PLSC 118: The Moral Foundations of Politics

Lecture 7

 - The Neoclassical Synthesis of Rights and Utility


John Stuart Mill’s synthesis rights and utility follows naturally in the vein of neoclassical utilitarianism, and it attempts to compensate for many of the shortcomings of Bentham’s classical utilitarianism. In the end, it turns out to be a doctrine that does not look very similar to Bentham’s at all. An important component of Mill’s doctrine is his harm principle, which states that the only purpose for which one can interfere with the liberty of action of another individual is self-protection. He also emphasizes free speech because he believes that through the process of argument, one can arrive at truth, which amounts to utility for society. A significant departure from the early Enlightenment, Mill believes in fallibility, and his philosophy of science closely resembles the modern conception. However, there seems to be inconsistency in his application of his libertarian theory where he seems to ignore some types of harm to others. Professor Shapiro reconciles for this by advocating a different, two-step reading of Mill.

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PLSC 118 - Lecture 7 - The Neoclassical Synthesis of Rights and Utility

Chapter 1. Synthesizing Rights and Utility: John Stuart Mill (1806 to 1873) [00:00:00]

Professor Ian Shapiro: So last Wednesday I asked you to suspend disbelief and bear with me as we worked our way through the Pareto system as a way of backing into the political theory of John Stuart Mill, which is going to be our subject today. And I also promised you that a side-benefit of Wednesday’s lecture was you would get to learn everything you ever needed to know about neoclassical economics. That in fact is true. Everything you ever do in economics is basically derived from or built from those simple ideas that Pareto and Edgeworth put together. So it is, indeed, I think, a side-benefit of working through it.

But now what I want to do today is integrate what we saw in the Pareto system and the remarks I made about Stevenson’s emotivism and philosophy, and come into the central arguments in political theory that are informed by these mature Enlightenment ideas. And you’re going to see why I talk about the mature Enlightenment with respect to Mill further on in today’s lecture.

As you can see here, I talk about Mill as attempting to synthesize rights and utility. And you might think, “Well, okay. How’s he going to do that?” Some of you who know a little bit more about Mill may also think it’s odd that I have chose his little essay called “On Liberty” for you to read, in explaining his utilitarianism, when in fact Mill wrote an essay on utilitarianism which I’m not having you read, although I’m certainly not prohibiting you from reading it. But I think that what you can see is that the synthesis of rights and utility can be approached from either end, and I’m going to approach it from the rights end at least initially, and then we’ll worry about the utilitarian end of things later. But I think Mill’s basic view is whether you start to develop a fully satisfying conception of individual rights, or whether you start to develop a fully satisfying conception of utilitarianism, you’re going to end up incorporating the other one of those two into your account.

Let me tell you a little bit about who John Stuart Mill was. He was the son of James Mill, who had been a contemporary of Jeremy Bentham’s. Indeed, not only a contemporary, but actually a disciple of Jeremy Bentham’s, and a true believer in Benthamite utilitarianism, including in the matter of the education of his son. He was very concerned to give his son the most efficient possible education in order to get him to achieve at the highest level.

And so he was, what we would today call, home-schooled. There were governesses and schoolteachers brought to his home. He never went to school, and indeed he turned out to be a brilliant child. He was doing differential calculus at a very young age. He was speaking Latin and Greek in his teens. He was just an astonishingly smart child, and so they ramped up his education at an incredible clip with the result that, by the age of 21, he actually had a nervous breakdown. He had no friends. He had no life. He was a miserable brilliant nerd.

And he never entirely recovered from that experience, and nor did he ever quite absolve Bentham and his father’s single-mindedness from responsibility for doing that to him. And he was a somewhat pained and tortured person later in life. I think he never quite shed the scars, but his wife Harriet, who was a very interesting intellectual in her own right, and wrote much of Mill’s famous essay that appeared over his name on the subjugation of women. And indeed, some Mill scholars think that Harriet also had a big role in the writing of On Liberty, but that’s more speculative.

