She had a university degree, but she couldn’t fucking type.

    I recently hired a bookkeeper for $35 an hour. I think I’ll save quite a bit of money.

    By the way, there are folks at ConEdison making just short of six figure incomes for admin jobs. They don’t have college degrees. Their only merit appears to be sticking around for a long time complaining that their jobs are so shitty. But they make about $80-$90K for what is basically clerical work. Unions work for the lucky few. For the rest of us schmucks? Not so much.

    If the high school thing doesn’t work out, David, you might try a utility company (if you can stand the “company” that is).


    • Unlike a liberal arts degree, a master’s degree in forensic psychology is a professional degree, or at least a quasi-professional degree. The risk with all such degrees is that demand for people with that training dries up, or the number of qualified applicants comes to overtake demand, or people with ‘higher’ credentials begin to fill the demand. For that reason, the more specialized a professional degree is, the riskier it is. It’s good that you were able to use yours to get licensed as a therapist, but as you point out, for most people that degree wouldn’t get them that license. One might hope that earning a degree would give people skills and experience that would remain valuable to them for the rest of their lives and not be held hostage to the uncertainties of a job market. At least degrees in law and medicine do that; the knowledge and skills one gets in law or medical school retain a good deal of value even for people who end up not being lawyers or physicians.

      I’m curious whether you think that what you learned in the course of earning that degree required that you learn it in a degree program and not, say, as part of training conducted by an organization that employed you to be a forensic psychologist. Would some sort of ‘apprentice’ training have been feasible, supposing anybody had seen fit to do it? I understand that there are numerous economic pressures driving employers away from apprenticeship and on-the-job training; I just wonder whether, from a purely intellectual or technical point of view, it would have been equally feasible for you to learn that way rather than enrolling in a college program.

      People like me go on and on about how liberal education isn’t about what’s useful, how it’s about learning and understanding for their own sake and all that jazz. But the liberal arts are arts; they are useful, very broadly, in almost any line of work that isn’t purely mechanical. I wouldn’t count typing as a liberal art, but I suspect that are fewer people out there with degrees who are deficient in typing than there are people with degrees who are deficient in the skills of thinking and communicating traditionally classified under the rubric of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Those are the skills of which a liberal arts degree should be a reliable indicator. One really shouldn’t need a four year college degree to have attained a respectable level of proficiency in them, and yet I’ve met numerous people with degrees who haven’t. Yet they’re more valuable than any specialized technical training, because they’re indefinitely flexible and can be applied to most any circumstance in life, and because without them even a highly trained technical specialist is likely to be limited. But many colleges and universities are not teaching them effectively, and often it’s only in humanities departments that professors even focus on them. Liberal arts degrees generally aren’t useful as preparation for a particular line of work, and yet many students complete their degrees without developing more than a modicum of the skills that a liberal education is good for. In that respect, it’s not unreasonable that so many people today doubt whether a college degree is worth the money apart from the value of having a piece of paper that tells potential employers that you’re a member of the club. When I was in high school, somebody told me that all a college degree shows is that you can put up with bullshit for four years, and that employers rightly value that. I’m not so jaded that I think it’s really quite that bad, but it should be much more obviously false than it is. Alas.

      I’m going to go teach in a high school where we try to train students in the liberal arts that many colleges and universities aren’t managing to teach successfully. If that doesn’t work out, I might not have enough optimism left to do anything more ambitious than work for a utility company. But for now, at least, I’m holding out hope!


      • I was stupid when I went into the degree program (in a way). I was so interested in the subject matter that I didn’t fully investigate potential employment. To be fair, I thought I would be willing and able to work in a prison setting, but after a month in Riker’s Island, at least at that time, it wasn’t going to happen. I actually think I could work in a prison now and be okay with it. I was very good with male inmates, and didn’t feel unsafe around them (believe it or not). I was often in a recreation area with 25 inmates at a time. The thing is if the inmates like you and feel you’re on their side, then anyone who threatens to harm you will get killed. So, it’s fairly safe environment for someone who does have compassion for people from all walks of life.

