J.S. Mill and the torch of the eternal garbage fire

Free speech has many false friends and straw-enemies. Some of those misapprehensions come from the land of freedom and milk and honey and stars and stripes and things. Some come from inside of the Canadian academy. Some call themselves leftist, some right-wing. The conversation, at present, is all a bit warped. But if you wanted to get things straight, you could also consult the classics if you wanted, right from the horses’s mouth — Mill’s On Liberty.

On Liberty is sometimes mischaracterized as a kind of free speech absolutism, i.e., for whom one cannot limit speech on the basis of content, and/or which is directed only at the proprieties of government intervention and not social justice among individuals. If it were those things, it would be boring and wrong. In fact, though, Mill’s argument has all sorts of nuances and compelling features that, at the very least, make it worthy of continued attention. His endorsement of freedom of speech is not absolutist, since the principle of liberty is a function of his harm principle. Hence, he does endorse limitations to speech, and does believe it is sometimes justifiable to sanction the speech of others. You just have to be sensitive to the qualifications.

The first two limitations on speech worth mentioning right off the bat, and which many people reading this already know:

a) Only applies in modern contexts and between adults. Mill’s defense of free speech is a point about how we ought to design modern political institutions and culture which are responsive to reason. For roughly the same reason, a parent can limit the speech of a child, since children are ostensibly not capable of rational conversation. Or so says the parenting manuals in Victorian era England, presumably.

b) Contextual limits. The defense of freedom of speech does not prevent us from limiting the speech of someone who is inciting of mob violence (e.g., the corn-seller’s case). Plausibly enough, the American Court offered the example of yelling fire in a crowded theater as speech that can be sanctioned. (Implausibly, this was done to justify government sanctions on wartime dissidents.)

So, with those caveats out of the way, the question is: “Can we, people living in relatively evolved political societies, and speaking in non-incitement contexts, ever sanction someone for the contents of their speech?”

The answer depends on who you are — a government or a private citizen. For governments, the answer is pretty much a flat ‘no’. A government needs to lay off imposing sanctions on individuals for the things that individuals say. Hence, Mill thinks that blasphemy laws, and even libel laws, are legislatively wrong. An interesting additional question is whether or not legal restrictions on hate speech — e.g., Canadian restrictions on hate propaganda — are directed at harms based on content or context. (FWIW, my inclination is to regard propaganda as essentially contextual in nature, and expressed hatred as intending incitement, and therefore to see it as analogous to the corn-seller’s case. But this seems to be a matter of interpretation, and reasonable people may interpret it differently.)

Some of the people who call themselves libertarians seem to think that freedom of speech only concerns governmental regulations, not interactions between private citizens. But this is not so; private citizens are obliged to respect freedom of speech as well. It is just that their internal calculations have to be a bit more nuanced.

Consider the fact that there are many kinds and qualities of bad effects that we can visit on others when we target them with speech:

Hurt vs. harm. Suppose there’s a difference between subjective hurt and objective harm. We can distinguish them as follows: an action produces subjective hurt when the act produces a negative effect on the patient, but only on the condition that the patient permits themselves to be hurt; while an action is an objective harm if the negative effect is visited on the patient irrespective of whether or not they recognize it. So, you can’t necessarily be held to account just because a person chooses to interpret a turn of phrase in a way that makes it appropriate to feel slighted. The idea is that you are not necessarily blameworthy if you happen to hurt someone’s feelings, so long as they are not otherwise worse for the wear. In contrast, there is a prohibition on intending to cause objective harm to others. So, e.g., even if libel laws make for bad governmental policy (according to Mill), private citizens are doing wrong if they lie about others and cause reputational damage.

Acts vs. facts. Mill notices that there’s a difference between objective harms related to (a) the statement of facts about the target, and (b) objective harms delivered through the act of speech. For an example of the first kind of harm: by calling a thief “thief”, you might end up causing the thief harm, in a sense; but the harm issues from the facts, not from the act of talking about it. And it is fine to do someone objective harm just by reporting accurately on the vile things they’ve said or done. If a pizza guru says, “I hate gay people”, then I can tell ordinary decent folks what the pizza guru said, and they can boycott him. And if a whistleblower says, “My organization is killing people with drones”, and they can prove it, then that speech is permissible, too, and so they ought not be sanctioned by the government.

On the other hand, you cannot just go around sanctioning people for saying things you don’t like, causing them objective harm through the creative powers of speech. That is, you shouldn’t engage in “vituperative” speech: by which he seems to mean gratuitous vilification, heckling and shaming, character assassination, and so on. He argues that the mischief that arises from these sorts of conversational bludgeons “is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.” Instead, you should engage in the “real morality of public discussion“, which is to say, you should engage in good faith: “giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour.” In other words, you should not contribute to the ongoing eternal garbage-fire of life on Twitter.

