Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Liberty, and not in Bells

with 4 comments

So, at the moment I’m sitting in the new Tech building, which has the most wonderful computers I’ve ever been able to play with, and I’m waiting for my very last section to come in and get their final grades.  And I’ve been thinking that it was odd that John Oliver mentioned John Stuart Mill, because in a sense he’s at the very heart of the problems we’re having at the moment, both inside and outside the academy.

It was actually Jeremy Bentham, one of Mill’s father’s closest friends and one of Mill’s teachers, who invented utilitarianism and came up with that bit about “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  That formulation was vague enough, and unworkable, but it was a paragon of clear thinking next to what Mill came up with in On Liberty.  In a way, On Liberty is the founding document of all modern social liberalism, as opposed to the classical kind.  To the extent that people like Locke dealth with social issues at all, it was mostly to say that if we limited the power of the state, the power of custom and social intercourse would go a long way to regulate our morals.  That is, men could be free of the law, but such freedom did not guarantee the approval or even the non-interference of their neighbors. 

Mill declared that such freedom was not really freedom at all–what did it matter if we did away with laws punishing promiscuous fornication, if the people around us still felt it was their right to condemn our behavior and shun us because of it?  No, no.  That wasn’t freedom.  That was the dead hand of the past stifling all our liberty, and real liberty would only be achieved when our neighbors understood that they had no right to judge our behavior

The language of On Liberty is so radical, and so much more radical than anything Mill wrote earlier, that many scholars have suggested that he didn’t write it at all.  They finger Harriet Taylor, his wife, with whom he had a long-time relationship while she was still married to another man.  It was Taylor, these scholars say, who was so extreme, as a result of the social pressure she was under before her first husband died and she was able to marry the man she had no intention of giving up.

I don’t know whether it really matters if Mill wrote this on his own or if Taylor wrote it, or if they collaborated, which is what he said happened not only on this but on most of the work he produced after he met her.  The fact is that this is a roaringly bad and unworkable idea, and at the present moment it is having a rip roaring vogue.

Sort of.

I say sort of because in spite of rolling out Mill’s arguments whenever they come in handy, this is one of the most judgmental ages in our history, and it seems to be getting more so by the minute.  There are so many people with so many moral agendas screaming at the top of their lungs no matter who does what when, it’s difficult to remember that there was ever a time when we actually tried not to poke into other people’s private business any more than was absolutely necessary to keep the streets clear of drunk drivers.

In the anglophone sphere–and you’ll notice that practically every canonical work of liberal democracy comes out of the anglophone sphere; there’s something there that would be worth looking into at some point–at any rate, in this part of Western Civilization, liberty has always been a negative article.  It has always been defined as what the government is prevented from stopping you from doing.  Germany may think you have a “right” to health care and Holland may think you have a “right” to food and shelter, but in most anglophone countries there is a division between rights-in-law and natural rights.

I find this division a good idea on several counts, but what I want to get to herre is something else, and that is the assumption underlying Mill’s dictum that we are not really free to pursue a course of action if the people around us disapprove of it.  Even though there are no laws forbidding it, even though we cannot be fined or sent to jail for what we do, if our neighbors disapprove, if they go so far as to tell us we’re behaving badly–then we’re not really free. 

The assumption that strikes me here is that we are only “free” if we meet no obstacles in the way of whatever we want to do.  And I mean none, none at all.  In the immediate circumstance, what Mill is worried about seems small.  I find myself getting enormously impatient with his fear of public opinion.  If you have any kind of principles at all, and try to live up to them, and try to defend them, some people will hate you for it.  Bitching about it is like complaining that if you eat a lot of candy, you gain weight.

But if you follow this thought to its logical conclusion, what you find is a fundamental principle that by definition destroys all others–we are all constrained by circumstances and heredity, whether we like it or not.  My liberty is limited because I am not “free” to become an NBA basketball player  I’m short and congenitally uncoordinated.  If you stuck me up on a stepladder directly next to the basket, I’d probably still miss. 