So he never quite got over that early shock-and-awe utilitarian education, but he also never entirely shed the commitment to the idea that utilitarianism is the best system for thinking about politics. At one point he says, “I do endorse utilitarianism, but only in the largest sense of man as a progressive being. We’ll come back to what that might mean as we proceed.

So Mill does have one useful characteristic in common with Bentham. I think it’s the only one. As I said, that Bentham is one of these monomaniacal people, and what makes him useful to us is he takes an idea and runs with it to the absolute extreme, and that’s useful because you can see its assumptions in a very sharp and stark light. Mill is somebody who is aware of the infinitely complex nature of human existence and is not a Johnny One Note in a sense that Bentham was, and you’ll see this very quickly as we get into his argument. Nonetheless, he shares in common with Bentham the feature that he reduces his doctrine to a single paragraph, just as Bentham did. It was the opening paragraph of his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. With Mill it comes about twelve pages in on the Hackett edition that you’re reading. He says categorically,

The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle; as entitled to govern absolutely (this sounds quite unequivocal) the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or to forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that (that is, to justify compelling him), the conduct from which it’s desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he’s amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Anyone think they have any doubt about what he’s saying? I mean, setting aside whether you agree with it. Anyone think you feel pretty clear about what he’s saying? Never mind whether we agree with it. Okay, only one person feels clear. Who feels unclear about what he’s saying? So we have one person who’s clear, nobody who’s unclear, and 136 undecided? Wow! I mean, isn’t it clear? As I say, I’m not asking you whether you agree. It’s just saying, unless you harm somebody else you’ve got to be left alone, and the statements a) “Leave you alone,” and b) “Stop anyone else who wants to interfere with you,” harkening back to Bentham’s point that the law should stay the hand of a third party, right? That’s what he’s saying here, yeah? It’s not rocket science. I mean, it’s very direct.

Okay, so that’s what he’s saying. You might say, “Well, okay.” I mean, just to give you an example, he’s saying if one of you comes to me at the end of this course and says, “Professor Shapiro, will you write me a letter because I want to go to law school?” And I say, “Well, I’ve come to know you, and you’ve got a lot of good qualities and skills, but you are not a lawyer. Trust me. I’ve been around a long time. You should not go to law school.” The appropriate answer, Mill would say, is, “Well, thank you for your opinion. I’m not asking you to tell me what to do.” I can plead with you. I can remonstrate with you. I can try and persuade you, but at the end of the day if you say, “Well, thank you very much, but I’m going to law school,” I shouldn’t try to coerce you. And not only that, I shouldn’t try and get others to put pressure on you, right? It’s not only should you not be compelled, but we shouldn’t try and coerce you with the moral force of public opinion. We shouldn’t start telling lawyer jokes to make you feel bad, right?

So we have to respect the autonomy of the individual. Complete opposite, at least going in, from where Bentham starts, right? And one of the things you should see from this, and should be starting to go through your mind, is that there is a deep structural identity between Mill’s harm principle and the Pareto principle that we discussed last time. I’ll come back to that later, but there’s a basic structural identity between those two things.

Now, you could say, “Okay, so Mill is saying respect everybody’s rights. This is a strong theory of individual rights. Unless somebody’s harming somebody else they’re to be left alone and the state has to make sure that they’re going to be left alone. Fine, that’s a theory of rights, but what does this have to do with utilitarianism?” Right? How does Mill get from protecting freedom of the individual through this robust doctrine of individual rights to the notion that we’re going to maximize the utility in society? Anyone have any idea? Anyone? Yeah? Yes, sir? Wait for the microphone.

Student: Does he argue that freedom leads to the highest level of pleasure? That an individual given that type of freedom would gain utility from that and thus maximizing that type of freedom at the individual level?

Professor Ian Shapiro: But why?

Student: Why do we gain utility from freedom?