        So there’s that, and there’s also the fact that I was much more intrigued by the subject matter than any other type of program, and to this day, I am more interested in forensic psychology than any other specialization. That would argue for me perhaps getting a doctorate at this time now that I have the funds to do it, and it very well could happen (or not). My plan originally had been to obtain a doctorate when I graduated, but I put myself through school in my late thirties. By the time I graduated at 40 years of age, I faced another 5-6 years of school, six figure debt, and then having a doctorate at 45-46 years of age with no money in the bank and huge debt. That seemed a recipe for disaster.

        What I could have done was pursue a studies in clinical psychology, but I would still have had go for the teriminal degree. I would have received more general training but I could have then focused more on forensic matters. Not sure that I would have been able to learn on the job what forensic psychologists do as there’s a lot of testing skills required (and I loved testing actually), but I could have learned much in a clinical psychology program. That said, to this day, if I did get a doctorate, I’d still prefer to focus on forensic psychology. I just love the subject matter.

        Also, forensic psych gave me knowledge of subjects I still find interesting and will most likely incorporate into my writing (I have a novel/screenplay idea that’s been nagging me for years; when I find time to do it, that knowledge will come in very handy). I still can’t decide whether it should be a novel or a screenplay, but it is a thriller, and the subject matter incorporates much I learned in my training. Interestingly enough, I was focused on mass murder and spree killing long before 9/11 due to the school shooter phenomenon as well as general curiosity as to why people went “postal.” For whatever reason, I needed to know what made people do that; what makes a person just decide one day to shoot a bunch of people? And the answers were quite interesting. I only wish Americans were more interested in the actual answers.

        Anyway, the short answer to your question is yes, I could have pursued a more generalized program, but I’m still glad I didn’t as things worked out for the best ultimately. As I said, there was some luck involved (and I happen to think I deserved a little bit of luck at that time).


        • For some reason WordPress thinks your comments are spam and sends them to the hidden recesses of the administration page; hence I didn’t see this one until now, well over a week later! I’ll see if I can figure out how to prevent that from happening in the future so you’re not effectively silenced by the software.


          • That’s ridiculous.

            Actually, Alison had mentioned to me that some of her posts were not appearing on the site, but it didn’t occur to me to look in the spam filter. I’m so afraid of what’s in the spam filter that I’m afraid to look at it. This just goes to show that I no longer have any idea what’s going on on my own site. Riesbeck rules.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Another potentially untimely idea in the Mill excerpt is his assumption that education ought to have a quasi-nationalist character: “The proper function of a University in national education is tolerably well understood.” Even institutions like Princeton, which have tried for a century to espouse Millian ideals about education, have dropped that particular one. In 1896, under Woodrow Wilson’s influence, Princeton adopted the informal motto “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” In 1996, that was changed to “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of all Nations.” More recently, following a 2014 speech at Princeton by Sonia Sotomayor, the motto was changed to something about service to humanity. So where some vestige of the Millian conception remains, the nationalist element seems to have dropped out. (It’s debatable whether Princeton’s self-conception was ever genuinely Millian, but my point is, that was the party line.) In Princeton’s case, then, we seem to have gone from Mill to Comte.


    • I don’t read much ‘nationalism’ into Mill’s remarks, and I don’t think the difference between what he envisions and what you describe with Princeton is very significant, at least as far as education goes.

      I take Mill’s thought to be something like this: so here we are in Scotland; Scotland is a nation of people, and one of the things a nation of people reasonably wants to do is to educate its people; to do that, it has various sorts of schools, universities among them; so let’s talk about what the specific role of those universities in this endeavor is. The universities, and education more generally, are ‘in the nation’s service’ in a loose sense that they exist in order to educate the people of Scotland, with one aim of that education being that educated people will go on to benefit other people of Scotland in various ways. But I find nothing narrowly nationalistic in Mill’s ideal, and certainly nothing that looks like a subordination of the university to national greatness, particularly not national aggrandizement in competition with other nations.

