Mill's Religion of Humanity: Consequences and Implications

By Raeder, Linda C. | Humanitas, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Mill's Religion of Humanity: Consequences and Implications

Raeder, Linda C., Humanitas

One of the more remarkable, if controversial, developments in Anglo-American society over the past century has been the transformation of liberal politics from a commitment to limited government toward the progressive expansion of governmental direction of the social process. John Stuart Mill was a pivotal figure in that transformation. His self-avowed "eclecticism" allowed him to retain something of a commitment to classical liberalism, and he never completely abandoned the belief in a limited political sphere that characterizes that outlook. But Mill muddied the waters of classical-liberal philosophy and practice by his conviction that the end of government is the all-encompassing "improvement of mankind" and not the preservation of individual liberty-under-law, as well as by his self-conscious embrace and advocacy of the "social" moral ideal. Moreover, Mill's ambition to replace the theologically oriented society of the Western tradition with one grounded in and oriented exclusively toward Humanity necessa rily entailed a departure from classical liberalism. For individual liberty-under-law. as historically understood in the West, is crucially and inseparably wed to the belief in a law higher than the enactments of mankind, as well as to the sanctity of the person that derives from his or her source in God. In short, Mill's attempt to replace God with Humanity not only eviscerates the higher-law tradition crucial to the preservation of individual liberty and limited government but their spiritual foundation as well. For it is the transcendent spiritual purpose of each human being that, historically and existentially, engendered and sustains resistance to the pretensions of merely political power. When "Humanity" is elevated to the ultimate source and end of value, the political rulers become, in effect if not in name, the new gods.

Mill's influence on the development of the liberal tradition, then, is crucially bound up with his religious views and related thought. Mill's successful incorporation of the doctrines associated with French Radicalism into the Anglo-American liberal tradition is bound up with the transformation of liberalism from classical-liberal constitutionalism to "advanced-liberal" progressivism. This in turn is related to the tension in Mill's thought created by his lingering commitment to a classical-liberal defense of individual freedom and limited government and his even more passionate commitment to the establishment of an intramundane social religion. As Maurice Cowling has suggested, in the end a proper evaluation of Mill's thought turns on the question of whether his apparently "libertarian" politics are not in fact "subordinate to the religious Mill."' Benthamite/Millian utilitarianism was in continuity with the attempt of various French thinkers to create a secular, social, or political religion to provide the spiritual substance thought to be essential to the maintenance of social unity and political order. It should not be forgotten that the precursor of Millian Humanitarianism was the religious skepticism of the eighteenth-century philosophes and the radical anti-Christianity of the French Revolution. Through Mill's influence this rampant hostility to traditional religion was incorporated into the Anglo-American tradition. In short, Benthamite/Millian utilitarianism should be regarded as a less virulent manifestation of the anti-theological impulse that impelled revolutionary forces in eighteenth-century France to overthrow Christianity in the name of the Goddess Reason and Humanity. Mill's goal, like that of his predecessors, involved the implicit divinization of Humanity as well as the elevation of "service to Humanity" to the ultimate end of religious aspiration. It also involved the equally important, if less dramatic, insinuation of Benthamite/Comtean "altruism" and its notion of the superiority of "social " to personal morality into modern Anglo-American consciousness.

Mill's attempt to weave the "social"-ist aspirations of the Continental thinkers into the essentially individualist tradition of Anglo-American liberal thought accounts for much of the notorious inconsistency of his corpus, for the two traditions and ideals are essentially irreconcilable. …

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