Professor Ian Shapiro: Yes. In Mill’s mind, why does maximizing freedom also maximize utility? I mean, you’re right. You’re dead right, but there’s an intermediate step. Yeah? Okay, over here.

Student: According to Mill, only individual people can decide for themselves what makes them happy.

Professor Ian Shapiro: According to Mill only individuals can decide for themselves what makes them happy. That is also correct, but there’s still another step in this that I want us to focus on that neither of you has mentioned yet. Yeah?

Student: Maybe that individuals, knowing their own desires, will bargain with one another, using their freedom to gain the mutual maximum utility.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Well, that’s a very good point, and that is where the identity with the Pareto principle comes in. If you leave people alone, right, they will do what they want with themselves or with others, and so what Mill’s harm principle allows in politics is this sort of analog of what we were calling Pareto superior in economics.

That’s also true, but it’s not what I was looking for right now, though there’s no reason you should know that because you can’t read my mind. But there’s another step. Think back to the big picture. The big picture is all these Enlightenment theories are committed both to the freedom of individual and to scientific truth, right? Mill is an Enlightenment thinker of the first order. If you flip through your whole copy of On Liberty you’ll see — what is the longest chapter about? What is the longest chapter about? It’s probably half the book.

Student: Freedom of thought and discussion.

Professor Ian Shapiro: Freedom of thought and discussion, right. Freedom of speech. So why is freedom of speech so important? Because Mill thinks that is the path to the truth. Freedom of speech is the path to the truth. I want to spend a little bit of time on this because it’s really important. It’s really important for two reasons.

The first is you’re going to see a very different conception of science informing Mill’s work. Remember back to our discussion of the early Enlightenment of Hobbes, of Locke, of Bentham, that truth was equated with certainty. Remember, the seventeenth-century people had this weird root to this because it wasn’t what we think of as a priori truths, but things that were a product of wills and all that, right? But the early Enlightenment idea of science is to find certainty, right? Cartesian doubt, remember, is looking for propositions that cannot be doubted, things that can be known with certainty.

Mill is a fallibilist. Mill has a much more modern concept of science, the one that you intuitively have, which says, first of all, that all knowledge is corrigible, all propositions have to be evaluated by reference to evidence in the scientific method, and we could always be wrong in our attempts to do that. So a very important move in the history of the philosophy of science, in this regard, was to move away from talking about what philosophers used — they used the word verificationism, proving that a scientific theory is correct, and instead starting to talk about falsificationism, proving that it hasn’t yet been falsified.

And so any of you who takes a statistics course in the social sciences will know what you have is a hypothesis, an empirical hypothesis, saying high tax rates lead to inflation. And you go and you’ll test it against the evidence. And you’ll have some other hypothesis that will be called the competing hypothesis, or the null hypothesis, and all you’ll ever be able to say is that your hypothesis hasn’t been shown to be false. You’ll never know for certain that some other hypothesis couldn’t do better, okay?

So falsificationism is the idea that would eventually become associated with the philosopher Karl Popper who we don’t read in this course. But it’s this idea that knowledge claims are corrigible. All of our knowledge claims might be wrong, and the scientific attitude involves recognizing that and acting accordingly. So the mature Enlightenment conception of science means you have to be committed to finding the truth as an ongoing quest, and this is really important for Mill, okay? So freedom of speech is really important for Mill as a path to the truth, as the path to the truth.

Now, that’s one reason it’s important. The second is that Mill injects into a desirable political system, the importance of argument, arguing. And this is going to come up again and again in the course, particularly in the last section when we get to democratic theory. When I say Mill talks about the importance of argument, this is very different from deliberation. It’s not the idea that we should all get together, and hold hands, and sing Kumbaya, and see what we can agree about. That’s the sort of deliberative ideal, right? Deliberation. Argument is, how many here have seen Prime Minister’s Questions on TV, right? That’s argument, okay? Or Crossfire, the TV program, that’s argument, where people hurl the best criticisms they can come up with against the other side. It’s not surprisingly where Mill is often held to be responsible for the metaphor of the competition of ideas. These are two very different models of the role of speech in politics.