      On the contrary, he sets his sights more broadly than that on several occasions: “The best use, then, which I am able to make of the present occasion, is to offer a few remarks on each of those departments, considered in its relation to human cultivation at large; adverting to the nature of the claims which each has to a place in liberal education; in what special manner they each conduce to the improvement of the individual mind and the benefit of the race [i.e., the human race]; and how they all conspire to the common end, the strengthening, exalting, purifying, and beautifying of our common nature, and the fitting out of mankind with the necessary mental implements for the work they have to perform through life”; “Now is your opportunity for gaining a degree of insight into subjects larger and far more ennobling than the minutiae of a business or a profession, and for acquiring a facility of using your minds on all that concerns the higher interests of man, which you will carry with you into the occupations of active life…So, at least, it will be if in your earlier studies you have fixed your eyes upon the ultimate end from which those studies take their chief value — that of making you more effective combatants in the great fight which never ceases to rage between Good and Evil, and more equal to coping with the ever new problems which the changing course of human nature and human society present to be resolved. Aims like these commonly retain the footing which they have once established in the mind and their presence in our thoughts keeps our higher faculties in exercise, and makes us consider the acquirements and powers which we store up at any time of our lives, as mental capital, to be freely expended in helping forward any mode which presents itself of making mankind in any respect wiser or better, or placing any portion of human affairs on a more sensible and rational footing than its existing one. There is not one of us who may not qualify himself so to improve the average amount of opportunities, as to leave his fellow-creatures some little the better for the use he has known how to make of his intellect.” The whole spirit of the piece is that education should aim at service of humanity, not at national interests narrowly conceived.

      Of course, he imagines ‘national education’ as being primarily a matter of universities in Scotland educating Scots rather than Germans, Frenchmen, Italians, or even Englishmen. In that respect, the universities he envisions aren’t ‘international’ universities. But that’s not much of a surprise, given that many fewer people traveled to Scotland to study back then there. I don’t see anything in Mill to suggest that he would be opposed to international students. Certainly he wasn’t opposed to international faculty; he was himself English, but gave the address upon being elected Lord Rector, and the early sections of the address leave no doubt that he did not conflate English and Scottish education or England and Scotland as ‘nations.’

      Since we live in a more interconnected world, and one in which nationalisms of the self-aggrandizing sort have done much damage, it’s probably for the best that our universities drop mottos about ‘service to the nation.’ But I don’t think Mill’s use of that language expresses a view that is more than superficially untimely.


      • I haven’t read Mill’s Inaugural Address, so I can’t speak to the specifics of that text, but Mill makes his nationalist and imperialist commitments explicit in Considerations on Representative Government, chapters 16-18. The nationalism is expressed in chapter 16-17, the imperialism in 18. And both have implications for his conception of education, implications that make his claims less benign than a bare reading of the Inaugural Address would have it. Ultimately, his views amount to an explicit defense of the civilizing mission of the British Empire (and other similar empires)–essentially a refinement of the cruder view defended by James Mill in The History of British India.

        The interpretation you’ve given of Mill on education is correct as far as it goes, but even as stated, it’s compatible with the rather chauvinistic nationalist-imperialist conception that Mill defends in CoRG. The idea is that “national education” makes for educated citizens, or perhaps educated ladies and gentlemen. But though Mill doesn’t quite say this in any text I’ve read, suppose that it’s taken for granted by everyone within his milieu that that sort of education is what qualifies a person for national and international service. In other words, a legislator or an imperial administrator is not a professional in some narrow sense, but a citizen qua citizen or perhaps a citizen qua educated lady or gentleman.

