Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Happy Birthday, John Stuart Mill

{Alan Ryan was my tutor in political philsophy at Oxford University in the mid-1980s. This short article appears in the Times Higher Education Supplement; I encourage everyone to listen to his mini-lecture at: }

May 20, 2006 mark(ed) the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Stuart Mill. Quite unimportant to anyone other than myself, it also mark(ed) the 50th anniversary of my first encounter with On Liberty.Faced with a school chaplain who thought that Bertrand Russell had nothing to say — “he had four wives” appeared to settle the matter — and a house-master who assured me that Russell was “an old fool,” I settled down to consume the more accessible essays of both Russell and his godfather.

Mill would have been a candidate for half a dozen of Charles Clarke’s control orders. He favoured the assassination of Napoleon III — “would that the bombs of Orsini had not missed their mark” — he said, which was surely glorifying terrorism. He did not ask the crowd assembled (in defiance of the military sent to stop them) in Hyde Park to demand the passage of the Second Reform Act to disperse, but to consider whether their grievances required a revolution: a pretty clear case of failing to prevent a breach of the peace. And he had the temerity to launch a private prosecution for murder against the Governor of Jamaica — Sir Edward Eyre — with every intention of seeing him hanged for the unlawful execution of rebels against his government. Like Clarke, Governor Eyre knew who was guilty and how they must be dealt with.

It is one of the oddities of British political life that Ruskin, Carlyle and Dickens were cited as inspirations by the founders of the Labour Party and are revered by the Left when they were defenders of slavery, believers in a medieval, hierarchical society and — witness Carlyle’s barnstorming essay Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question — rip-roaring racists. Mill is written off as an apologist for capitalism, doubtless because it is easier to read Ruskin’s attacks on him than to read Chapters on Socialism and discover that Mill believed in workers’ co-operatives.

Mill was much invoked over the affair of Frank Ellis (Features, the Times Higher, April 7, 2006). It goes without saying that Leeds University got itself into a mess and that one must hope it took careful advice from its insurers before suspending its lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies. The more interesting aspect of the case is how badly everyone behaved. Ellis, for instance, believes that what is in The Bell Curve is good science, but he has no grounds for thinking so, and is just repeating its authors’ claims. The Bell Curve is actually less like science than it is like a Victorian junk shop in which every last bit of information that might support the authors’ prejudices is indiscriminately piled up. Anything less like the stringent testing of your own favourite hypotheses it would be hard to find.

Ellis’s students behaved worse. Their lecturer’s views on race and IQ — let alone on the importance of IQ in determining life chances and a good deal else — are pretty much tosh; students with a tolerable degree of self-confidence could have given themselves and him some intellectual exercise by showing what nonsense he takes to be “science.” Instead, they declared that because they were “offended” he must be shut up. That, if you have any time for On Liberty or for intellectual life in any shape or form, is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

If universities are about anything — it is perhaps a large assumption that they still might be — it is about freeing ourselves from the grip of prejudice. That means learning to distinguish very sharply between being offended by someone’s views, being harmed by the fact that they hold them and knowing how to show that they are false. Of course, people need practice to do it, but they won’t even try if they are not told that one thing they can’t have is the comfort of shutting up dissenters. And they need to be encouraged to nourish the dissenter within themselves. Dostoevsky once congratulated Alexander Herzen on the way in which his dialogues on politics and philosophy gave Herzen’s critics such a strong case: “You are always in danger of defeat.” “But isn’t that the point?” asked Herzen. It certainly ought to be.

Mill himself anticipated much of this — not to mention Martin Bernal and Black Athena — by about 150 years. Responding to Carlyle’s nonsense about the intellectual and moral capacities of the recently freed West Indian slaves, Mill wrote: “The earliest known civilisation was a negro civilisation. The original Egyptians are inferred, from the evidence of their sculptures, to have been a negro race: it was from negroes, therefore, that the Greeks learnt their first lessons in civilisation.” In any case, as Mill also said, it doesn’t matter; whatever our intellectual capacities, the right to be treated decently and on our merits is one we possess as members of the human race — full stop.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford University.

Reprinted from, with permission of the author, the Times Higher Education Supplement, April 28, 2006.