Just to give you an example of what’s at stake here, there’s a lot of experimental work that’s been done by social psychologists on this question. So suppose there’s a field and in the middle of the field there is a cow, and we’re all standing around the field looking at the cow. And the question is, what does the cow weigh? And think about two ways of tackling this question. One would be that we all discuss — “What do you think the cow weighs? What do you think it weighs?” — and we eventually reach some agreement upon what we think the cow weighs and we go with that number. The second approach would be to say we don’t talk to each other at all. Each of us looks at the cow and makes our own best judgment about what the cow weighs. We add them all up and divide it by the number of people.

Which method do you think is more likely to get the weight of the cow accurate? How many people think the deliberative method? Hands up for the deliberative method. Okay, it looks like about a third of you. How many for the non-deliberative additive method? Okay, so you win two-to-one. Well, it turns out you’re right. It turns out that the non-deliberative additive method gets the answer right almost exactly, where the deliberative method goes all over the place.

Now, there’s lots of speculation about why. Now, one reason could be, well, the trouble with the deliberative method is it’s going to lead people to listen to strong personalities, or people who think they know more than they do. Leonid over there says, “Look, I grew up on a farm. Don’t tell me about cows. I know everything there is to know about cows, what do you people know? And I say that cow weighs 1500 pounds.” And then a lot of other people say, “Well, he did. He grew up on a farm. What do I know?” And so maybe opinion gets swayed in that way. That’s one possible reason. People may copy what other people say just because they don’t know, etcetera. But for whatever reason, and we could speculate, and when we come to talk about deliberative democracy later we’ll go into it more.

I just wanted to flag this distinction that argument is not deliberation, okay? And so when Mill talks about argument it’s rather this idea that everybody makes their own independent judgment. He wants our capacity to make that judgment to be strengthened, but that’s not the same thing as deliberation. He wants us to have our own individual robust judgments and trust them, okay? That is his ideal, and we should never ever kowtow to the opinions of others. This is not a deliberative model.

And indeed, Mill gives us four reasons for thinking that freedom of speech is important.

Chapter 2. Four Reasons Why Freedom of Speech Is Important [00:24:37]

For one thing he says here — this is the point about fallibilism — he says if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion, for all we might know, might be true. “To deny that is to assume our own infallibility.” So science is not about certainty, it’s not about faith, right? It’s recognizing that whatever we say might be wrong.

Secondly, though a silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions (that’s Prime Minister’s Questions, that is Crossfire, the collision of adverse opinions) that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. […] Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

That is, you don’t want to only get the right answer. You want to get the right answer for the right reason. If you copy somebody’s math assignment when you can’t do the problem you have the right answer, but you haven’t got the right answer for the right reason.

And not only this, but; fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of all its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma of becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience.

So you can say that Mill is, in some ways, what we would think of today as a libertarian. He’s got this idea of freedom of speech. We should all be left alone to do as we like without interference from the state except when the state stops others from interfering with us, right, what Nozick will later call the night-watchman state of liberal theory, this negative-freedom, standard libertarian view.

On the other hand, he’s also a kind of romantic individualist, right? He sees individual human flourishing. Somebody said here, “The path to happiness. Everybody knows their own sources of utility. Nobody can tell you what makes you happy.” This is the link to Stevenson we were talking about last time. I can’t tell you what should be in your utility function. I don’t know. No interpersonal comparisons of utility, that’s the link to Pareto. So you can see in all of these fields this move to — it’s not mere subjectivism, it’s the romantic celebration of subjectivism, right? The full flourishing of your potential can only happen if you are allowed total freedom of speech, of anything you want to do so long as you don’t harm others.

