Mill on Liberty: A Defence

Mill on Liberty: A Defence

Mill on Liberty: A Defence

Mill on Liberty: A Defence

Synopsis

Mill on Liberty was first published in 1983 and has become a classic of Mill commentary. The second edition reproduces the text of the first in full, and in paperback for the first time. To this, John Gray adds an extensive postscript which defends the interpretation of Mill set out in the first edition, but develops radical criticisms of the substance of Millian and other liberalism. The new edition is intended as a contribution to the current debate about the foundations of liberalism, and it looks closely at the recent seminal contributions to liberal thought by Raz, Feinberg, Rawls and Berlin. Central to its argument is Gray's contention that, like other liberalisms that ground themselves on an ideal of autonomy or individuality, Millian liberalism has a Eurocentric bias that cannot be given rational justification. Gray addresses the question of whether any form of liberal theory, can, in fact, avoid the bias, and concludes that it cannot. This book will be indispensable both to those familiar with On Liberty and to those coming to it for the first time. In addition, the book will also be of great interest to moral and political theorists, to students of law and jurisprudence and to intellectual historians.

Excerpt

In this book a received view is contested as to the character of John Stuart Mill’s writings about liberty. It has become a commonplace of the intellectual history of nineteenth-century England that the younger Mill is at best a transitional thinker whose writings on social and political questions disclose no coherent doctrine or pattern of argument, but only the efforts at synthesis of an ultimately unsuccessful eclecticism. As for On Liberty, it has long been the conventional view that there Mill sets out to square the circle—to give a utilitarian defence of the priority of liberty over other values. What intellectual enterprise could be more misconceived, or more clearly doomed to failure?

My aim in this study is to show by textual analysis and the reconstruction of Mill’s argument that On Liberty is not the folly that over a century of unsympathetic critics and interpreters have represented it as being, but rather the most important passage in a train of argument about liberty, utility and rights which Mill sustained over a number of his most weighty moral and political writings. Far from being the monument to Mill’s inconsistency that his critics have caricatured, On Liberty is consistent almost to a fault, both in its own terms and in terms of a patter of reasoning developed in Mill’s other writings in which a utilitarian theory of conduct is applied to many questions in moral and political life. On Liberty contains a fragment of what I call Mill’s Doctrine of Liberty, in which a defence is given in utilitarian terms of the institution of a system of moral rights within which the right to liberty is accorded priority.

It is in his presentation of a utilitarian theory of justice and of . . .

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