        Now add Mill’s racialized ethno-nationalism: “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities” (Considerations on Representative Gov’t, ch. 16). Add the idea that Scotland is an intrinsic part of the British Empire, plus the claim that all British subjects (including the Irish) ought to identify with Britain, along with its imperial objectives (CoRG, ch. 16). Then add the idea that utilitarianism requires the promotion of “civilization,” that the promotion of civilization requires the “overcoming” of lesser civilizations by greater, and that the British Empire is a paradigm of success in this respect–indeed, best exemplified in “English India” (CoRG, all in chapter 16). Then stress, finally, the dangers of imperial maladministration by small-minded, ill-educated professionals (CoRG, ch. 18). All of that suggests the need for the right kind of general liberal arts education in order to produce the right kind of public servant, the kind that secures the right degree of “benefit to India, from the control exercised over the Indian government by the British Parliament and people” (CoRG, ch. 18).

        Said and others sensitized me to reading Mill (and eventually Bacon and Locke) as an imperialist, and I do think that Mill’s nationalist-imperialist commitments change the picture we sometimes get of Mill as an inspiring defender of liberal values, full stop. Like Locke, he was–but he also wasn’t. As far as nationalism and imperialism are concerned, he strikes me as remarkably reactionary. (Said’s views on Mill aren’t worked out in any one place, but there’s a smattering of provocative references to both James and John Stuart Mill in his Culture and Imperialism. And there’s also Schultz and Varouxakis’s Utilitarianism and Empire.)

        I would argue that even Subjection of Women has to be re-read in light of Mill’s imperialist commitments. The fact that women have been on the receiving end of subjection has clear implications for the personal lives of Mill’s readership, as well as for the structure of the societies in which they live. The claims of the text imply the need for both personal change and political reform. But Subjection also reinforces the civilizing mission of British imperialism. If women are mistreated in Britain, they are treated much worse in India, Egypt, and the Arab Near East. If a nation like Britain acquires such territories by “conquest or colonization” (Mill takes both for granted, ch. 18), they become “uncivilized dependencies of a free state.” That was true of India, Egypt, and parts of the Arab world. None of the rights (or “rights”) to liberty defended in On Liberty apply to such places or to such “races,” at least as stated in On Liberty; “[i]t is perhaps hardly necessary to say” that rights to liberty are “meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties,” which excludes both children and childish races (On Liberty, the paragraph right after the harm principle).

        So if the mistreatment of women necessitates political reform in liberal countries, the more egregious mistreatment of women in “uncivilized dependencies” intensifies the need for authoritarian imperial control there–control that would need to be exercised anyway, even if the subjection of women weren’t an issue. Since imperial control requires competent imperial administrators, and well educated administrators do a better job than poorly educated ones, and those with a generalized liberal arts education are to be preferred to those without, Mill’s imperialist commitments are relevant even to the Inaugural Address you cite. It would be rhetorically inappropriate of him to spell all this out in an Inaugural Address, but the reference to the “national” character of Scottish education is, I think, meant to underscore it. Scotland contributed its share to British imperialism, which meant in part that Scottish universities did so by contributing their share of educated imperial administrators.

        In that respect, I find myself re-thinking what I said about Princeton, partly in agreement with you, and partly from another direction. In a certain respect, I find Mill’s comments rather timely. They remind me of the sort of boilerplate I used to hear when I was an undergrad at Princeton, contemplating a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. The underlying theme was actually the same as Mill’s: Princeton is a liberal arts university, not a professional school (not quite true, but that was the aspiration). We’re grooming you to be a person, a citizen, but part of doing that is serving the the national (then the global) interest, understood in part as the capacity to fill certain specific roles as a public servant–e.g., soldier, diplomat, representative, judge, etc.

        What Mill says is akin to what Woodrow Wilson said, but also akin to the sort of speech you might have heard from someone like George Schultz, George Bush, or James Baker III (though obviously at a lower intellectual level). Princeton prided itself on cultivating the American equivalent of the well educated lady or gentleman who would simultaneously serve nation and world by means of the education they got at Princeton.

