We've Never Needed John Stuart Mill More

By Hari, Johann | The Independent (London, England), March 27, 2006 | Go to article overview
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We've Never Needed John Stuart Mill More


Hari, Johann, The Independent (London, England)


The British people find it hard to cherish their philosophers. In France, the recent centenary of Jean-Paul Sartre was virtually a state event, with massive newspaper pull-outs bearing his toad- face. But here, the bicentenary of the birth of one of our greatest philosophers - John Stuart Mill - is passing in the night.

This is tragic, because Mill is our contemporary and our guide in a way that is true of very few philosophers. If you read his Collected Works after scanning the day's newspapers, it is as if he is an unimaginably brilliant columnist, commenting on yesterday, today and tomorrow. Last week, after reading the front pages of right-wing newspapers shrieking at the distribution of contraceptives to teenagers, I read Mill's account of his spell in jail for distributing leaflets about contraception. Over the past year, as debates have blistered across Parliament about how best to circumscribe and stunt free speech, I kept returning to Mill's On Liberty, the greatest defence of free speech we have.

And on his relevance goes: some of the bravest Muslim women in the world, such as Fadela Amara and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have been begging their sisters to read Mill's book On the Subjection of Women - one of the first great calls for gender equality - as a solution to the community's worst problem. His works represent a clarion Liberal Manifesto, and have endured far better than the Communist Manifesto or nationalist screeds. Mill's fights are our fights. Mill's words should be our words.

At its core, his philosophy boils down to two concepts: utilitarianism and liberty. In a world where people passively followed moral rules they believed had been handed down by God, Mill picked up and developed utilitarianism as an alternative - a philosophy as blazingly radical as it was easy to understand. The only way to measure the morality of an action is to ask if it increases the overall happiness of human beings and minimises their suffering. It was radically egalitarian - everybody's happiness is equal - and a radical affront to a world organised for the happiness of a few wealthy people under cover of "divine laws".

But he did not stop there. He went on to argue that the best way to maximise human happiness is to maximise human freedom. We must "give full freedom to human nature to expand itself in innumerable and conflicting directions". There is no single form of Happiness for us to discover' it is only by allowing innumerable "experiments in living" that people will find their own personal slivers of happiness. We must never ban each other from acting and speaking as we wish, unless we can show that clear, immediate and considerable harm to other people arises from it.

If we were to follow the broad contours of Mill's philosophy today, the world would look very different. Let's look first at economics. Currently, our society (and the planet) is structured and geared almost exclusively to maximise the gross national product. The bottom line runs like a thread through everything. But recently the brilliant utilitarian economist Richard Layard - with one eye on Mill - asked a challenging question: what if we tried to maximise the Gross National Happiness instead? Layard's starting point was a stark statistic: although Britain has doubled its national wealth since the 1950s, the evidence shows that we, the British people, are not any happier. Why? Like monkeys, humans are status-seeking primates: our happiness comes from knowing we are respected among our peers.

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