"One Very Simple Principle"

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, November 1998 | Go to article overview

"One Very Simple Principle"


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


The most mischievous errors on record ... [have been] half-truths taken as the whole.

--S. T. Coleridge, Literary Remains 1838)

From the winter of 1821, when I first read Bentham, ... I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object.

--J. S. Mill, Autobiography (1873)

Complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other -- that is to say, when society is at an end.

--J. F. Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873)

It is a melancholy truth that bad arguments often prevail over better ones, and that very bad arguments sometimes gain a virtual monopoly in the court of public sentiment. In extreme cases, a bad argument so mesmerizes the public that its status as an argument -- as one, necessarily limited, point of view competing with others -- tends to deliquesce. It takes on an aura of inevitability. It seems to present not so much a way of looking at the world as the world itself. When this happens, serious alternatives suffer the handicap of being regarded as mere "partisan" or political gestures, even as the partisan nature of the triumphant argument is increasingly lost to view. Dissent from this new orthodoxy then appears as dissent from the simple reality of the way things are: less a challenge than a perversion.

Liberalism, broadly defined, has long occupied this enviable position. It prescribes not only the terms of debate, but also the rhetorical atmosphere in which any debate must take place. Many of its central doctrines -- above all, perhaps, its uncritical celebration of "innovation" in social, political, and moral matters -- are taken-for-granted articles of belief. Do not be misled by any renewed attention that may from time to time be lavished on welfare reform, tax cuts, "family values" law and order, civility, or military preparedness: these and other remedial initiatives identified as "conservative" today take place in a context saturated by liberal assumptions. For better or worse -- no doubt for better and worse -- we are all liberals now: by dint of contagion if not conviction. How could it be otherwise? As the English historian Maurice Cowling noted in his book Mill and Liberalism (1963; second edition, 1990), for many years now "to use liberal language has been taken to be intelligent: to reject it evidence of stupidity." That conviction has long since been elevated into a fundamental donnee of intellectual life: an unspoken assumption that colors every aspect of political and moral deliberation.

No one was more important in bringing about this state of affairs than Cowling's subject, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill would not have been surprised that to speak as he taught one to speak -- to speak in Mill, as it were -- was to be thought intelligent, while to speak otherwise was to be thought stupid. He believed it himself; and he did everything in his very considerable powers to encourage the belief in others. "The stupid party" was Mill's own summary description of conservatives (this despite his admiration for Coleridge).

For anyone interested in understanding the nature of the modern liberal consensus, the extraordinary success of Mill's rhetoric and the doctrines it advances afford a number of important lessons. It is an object lesson in the immense seductiveness inherent in a certain type of skeptical moralizing. Together with Rousseau, Mill supplied nearly all of the arguments and most of the emotional weather -- the texture of sentiment -- that have gone into defining the liberal vision of the world. His peculiar brand of utilitarianism-a cake of Benthamite hedonism glazed with Wordsworthian sentimentality -- accounts for part of Mill's appeal: it provides a perfect recipe for embellishing programmatic shallowness with a patina of spirituality and elevated "feeling. …

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