And this is important not just for your own individual utility function, but also because that’s how society learns the truth, and truth is going to be important for the pursuit of utility. You need these tough-minded critics. Whereas for Locke we were all miniature gods who have maker’s knowledge about creation, for Mill we’re all miniature scientists. We’ve got to have the critical attitude, and you can’t get a critical attitude if you’re copying other people’s math. You have to be able to defend your reasoning to all comers. You have to stand there like Gordon Brown at question time and have people hurl counter examples at you, not people who are trying to get your agreement, okay? It’s the combat of ideas, the clash of ideas. The truth comes out as a by-product of that just as in the invisible hand theory of markets the truth is a by-product, efficiency is a by-product of lots of individual transactions, right?

So that is the connection, if you like, between Mill’s idea of the importance of each individual getting the truth for themselves and the Pareto principle. In both cases it’s an invisible hand explanation, which says as a byproduct of this utilitarian efficiency is maximized. That’s why the chapter on freedom of speech is central to this doctrine.

Chapter 3. Problems with Defining Harm and Mill’s Harm Principle [00:30:08]

Okay, so all well and good, you might say, but how many read to the end, the chapter on applications? It all starts to unravel, it seems, once we get to the chapter on applications. Here Mill says,

In many cases, an individual, in pursuing a legitimate object, necessarily and therefore legitimately causes pain or loss to others, or intercepts a good which they had a reasonable hope of attaining. Such opposition of interest between individuals often arise from bad social institutions, but are unavoidable while those institutions last; and some would be unavoidable under any institutions. Whoever succeeds in an overcrowded profession, or in a competitive examination; whoever is preferred to another in any contest for an object which both desire, reaps benefit from the loss of others, from their wasted exertion and disappointment. But it is, by common admission, better for the general interest of mankind, that persons should pursue their objects undeterred by this sort of consequences, in other words, society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors, to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere, only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit; namely, fraud or treachery, and force.

What’s the problem with all of that? It’s not exactly eloquent, but what’s the problem there? Isn’t there a problem? Maybe there’s no problem. That’s called a clue. What’s the problem? Yeah?

Student: According to this couldn’t you reason that something like the Holocaust was okay if it’s in the general interest of mankind, or any kind of…

Professor Ian Shapiro: Yeah. It’s a big problem, right? I mean, didn’t he say earlier on that people can’t be coerced into accepting results just because the majority believes it? And he went out of his way, he went out of way to say whether it’s the actions of the majority or the moral coercion of public opinion, but here he’s saying, “But it is by common admission better that we have competitive exams. Of course the people who don’t get the job are harmed, but it’s too bad.” Seems like a contradiction. No? Give another example:

Again, trade is a social act. Whoever undertakes to sell any description of goods to the public, does what affects the interest of other persons, and society in general; and thus his conduct, in principle, comes within the jurisdiction of society: accordingly, it was once held to be the duty of governments, in all cases which were considered of importance, to fix prices, and regulate the process of manufacture. But (I love this passive voice) it is now recognized, though not till after a long struggle, that both the cheapness and the good quality of commodities are more effectually provided for by leaving the producers and sellers perfectly free, under the sole check of equal freedom to the buyers for supplying themselves elsewhere. This is the so-called doctrine of Free Trade, which rests on grounds different from, though equally solid with, the principle of individual liberty asserted in this Essay.

Same problem, right? It is now recognized, by whom? Why should we believe that? And more importantly, aren’t we supposed to be protected from the dominant view, right? So, free trade. We think about the arguments we have today. This is a century later. The arguments we have about outsourcing. Yes, they harm the interests of American workers when they move factories to Mexico, but Mill said, “Yeah, it’s true, but free trade’s better.” It’s better from the standpoint of utilitarianism. Big problem, it seems.

You think Mill was just actually not that smart, he didn’t see this huge contradiction? Sort of, right, the minute you start to apply this doctrine it all just turns to sand? Anyone think there’s a way out of this for Mill? Well, people have been struggling with this ever since he wrote it because it does seem to be a big problem, but on the other hand the allure of this rights-utility synthesis is so great that people want to find a way to solve it.