        The principals wouldn’t quite come out and tell us that they were happy that Princeton was educating us to be well-educated instruments of the American imperial project, but that kinda was the subtext. It just took me a couple of decades to figure that out. Schultz and Baker were themselves exemplifications of that project–as were David Petraeus, William Crowe, Ted Cruz, Yoram Hazony, Michael Oren, Michael Doran, and much of the editorial staff of the Jerusalem Post. Liberal imperialism was the pedagogical milk on which some of us were raised, and I think Mill has to get part of the blame/credit (“bledit”? “crame”?) for it.


        • I think our disagreement here might come down to two fairly minor issues: the meaning of ‘nationalism’ and the overall significance of Mill’s imperialism within his overall thought. When I rejected the characterization of Mill as a nationalist, I had in mind the sort of ideology that sees ‘the nation’ as a morally significant entity in its own right, with the value of individuals understood in terms of their contribution to national greatness, and national greatness understood in terms of zero-sum competition with other nations: what matters is not you, or me, or Sally, but us, and us as Americans/English/Germans/whatever, and while we can tolerate other nations succeeding in their own way, our goal is the greatness of our own nation, and all else is subordinate to that. I suppose this might be an unduly restrictive conception of nationalism, too tightly linked to specifically fascist ideology. In any case, as usual I’m not inclined to insist on the terminology. I do think, though, that Mill is not plausibly regarded as a nationalist of that sort.

          He is certainly an imperialist, though I think your own recent reflections on racism make some of the points that should tell against regarding him as a racialized imperialist, at least if that’s supposed to involve racism of the sort that attributes essential moral characteristics to individuals on the basis of race. Mill wrote more that I haven’t read than that I have, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he somewhere says some things that would commit him to some racialist thinking, but his general view of human nature cannot readily accommodate essentialist racism, and the ‘civilizing’ brand of imperialism hardly makes sense on racist assumptions; if the people of India are just essentially such as they are, made so by their inherent nature as Indians rather than by contingent features of their culture, then no amount of imperial control will ‘civilize’ them. Mill plainly believes that European culture is superior to Indian culture (and other cultures), but his view seems clearly to be — or, at least, had better be if it is consistent with his considered views of human nature — a view about cultural superiority, not racial superiority. I’m not sure exactly what it is for imperialism to be ‘chauvinistic,’ but one way in which Mill’s belief in European cultural superiority seems to differ from many of its cousins today is that he is frequently a severe critic of European culture in general and British and English culture in particular. This is of course not to defend Mill’s attitudes as benign or innocent. It’s just that they’re sufficiently nuanced that we really need to dispense with vague labels of opprobrium if we’re going to assess them adequately, and we’ll probably learn more of value from his mistakes if we do.

          To my mind, the interesting question to which there is not an immediately obvious answer is: where exactly does Mill’s imperialism go wrong? To judge from Utilitarianism, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and the Autobiography, there seem to be several leading ideas that issue in his support for ‘civilizing’ imperialism. First, the utilitarian ‘greatest happiness’ principle leads him to endorse individual actions, social institutions, and government policies that will promote the greatest happiness among human beings as a whole, with no fundamental preference for one’s own family, friends, city, nation, race, or traditions. Second, his particular brand of utilitarianism emphasizes the cultivation of the higher faculties of reason, imagination, and feeling, so that the ‘greatest happiness’ is achieved not merely by everyone having lots of fuzzy feelings, but by the ‘improvement’ of mankind as ‘progressive beings.’ This emphasis in part leads him, third, to a broadly liberal political and social ideal, but not one that is grounded in a theory of fundamental rights; liberty is valuable because it promotes the cultivation of the higher faculties and of individuality, but liberty alone cannot do this in just any social conditions, and therefore is not an absolute moral requirement. Fourth, his associationist psychology leads him to regard human character as the product of environment, upbringing, and choice rather than innate dispositions or tendencies, and therefore to see differences in character among nations, races, classes, and the sexes as the acquired effects of culture rather than the inevitable outcomes of nature. Fifth, he believes that European culture, at any rate in Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, though severely flawed in many ways, has progressed sufficiently in his time to enable broad social and political policies of liberty to promote the flourishing of individuality and happiness. Sixth, he believes that the culture of India and other non-European countries is not only severely flawed, but has not progressed sufficiently in his time to enable broad social and political policies of liberty to promote the flourishing of individuality and happiness. Seventh, he supposes that enlightened non-liberal rule can help bring about the cultural progress in India and elsewhere that would enable self-rule under liberal policies to promote individuality and happiness. Taken together, these views yield the judgment that British rule can and should benefit India by enabling its people and its culture to progress more quickly, efficiently, and effectively than they would if left to their own devices – in other words, the project of civilizing imperialism.