But, once those speech acts are taken off the table, is there any kind of speech left? Is all of our discourse turned into anodyne or inert? No — you are only barred from intending objective harm on the basis of the speech acts independently of the facts, i.e., through vituperative speech. Everything apart from that is fair game. You can speak falsely, and can hurt feelings. What you can’t do is engage in bad faith.

At any rate, this was my reading of Mill. Maybe you have your own interpretation. Either way, I think it is well worth revisiting his essays every so often, because it rewards close reading.

Saving Mill’s Utilitarianism [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

Some ideas have the force of a runaway trolley. When they are first proposed, they are vigorously endorsed and maligned by diverse, forceful personalities. Then they enter the crucible of development, are battered with intense scrutiny. Even if the ideas are eventually abandoned, they will have left an imprint upon the centuries, like the corpse of an elder god washed up upon the beach. We gain more from poking and prodding at its corpse than we do from shaking hands with its successors.

Utilitarianism, for example. The principle of utility is just an ethical theory that conforms to the slogan: “Do whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Utilitarianism has been attacked from all sides, but it retains a close following. It is a beloved treasure among compassionate naturalists and bean-counting social engineers, and critiqued by both lazy romantics and sensitive sophisticates. It is used as an intuition-pump for the sympathies of secularists, just as much as it is used to sanction torture in ticking time-bomb scenarios.

The doctrine has roots in the welfarism of David Hume and Aristotle, and owes a healthy dose of accolades to Epicurus. Its modern advocates come easily to mind: Peter Singer, David Brink, Peter Railton, Sam Harris. But it was not until 18th century reformer Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill published their works that utilitarianism could find articulation in its contemporary form.

Bentham defined the principle of utility in this way: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever. according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.” For Bentham, the primary focus of moral inquiry was the rightness or wrongness of actions, measured in terms of their perceived consequences. Bentham’s utilitarianism is, hence, a form of consequentialism: rightness and wrongness of acts is a function of the good or bad consequences, and nothing else.

The history of philosophy has not been kind to the Benthamites. A regimend of critics (including 20th century notables like John Rawls, JJ Thomson, Philippa Foot, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams, to name just a few) have rejected utilitarianism as a moral doctrine on a variety of grounds. And, on the whole, I think these critics have successfully shown that Bentham’s utilitarianism is riddled with absurdity. To the extent that utilitarianism belongs to Bentham, we must abandon utility.

Unfortunately, despite all the headway they have made against the Benthamites, critics have not shown much sensitivity to John Stuart Mill’s formulation of utilitarianism. It turns out that the John Stuart Mill that we meet in freshman lectures may not, bear much kinship with the John Stuart Mill who lived and breathed. So it’s worth noticing, and advertising far and wide, just how the standard picture of Mill is undergoing a rapid change.

For one thing, there is some confusion in the literature whether or not Mill counts as an act- or rule-utilitarian. It is not uncommon to hear his name paired up with one or the other, but rarely both (textual evidence be damned) — if there are any internal contradictions, then it is easy to think that that is a product of Mill’s incoherence, and not a failure on our part to be charitable. And I think Fred Wilson put it nicely:

Mill is … not an “act utilitarian” who holds that the principle of utility is used to judge the rightness or wrongness of each and every act. But neither is he a “rule utilitarian” who holds that individual acts are judged by various moral rules which are themselves judged by the principle of utility acting as a second order principle to determine which set of rules secures the greatest amount of happiness. For the principle of utility judges not simply rules, according to Mill, but rules with sanctions attached.

For another thing, it isn’t even clear whether or not Mill is a consequentialist. In the essay linked, Daniel Jacobsen argues that Mill’s idea of utilitarianism was non-consequentialist — which is roughly to say that it is unclear whether or not Mill believed that we judge the good or bad consequences of acts by being indifferent towards the identity of persons who are affected. Instead, in the essay linked, Jacobsen argues that Mill is best understood as an advocate of a commonsense doctrine that he calls “sentimentalism” (where an act is wrong so long as an agent’s feelings of guilt are suitable).

And it’s certainly not the case that Mill was a consequentialist bean-counter, given his strong emphasis upon the importance of developing good character. As Mill remarks in On Liberty, while it is possible for a man to achieve a good life without ever exercising autonomy, this can only to his detriment as a human being. To take just one of Mill’s quotes, which Kwame Anthony Appiah mentioned favorably (in The Ethics of Identity): “It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.”

What can account for such a massive neglect for one of utilitarianism’s fiercest defenders? It could be that utilitarianism has been assessed — and rejected — because it has been associated with its weakest proponents. If charity in interpretation has been lacking in our study of Mill, then it may be that we are now seeing a sea shift in the study of utilitarianism. I doubt that all of Mill can be salvaged — parts of his doctrine are a bit dotty. But still it may be that the old god, Utility, still has some life in him.