And I think this is how Mill thought about this: there’s no contradiction at all. I think that Mill thinks in terms of a two-step test. Step one, as you say, of any proposed action, is there going to be harm to somebody else? So, smoking marijuana, or in more, I guess, contextually appropriate at the time, prohibition. This is a case that Mill considered in what you read. If you go to your room and you get paralytically drunk or you get stoned, and you sleep it off, you’re not harming anybody. So it’s protected. So Mill was a libertarian in that sense, and he opposed prohibition which was a very live issue when he was writing.

But there are a lot of activities where it’s inevitable that there’s going to be harm. Yes, it’s true that protectionism harms some people, but any trade regime is going to harm some people, right? So, I’m sorry; free trade harms American workers, but protectionism harms African workers or Indonesian workers, right? Whatever you do for a trade policy somebody’s going to be harmed, or whatever system you have for giving away jobs in the civil service, whoever doesn’t get the job’s going to be harmed. If you have pure competition the people who don’t get the highest scores are going to be harmed. If you have job reservation for whites, as they had in South Africa, then blacks are not going to get the jobs. If you have affirmative action to remedy past injustices in the Connecticut Fire Department, then the people who would otherwise have gotten the jobs are going to be harmed as the Supreme Court said last year.

So Mill’s point is you first make an inquiry. Is there a harm? If the answer’s no, the action’s self-regarding and it’s protected. Free speech doesn’t hurt anybody. That’s why it’s so important to protect it. Indeed, he wants to say the externalities of free speech are positive. Free speech doesn’t hurt anybody. Drinking doesn’t hurt anybody. Now, some of you might question that. You might say, well, if you go to a bar and you get paralytically drunk, and you then get behind the wheel of a car, and you go home and you kill somebody, drinking does harm. What do you think Mill would say to that? I think Mill would say, “Well, that’s a reason to penalize drunk driving, but not drinking,” right? So I think that’s what he’d say to that.

But, so the first step is you ask, is there a harm to others? If the answer’s no, it’s protected by the harm principle. If the answer’s yes, there’s a harm to others, then you make a utilitarian calculation as to what’s best for society. So if there’s a harm to others then you make the utilitarian calculation, and that’s why it’s important to have good science. Because when you make the utilitarian calculation you want to bring the best scientific knowledge to bear on making that calculation. He doesn’t trust majority opinion, right? He wants to say, “Free trade is better than protectionism. We now know that as a matter of economic science,” when he was writing. “If somebody could come along and show that there’s something other than free trade that would be even better then we would pick that,” okay?

So it’s not the case that he wants to say this is infallible knowledge or known for all time, “But, for the moment, the best scientific judgment, when I am writing this book on liberty,” Mill says, “is that free trade maximizes utility.” So step one, is there a harm? If no, it’s protected. If yes, then you make the utilitarian calculation, and then it’s important to have good science behind you, not majority opinion, right? And that’s why freedom of speech is the pathway from liberty to utilitarian efficiency. And that’s why all good things go together in Mill’s account, and we can have this hunky-dory synthesis of rights and utility. Great, right? Now, we’re going to go more deeply into this question on Wednesday, whether it is all hunky-dory, because I’ve said now, well, there’s a two-step test for determining harm, and that makes sense, and it makes the apparent contradiction go away, and I think it is the best reconstruction of what Mill wanted to say even though he could have said it more clearly if he had come out and done that.

Nonetheless, there’s still the question of who gets to decide what counts as a relevant harm. I said you do the first stage, is there harm? But just from the little example I gave of drunken driving and drinking you can see that this might be problematic. One of the things I want you to think about between now and Wednesday, some other examples such as prostitution. Does that involve harm to others or not? Okay, I don’t want to answer that now. Just think about it. I want to ask you that.

[end of transcript]

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