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catallaxy in technical exile

Scruton on Mill

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Roger Scruton may be reputed to be a brilliant philosopher but he doesn’t always show it. Here is an extremely poor piece he wrote on the legacy of JS Mill. For instance he writes:

Lenin and Hitler were pious utilitarians, as were Stalin and Mao, as are most members of the Mafia. As Mill recognized, the “greatest happiness principle” must be qualified by some guarantee of individual rights, if it is not to excuse the tyrant.

But any economist, whose whole normative perspective revolves around a form of utilitarianism, would tell you that the societies created by Stalin and Mao have been complete failures in any utilitarian sense. The error made by Scruton (if indeed it is an error rather than a simplification or bulldust thrown in the reader’s eye to make him malleable to his later polemics) is to assume that unconstrained forms of utilitarianism best meet the objectives of utilitarianism. This ignores the formulations of utilitarianism like the rule-utilitaranism of Hayek which takes account of the fact that if utilitarianism is to be adopted as a public philosophy, then it must place constraints on the agents of society who engage in the utility-maximisation on behalf of society, constraints which mean that their main role is to faciliate individual pursuit of happiness and leave it to decentralised processes and trial and error for ‘happiness’ to be maximised. In which case, JS Mill’s more ‘moderate’ form of utilitarianism is indeed the more genuine form. (Incidentally this formulation of utilitarianism also creates problems for the ‘happiness’ policies being pushed out of the halls of the LSE by Richard Layard, but this is the subject of another post).

The curious thing is that after dispensing of this strawman utilitarianism, Scruton goes on to plough into Mill’s arguments about constraining the exercise of public policy by the principle of liberty:

According to Mill’s argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny–including the “tyranny of the majority.” Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it–for in such circumstances one person’s gain in freedom is another person’s loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual’s right to act and speak as he chooses …

The problem lies in the concept of harm. How can I prove that one person’s action does not harm another? How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs–beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability? How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life’s meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms? 

The irony is that Scruton’s beloved ‘traditional values’ have even less of a leg to stand on under his own non-utilitarian formulation. All he can appeal to are obscurantist notions of ‘shared sexual norms’ imbuing our lives with ‘meaning’ (that favourite buzzword of coffee-table book authors). Handwaving instead of an argument. A rule-utilitarian like Hayek on the other hand, was able to engage in a more nuanced position, arguing for a presumption that some traditional institutions had proven to be of value though they were capable of refinements in other ways to take account of new knowledge and social norms (e.g. that the institutions of marriage and the nuclear family can accomodate gay marriage and by the same token preserve their good bourgeois socialisation qualities).

Scruton’s position on the other hand would seem to leave no room for compromise and is truly incapable of engagement on publicly rational grounds of argumentation. This is implicitly acknowledged in the last paragraph of his article where he does the classic rhetorical trick of saying ‘other things are higher than reason’ thereby avoiding the need to justify his prejudices, while, in a stunning twist, gives the State permanent emergency powers unless norms are permanently frozen in time:

Mill suffered from the same defect as his father. He never understood that wisdom is deeper and rarer than rational thought. He never understood that the intellect, which flies so easily to its conclusions, relies on something else for its premises. Those conservatives who upheld what Mill called “the despotism of custom” against the “experiments in living” advocated in “On Liberty” were not stupid simply because they recognized the limits of the human intellect. They were, on the contrary, aware that freedom and custom are mutually dependent, and that to free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.

Written by Admin

May 24, 2006 at 9:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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