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17 September 2007

Power to Clarity

On 13 September, New Statesman contributing editor Sholto Byrnes wrote a piece in which he acclaimed

By Ted Honderich

Sholto Byrnes is right if he allows that liberalism is a congeries of stuff in the sense that it is pretty diverse: left-leaning and right-leaning parties and traditions. It is also a congeries of stuff when you take its heart to be in John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty. In fact you can think it is worse than that. A lot worse.

One of Mill’s utterances is that an individual is to be left to do what he wants, sovereign in body and mind, so long as he does not harm anybody else. For example he is to be left to go to hell in his own way. Sholto finds this stirring. A second of Mill’s utterances, implied by the first, is that the state and society can intervene in an individual’s life against his will only if he or she harms or threatens harm to others. Mill qualifies that a bit, but not much.

Sholto underestimates what is in fact the disaster of the second utterance, which disaster is owed to the absence of any half-adequate, quarter-adequate or indeed in any fraction adequate definition of harm. What is it? It can’t be doing what is against Mill’s Principle of Utility, since that, unlike Bentham’s, is just a particular mess of admittedly stirring rhetoric.

You get some idea of what Mill might have produced when you notice near the end of the essay that On Liberty is all about state and society intervening to stop harm, whatever it is, and not about intervening to help people. So, we have to understand, harming people doesn’t include, for a start, financial economic activities that leave families in poverty or worse, or indeed impoverish or degrade them. Or, of course, going to hell in your own way.

It is hard to read the essay and escape the conclusion that if Mill had been as clear-headed in morals and politics as he was in other parts of philosophy he would have had to consider that what he meant by harm was what the legal and related conventions of 1859 said was harm. I pay him the tribute that he could not have swallowed that.

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What he did was not face the problem, and the result is the general mess of On Liberty. It is also the mess of liberalism in so far as On Liberty is its heart. I guess it is possible to say that liberalism can be distinguished from conservatism. That is the political tradition that shares the self-interest of all political traditions but is unique in having no moral principle to support its self-interest. But is not reason for much liberal self-celebration?

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To speak for my own Principle of Humanity, in fact the principle of what I am pleased to call the true Left, it is not that the principle is boisterous and simplistic when compared with liberalism, but that it is clear. Thus it is better at resisting self-deception, in particular the self-deception of liberalism. It is also clear about our liberal democracy, which is merely hierarchic democracy, the kind that goes to war as a result of the will of dim politicians incapable of seeing, for a start, that the conventional is not the necessary.