          Now, I have no special sympathies for the project of civilizing imperialism. But it’s not obvious to me just where Mill goes wrong. I’m inclined to focus in particular on the seventh idea as especially implausible; I doubt that widespread, genuine cultural change can be effected by authoritarian means. I’m also inclined to doubt that Mill really understood India and its culture well enough to license the judgment of the sixth idea, and perhaps it’s sheer chauvinistic ethnocentrism that led him to it, though I’m not at all inclined to dismiss judgments of this general kind out of hand. I agree with Mill that there is no fundamental human right to liberty as such, but because I reject most of the basic claims of utilitarianism, I am not at all sympathetic to the notion that it is the business of individuals or of governments to set out to civilize nations, and I suspect that’s where my most fundamental disagreement with Mill lies. If anything, it is the fundamental impartiality and universalism of utilitarianism, and of consequentialism more generally, that points in Mill’s imperialist direction, even if other issues arise that would prevent the implementation of civilizing projects. That universalism and impartiality are inconsistent with ethno-nationalism as I understand it. I of course wouldn’t want to put ethno-nationalism in their place, but it seems to me that understanding Mill’s imperialism requires that we attribute a fundamental role to them, and that the problems with civilizing imperialism stem at least as much from the fundamental assumptions of Mill’s utilitarianism — and of many forms of consequentialism that otherwise differ a great deal from Mill’s utilitarianism — as from prejudicial judgments of the condition of non-European cultures or the idea that authoritarian regimes can generate liberal societies by design.

          Even if my assessment is right, though, it seems very far from obvious. Scandalized denunciations of Mill as a reactionary imperialist won’t help us figure out exactly where he went wrong. I don’t mean to accuse you of substituting name-calling for analysis and argument, but that is all too often what happens as soon as that sort of language comes on the scene.

          [On another note, I don’t see anything objectionably nationalistic about colleges and universities stressing the value of public service or the role that a liberal education plays in enabling people to carry out public service well, even public service in ‘the national interest.’ The trouble comes with mistaken conceptions of national or public interest, not with the notion that serving the public interest is a valuable thing, a worthy aspiration for a career, or even a duty or obligation. I don’t think colleges and universities should present this as their main goal, but to ignore it in favor of narrowly self-regarding motives would make sense only on the assumption of a kind of individualism whose proponents ought to be rewarded by being cast off onto desert islands. If we suppose that ‘national’ interest can only be in conflict with more cosmopolitan aims, then perhaps the rhetoric of ‘national’ interest is unhappy, and ‘humanity’ is preferable — but there’s a reason I’m not paid to write mottos or mission statements.]


    • Professor Irfan

      Hello, I don’t want to intrude much, and I know that this may not be the correct avenue, but I’d like to know if the email address in your about page is still valid. I’ve tried sending you an email, but I’m not sure if it went through.

      Delete this comment if its not the correct place.
      With Regards


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