xml/lby.00030.xml Icons of Liberty: from "Social Liberty and Free Agency: Some Ambiguities in Mill's Conception of Freedom"

G.W. Smith, from "Social Liberty and Free Agency: Some Ambiguities in Mill's Conception of Freedom," J.S. Mill On Liberty in Focus (1991)

This excerpt from G.W. Smith's "Social Liberty and Free Agency: Some Ambiguities in Mill's Conception of Freedom" is transcribed from pages 247-251 of J.S. Mill On Liberty in Focus, edited by John Gray and G.W. Smith. Published by Routledge, 2000.

SOCIAL LIBERTY AND FREE AGENCY: Some ambiguities in Mill's conception of freedom


Before examining the adequacy of Mill's position as a solution to the traditional problems of freedom and determinism, let us consider the implications of construing the liberty invoked in the principle along these lines. The idea is positive in four main respects:

Clearly, the dichotomoy of either negative or positive freedom is simply misleading when applied to such a notion. Yet conditional freedom is precisely the idea at work when Mill makes the points he does about the value of a sphere of 'self-regarding' action, as it captures just those persons whom he is usually understood particularly to want to protect, namely those who may be presumed to be capable of forming their own personalities, and who may also be taken to want to do to so, but who are likely to feel inhibited by the prospect of social disapproval from expressing themselves in the way in which they feel they need to do. These likely exponents of individuality are to be guaranteed 'liberty of action,' that is to say, the Principle of Liberty ensures them a sphere of freedom within which they may, if they wish, take the opportunity to exercise their powers of self-development by practising 'experiments in living', where these do not harm others. This conception of freedom also squares with liberty qua 'letting people alone to pursue their own good in their own way', (p. 33) as well as with the orthodox liberal view of the proper function of the state, with which Mill is usually associated, that is, as protecting or conserving a freedom which individuals are presumed already to possess.

However, though the conditional notion of free agency undoubtedly represents the core of Mill's understanding of liberty, additional complexities ar revealed by considering the implications of a common criticism of his Compatibilist solition to the problem of freedom and determinism. It is often argued that, strictly speaking, Mill has no right to a notion of freedom as self-development because his empiricist theory of personal identity, which resolves the self into a Humean 'bundle of impressions', cannot account for the possibility of an enduring self maintaining a persisting identity through a series of developmental changes. Mill is in fact rather less dogmatic about associationism, at least as far as its implications for self-identity are concerned, than is sometimes represented. But it cannot be denied that this represents a void at the centre of his philosophical system, in that his official epistemology commits him to precisely that attenuated conception of personality which gives plausibility to the standard liberal notion of freedom as non-frustration of wants. For, if the self is nothing more than a bundle of perceptions and desires, nothing more than their unhindered satisfaction can properly be demanded in the name of liberty. However, the criticism which raises philosophically more promising issues for Mill is connected not so much with his theory of personal identity as with his ideal of personal autonomy. It is contended that the basic flaw in Mill's theory of freedom lies in his admission that 'the will to alter our own character is given us, not by any effort of ours, but by circumstances we cannot help: it comes to us from external causes, or not at all'. An admission that any clear-minded determinist can scarecely avoid, yet the fallacy seems manifest: if we cannot actually determine our character unless we actually desire to do so, and if the desire for self-mastery cannot (as Mill admits) be self-induced, are we not all ultimately heteronomously motivated, and hence by his own criterion unfree?

Mill makes no direct response to this challenge, and perhaps there is none to be made, though there may be more to his position than some critics have been prepared to allow. There is something of an irony here, however, in that the deficiencies of his answer to Owen at the purely metaphysical level point him in a potentially very fruitful direction in his social philosophy. It is simply that, if the desire for self-reform cannot be self-induced, the external (i.e. social) circumstances which either stimulate or inhibit its occurance take on crucial significance for the individual's actual engagement in the process of self-development—even if this latter cannot, in strict metaphysical terms, lay claim to being a fully or genuinely autonomous condition of character. Though there is no explicit evidence that Mill clearly registers the implications of his position, the way in which he treats Owenite social fatalism as a real threat to freedom (and not simply as a misguided intellectual position) suggests that he implicitly slides from taking the desire for self-development as merely a hypothetical requirement of freedom to invoking it categorically, at least in the sense that anyone prevented from conceiving the wish for self-reform is to be classed with those whose desire is frustrated as being unfree tout court. The context of this vital elision is to be found in Mill's comments upon the deplorable effect, as he sees it, of swallowing Owen's account of human impotence. One the one hand, it might 'depress' or 'paralyse' the will of someone who already wants to engage in character self-reform, as do uncontrollable impulses and inveterate habits. But it can also prevent someone who could reform himself if he wished from even desiring to do so, by encouraging him falsely to think that he could not succeed even if he tried. On a strict construal of Mill's original condition formulation the former is, of course, unfree whereas the latter remains free. Mill, however, treats them as being essentially similar: in both cases individuals who might othewise successfully amend their own characters are prevented from so doing by the influence of a false ideology. Though the impediments to self-reform operate by way of different psychological routes, they originate in the same social phenomenon and eventuate in the same effect. Hence Mill's implicit elision of two conditions which, according to his preliminary account of conditional freedom, are quite distinct.

By implicitly broadening the concept in this way Mill is, of course, enabled to embrace a far wider set of social circumstances as possible threats to liberty than could his liberal predecessors. It cannot, however, be over-emphasized that Mill's mind remains far from clear as to the precise logical contours and implications of the revolutionary idea of freedom which he develops as a response to social fatalism — a fact which, as we shall see, bears important consequences for an understanding of the central doctrine of On Liberty. Nevertheless, Mill in effect is operating with a three-factor conception of freedom, one positive, two negative. 'Complete freedom', as he calls it, presupposes:

The logical kernal of the idea lies in (a), and it is developed by Mill in response to Owen's social fatalism and offered as a form of modified Compatibilism as a solution to the metaphysical problem of 'free will'. When considering the kinds of constraints — (b) — upon the exercise of powers of self-development, Mill alludes in the Logic to internal psychological defects of character; but external impediments are mentioned in connection with the threat of Owenite fatalism, and everything Mill says in On Liberty about the dangers of coercive public opinion to freedom implies that he takes external constraints as relevant too. But it is in regard to (c) that Mill's worries about the peculiarly modern threat to freedom really take form. And it is this condition which bears fundamentally upon the Principle of Liberty in the essay.

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