Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Dark Side of Mill


Fall 2002
John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity
Linda C. Raeder
University of Missouri Press, 2002
xi + 402 pgs.

Most people regard John Stuart Mill as one of the great classical liberals of the nineteenth century. Though Mill made unnecessary concessions to socialism, did he not in On Liberty defend without compromise personal liberty, following his great German predecessor Wilhelm von Humboldt? Linda Raeder offers a powerful challenge to this conventional view. Like Maurice Cowling and Joseph Hamburger, by whom she has been much influenced, she sees Mill as mainly a propagandist anxious to replace Christianity with a Religion of Humanity, guided by intellectuals such as himself.[1]

Raeder finds opposition to Christianity at the heart of Mill's ethics. As everyone knows, Mill was a utilitarian; but our author raises a penetrating question. What exactly made Mill's utilitarianism distinct from earlier versions of the theory? Views that analyzed morality according to what makes human beings happy, she notes, are hardly unique to Bentham and Mill. Quite the contrary, theologians such as William Paley held exactly this position. "Until well into the 1830s, the principal representative of the utilitarian outlook in England was not Bentham but William Paley, the conservative Anglican divine and Bentham's acknowledged rival. . . . Both thinkers postulated the 'greatest happiness of the greatest number' as the ultimate end of moral action. Both identified the good with the pleasant or beneficial, the 'beneficial' meaning that which is productive of happiness, and 'happiness' meaning the excess of pleasure over pain" (p. 25).

Paley's theological morality solved a problem that baffled the secular utilitarians. Why should a person be concerned with the general happiness, rather than exclusively with his own? Paley had a ready response. God has arranged matters so that an individual will always find it in his own interest to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

But is not Paley's contention obviously false? Suppose you had a chance to steal $1 million, without danger of detection. Surely here your moral duty not to steal conflicts with what benefits you, given some plausible assumptions. 

Paley dissents: he maintains that to argue in this way is to take a shortsighted position. God's system of rewards and punishments ensures that the thief acts against his own interests, as he will discover to his cost after he dies. Here precisely is the point where Mill broke with the theological moralists. As he saw matters, hopes and fears concerning the afterlife should not enter into our calculation of consequences.[2] 

Raeder makes an excellent case that Mill's ethics is resolutely secular; but what has this to do with classical liberalism? She may believe Mill's opposition to Christianity mistaken, but why should this lead her to question his devotion to liberty?

The answer to this query brings us to the center of Raeder's case. Mill did not merely hold as a private opinion that the dominant religious doctrines of his time were false. Quite the contrary, he wanted his own views to prevail among the public.

But once more our question recurs: why does this wish conflict with classical liberalism? Open discussions of essential issues such as religion seem at the essence of a libertarian outlook. Raeder does not claim otherwise, but again she stands ready with a counter. 

Mill did not merely want open debate about religion. "The lesson [Auguste] Comte and then Mill drew from the contemporary authority of science was the necessity of establishing a method by which philosophers can reach unanimity regarding moral and political truths. Once such a method has been devised and accepted, the results obtained by means of it must gain unanimous acceptance among the experts. Their unanimity, in turn, will ensure that the masses . . . will place as unfailing a trust in the new spiritual power as they do in the scientific authorities. The spiritual power to which all defer as the ultimate authority on matters moral and political is thus triumphant" (p. 79).

In her effort to prove that Mill favored intellectual dictatorship by an elite, Raeder deploys an ingenious stratagem. She attempts to tie Mill as closely as possible to Comte, universally recognized as an enemy of freedom. If Mill followed Comte, does this not suffice to render dubious his classical liberal credentials?

Here our author confronts an obstacle. No one doubts Mill's early enthusiasm for Comte, but did he not in later life repudiate Comte's authoritarian politics? Indeed, he went so far as to describe Comte's minutely detailed plans for a hierarchical society as "liberticide."

