Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

MILL: On Liberty (Some Questions for Mill)

Free and open discussion of ideas is the heart of the Great Books program. In fact the first volume of the Great Books set is called The Great Conversation. John Stuart Mill is a great promoter of the liberty of thought and discussion. He feels that all ideas should be considered and investigated, then refined, and finally be refuted or affirmed. Even then the questions won’t be closed. To be effective they must be constantly reconsidered. The way Mill sees it If an opinion is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. So in that spirit of questioning here are a few questions for Mill himself.

To begin with Mill says I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Two questions for Mill. First, why do you regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions? Many ancient and even a few modern writers use virtue instead of utility as the standard for ethical guidance. For those who use virtue as a guide something may “work” just fine but it would still be wrong. Why do you think utility is a better guide than the old-fashioned concept of virtue? Second, you say that utility must be understood in the largest sense. That larger sense is based on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Why do you assume mankind’s permanent interests are progressive? Would it make just as much sense to say that mankind’s true permanent interests are preserving what we’ve already gained by so much blood, sweat and tears? Many traditionalists actually prefer continuity to progress. Some of them think progressives are enemies of the permanent things because progressives often want to tear down what we’ve built up and replace it with something new.

You point out in your essay that Human nature is not a machine…but a tree…a living thing. People are more like trees than machines, that’s true. We grow and develop. But in order to grow and develop trees need roots for nourishment. Otherwise they just wither and die. Traditionalists believe that the customs of their fathers provide the roots of society. But you say that Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions and customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress. Why do you think it’s so wrong to follow the traditions and customs of our fathers? Those customs are the same ones your family and neighbors live by. A man lives in a certain place; so it matters how he lives. In your opinion it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. That may be so. Londoners are more likely to be Christian than Buddhist because that’s where the Anglican Church is located. You would expect to find more Muslims in Mecca and more Hindus in India. But why do you assume it was “mere accident” that placed this gentleman in London in the first place? Have you considered the possibility that he’s in London for a reason? That used to be thought of as divine providence and many people took that notion very seriously. They believed things happened for a reason, even though we can’t always understand what that reason is. Some people still believe that. Are there some things the power of human reason can’t penetrate? Do you believe there are some things beyond human comprehension? Can we have a great conversation about things that are beyond human comprehension? At that point we may have reached a dead end. There are many other questions that come to mind. It’s a tribute to Mill’s essay to cover so many issues. Everyone may not agree with all of his conclusions but Mill belongs in the Great Books.


Blogger Brian said...

I am so glad I found your blog. As I look across the room at my Great Books--that I have been dragging around for over twenty years-- your blog confirms how important they are to me and our culture. Your work will also help me with mine.

12/16/2009 9:47 PM  

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