I’m not free in most other ways, either.  My own convictions restrain me in some cases–I teach, and I get sick of teaching, but once I’ve committed to a class I’m going to finish it.  Other people’slives are depending on me, if only in the sense that they need the remedial credit to get into a regular degree program, and they’ve depending on me to provide it, and I promised I would.   I’m not free to ignore the other people around me, either, both because to do so would violate my convictions (again) and because society would definitely not be nonjudgmental if I did–the people around me expect me, as a mother, to put my children first, to make sure they’re fed before eating all the food myself. 

Well, okay, it’s never come down to that.  But you see what I mean.

But Mill’s little pamphlet provided the basis for a reflexive emotional stance towards personal liberty that is worse than destructive.  It’s sometimes lethal.

There seem to be enormous numbers of people wandering around out there who think it’s just not fair that they can’t do what they want the way they want to do it:  that they have to actual study and produce work to get a degree; that they have to give up catting around to take care of a baby; that they don’t have any money if they don’t do any work.

Which brings me to what’s been going through my head today, because it’s been on the news a lot and I really can’t ignore the news. 

Sometime in the past several days they’ve found the remains of little Caylee Anthony,  the two year old girl who has been missing for months while her single mother declared that she was abducted by a babysitter.  The case is actually rather complicated, and Casey Anthony, the child’s mother, is a train wreck, but what’s been on my mind is the police suggestion of what most likely happened.

It seems that it’s fairly common among some younger single mothers who find beinging up a child rather confining, to give their small children a good dose of chloroform before going out to a club.  The child sleeps for hours.  The mothers wonder in drunk and stoned at dawn.  After all–they’re young, don’t they have a right to have fun?

Okay, I’m being a little incoherent here.  Part of that is Caylee Anthon–I couldn’t get the url to print in WordPress, or I would have sent you to a story about the case–and part ofthat is that this is the end of my term, and my students are largely little bags of resentment.

Because this is what this attitude causes, not happiness, and not the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but resentment, a life in which nothing is ever okay because nothing is ever fair.

Kala Christouyina.

Tomorrw, I’m going to have a fit about adjuncts, I think.

Written by janeh

December 22nd, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Liberty, and not in Bells'

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  1. If Mill put his name to another person’s work, he may rightfully be deprived of full credit, but he cannot escape full blame.
    It’s a difficulty with the Victorians: great explorers, engineers, businessmen and many other things, but all the major intellectual figures seem determined to take an axe to the tree of liberty. And often, as in this instance, they simply won’t think things through. Am I free, if I may not express my disapproval of something? Heinlein was much closer when he wrote that “Real fredom begins by tellimg Mrs. Grundy to go take a hike”–clearly not a view of matters which appealed to Mill, or to many others today. Neither would Ayn Rand’s “Judge and be prepared to be judged.”
    Interested parties might want to look at this week’s ECONOMIST, which in honor or the impending 150th year since the publication of THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, discusses the evolutionary roots of–among other things–homicide among young men and the incidence of child-murder among young single mothers. Many things are both natural and rightly forbidden.

    But perhaps the last word might go to William Goldman: “Life is not fair. But consider the alternative.”


    22 Dec 08 at 7:08 pm

  2. I once shocked and annoyed a group of teenagers by pointing out that complaining that something wasn’t fair was pretty pointless, because life wasn’t fair.

    I hadn’t heard about the chloroform and young children – I’d have thought almost any over-the-counter or even prescription sleeping or cold drug would be both easier to access and easier to use than chloroform. But the idea isn’t new – Victorian women used laudanum, IIRC, or straight alcohol. Less callous or desperate mothers today use TV to quiet down the little darlings. I don’t have children, but observation has taught me that raising them well is incredibly difficult and exhausting, especially in the early years, and I have never had the slightest inclination to try to do it alone.