To Raeder, Mill's criticism of Comte did not alter the fundamental agreement between the two thinkers. In Auguste Comte and Positivism, Mill claimed that Comte first stated "the true moral and social ideal of Labour." The ideal in question hardly sounds libertarian: "Until labourers and employers perform the work of industry in the spirit in which soldiers perform that of an army, industry will never be moralised and military life will remain . . . the chief school of moral cooperation" (p. 334, emphasis removed, quoting Mill). Comte thought that workers should regard themselves as "public functionaries"; Mill found in this idea "great beauty and grandeur" (p. 334).

Has Raeder adequately met the obstacle to her thesis? One might object that her quotations do not suffice. Certainly Mill, here and elsewhere shows himself well-disposed to socialism; but this we knew from the start. The question at issue is whether, despite his collectivist sympathies in economics, Mill counts as a classical liberal in political matters. Of course, if Mill thought that civil liberties could be consistently joined with socialism, he erred grievously; but perhaps he held just this mistaken belief.

Raeder's response, once more, is to stress Mill's sympathy with the entire scope of Comte's philosophy. The fervent passages defending freedom in On Liberty had a pragmatic purpose. "We have suggested that On Liberty should be understood as one of the instruments by which Mill sought to realize his long-standing religious purpose: to undermine Christianity and institute the Religion of Humanity. . . . Mill did not wish to declaw coercive public opinion in general but only such opinions and sanctions that embodied traditional religious belief" (p. 261).

To evaluate Raeder's daring suggestion that the true meaning of On Liberty lies hidden beneath its surface, I should like to pose two questions: Is Raeder right that Mill remained throughout his life a committed supporter of Comte? And should Mill's desire to promote a Religion of Humanity lead us to see his defense of liberty as insincere? 

Raeder supports her Comtist reading of Mill with a detailed analysis of his main essays on religion; but Mill's "Theism," published only after his death, does not fully support her interpretation. She of course acknowledges that Mill in that work defended a version of the design argument for the existence of God, but she fails to note the anti-Comtist implications of this. According to Comte, to explain nature by personal powers reflects a primitive stage of human thought. The final, positivist stage of thought renounces altogether the search for ultimate causes. Mill's use of the design argument in "Theism" utterly opposes this rejection of metaphysics.

Our resourceful author has not yet been defeated. She claims that Mill's theism is half-hearted: "[W]hat Mill gives he immediately takes away. For he immediately points out that the evidences of design in nature, while they may point to a God . . . may, on the other hand, be the product of naturalistic evolutionary forces" (p. 191).

Raeder here ignores a crucial point. Mill considers Darwin's theory of evolution no more than an interesting hypothesis; he does not think it has been established. Once more, Mill declines an opportunity to adopt an antireligious standpoint.

But suppose Raeder is right: what follows if Mill remained a Comtist to the end? Does this render the arguments of On Liberty merely tactical maneuvers? I do not think so. Our author notes that Mill hoped for an antireligious consensus; but it does not follow from this that he wished to suppress dissent. He explicitly states in On Liberty that to debate accepted truths is a great good; even to debate the truths of mathematics is valuable. Why should we decline to take Mill at his word?

Although Raeder has not persuaded me of her principal thesis, her book contains a great deal of value. Her discussion of Mill's attitude toward nature, in particular, displays sensitive insight. She finds in Mill hostility to the world: "For Mill, nature as given is not good. Indeed, nature is not good at all but a realm of 'perfect and absolute recklessness' . . . Mill, like the Grand Inquisitor, will 'correct' God's work" (pp. 99, 101).

Raeder's study is impressively erudite, but her discussion of the alleged fallacy in Mill's proof of utilitarianism (pp. 302 ff.) makes no reference to the important discussions by Fred Berger and others in the recent philosophical literature. The remarks on page 149 wrongly conflate theological utilitarianism with moral views altogether nonconsequentialist.  


[1] See my review of Joseph Hamburger, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control, Mises Review 6, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 2124.

[2] The greatest of all nineteenth-century utilitarians after Mill, Henry Sidgwick, agreed with Paley that only a system of divine rewards and punishments could reconcile morality with self-interest.

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