    I really think adoption has gotten a bad rap. It can go bad – I have a friend who supports abortion over adoption because of an adoption that went very, very wrong. But around here, young women with a baby and with little or no ability or interest in raising it are pressured socially into keeping the child even when they might otherwise have relinquished it – a woman who gives up a child is a bad mother, and by extension, not a proper woman at all. So they keep the baby, maybe get an government allowance and an apartment – and discover that staying up all night with a teething baby and struggling to pay for diapers AND their own needs and desires isn’t as much fun as living the way their friends so.

    I do think that a lot of people do have the idea that in order to be free, they must not only be able to indulge in whatever behaviour they want, they shouldn’t be criticized for it. It’s their right. I’m a little ambivalent about this, because gossip and backbiting can be extremely cruel and destructive. OTOH, I don’t think everyone else in the world has to hold their tongue if they don’t like something I do or say. If I’m convinced that I should allow my child to be adopted (or raise it alone), of course people are going to criticize me. And for such a big decision, affecting a helpless child, I should consider their criticisms. Why should I be immune from comment?

    I read a very interesting book some years ago that used the seven deadly sins as a tool to understand human nature and criticize certain forms of psychiatry. That sounds a bit weird, put like that, but I found it fascinating. Maybe it’s time to re-read it. It’s an argument in favour of using values, I suppose you’d say, as part of psychotherapy. So a woman who drugs her baby so she can have a good time would be approached on a moral level as well as by dealing with whatever else she had going on in her life.

    http://snipurl.com/90hx6 [www_amazon_ca]

    I’m not doing the book justice.

    I liked ‘Wounds not healed by time’, too. I see he’s got a relatively new one out. I must look for it.


    22 Dec 08 at 7:28 pm

  3. Hmm, I mentioned John Stuart Mills because Jane mentioned him in her post about Mary Kay and Hestor Phyrne (I’m sorry for the mispellings)

    Its been 25 years since I read On Liberty and I don’t have a copy. I had to google for The Harm Principle because I remember it as referring to government and not both government and society.

    One weakness is how to define harm to others. For example, Australia provides free care in public hospitals. Of course, its not really free since its paid for by taxes. One could argue that laws requiring people to wear seat belts do reduce the costs of providing medical care to people injured in car accidents.


    23 Dec 08 at 2:08 am

  4. I think you’re confusing Hester Prynne with Phryne Fisher!

    Utilitarianism is tempting because it seems so fair, but from what little I know of it, I think it’s fatally flawed because of problems you get into when defining ‘greatest good’ – and ‘number’ is not exactly immune from debate, as anyone who has argued about whether or not ‘numbers warrant’ the local provision of some civic service could testify!

    I hadn’t realized that there might have been some cross-fertilization between utilitarianism and the absolute freedom idea. They don’t seem a natural fit to me – if you’re going to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, the smaller number aren’t going to be totally free of the impact of that effort.

    I don’t like, what’s the right term? Publicly funded health care?, being called ‘free’, because, as you point out, it isn’t. I’ve been happily paying in since I started working, so I can claim health care. Fortunately, I think so far I’ve paid for more than I’ve claimed, and I’d like to keep it that way.

    We do need to fight against the tendencies of some people to legislate the actions of others so as to minimize the ‘harm’ of higher charges to the system. Seatbelt laws may or may not reduce the cost of providing medical care – I don’t think that’s a reason to do it. Reducing the chance of injury, sure, that’s a good reason for such laws. They then come under public health, like requiring access to drinkable water and roads with all kinds of design features to reduce accidents.

    I wouldn’t go to far with that, though. Sometimes efforts to protect the public involve protection against extremely small risks. The cafeteria in my workplace has started giving out plastic cutlery carefully and hygienically sealed in plastic. Has ANYONE ever caught a disease from a plastic spoon taken from the shipping crate and placed in a cafeteria bin??


    23 Dec 08 at 9:18 am

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