Following the disastrous performance of the Liberal Democrats in the recent British election, concern has been expressed that ‘core liberal values’ have to be kept alive in British politics. At the same time, the Labour Party has already begun a process of critical self-examination that would almost certainly move it to what they consider more centrist ground—and there has been some talk of Labour and the Liberal rump forming some sort of alliance. Even so, it is clear that this is not vacant ground, but ground they want to contest with David Cameron, who currently holds more sway there. But is this ground really distinct from the ‘core liberal values’ that Liberals are so keen to defend? And in what sense is the election of evangelical Christian Tim Farron to the leadership of the Liberal Party compatible with ‘core liberal values’?
How would we identify those values? We can talk about liberty, equality, the defence of the individual against unwarranted encroachment by the state, the promotion of education, the tolerance and freedom of speech—but what do these big ideas actually entail in the messy realities of practical politics in the early twenty-first century? How do we translate abstract values into practical policies? What sort of limits have to be placed on individual liberty to protect national and collective security? How much does formal equality before the law require a range of other dimensions in order to be fully realized? What are the limits of tolerance for non-liberal cultures within a liberal state?(For example, should France’s stand on the niqab or burka be replicated in Britain?)
One might think that a return to earlier liberal thinking in this day and age is merely an intellectual indulgence, but that is partly because we are often poor readers of our precursors. Although John Stuart Mill does not have off-the-peg solutions to multiculturalism, benefits traps, or terrorism in the modern state, he remains the founding father of secular liberal thought, and his approach remains wholly pertinent. We are used to reading him as a defender of individual liberty, as an advocate of utilitarianism (with some sense of tension), and we use his work as an often brilliant source book for ideas about political and moral philosophy. But we too often mistake him for a secular liberal universalist—a claim that fails to grasp the complexity of his thinking, and its rootedness in wider sociological traditions of European thought.
Mill’s liberal principles were partly a response to what he saw as the distinctive possibilities and difficulties arising in the age in which he lived. His key essays are best understood, not as inter-related arguments developing a universal framework for ethical and political thought, but as forays into issues that he saw as particularly troubling: the oppression of the individual by the masses, the subjection of women, the need for institutional design to combine democratic participation with responsible decision-making, and so on. The solutions he advanced were not intended to apply to all societies irrespective of their development or conditions. They were pointed proposals to deal with particular evils or realize certain potential goods, in the particular context in which he wrote.
That means that we can learn greatly from him, but that we also have to do some work. We need serious debate about these ‘core values’ and how to realize them in our particular historical context. Understanding Mill better will help us see that the idea of a political spectrum being adequately captured by a single axis of left-to right makes no sense, given the plurality of the values we are committed to, the conflict between those pluralities, and the conflict between policies that increasingly realize these pluralities. As Mill makes clear in Utilitarianism and On Liberty, the world of value is plural, contested, and complex. If the lode star is some idea of individual happiness rooted in a conception of the full development of individual potential, that is not an especially powerful guide, since the content of that idea is something that is historically conditioned, deeply influenced by the challenges and opportunities that a society presents to its members, and is something that changes over time.
Mill may not, then, provide us with answers for our time. But he does provide us with some of the best material to reflect on the problems of our society and the possibilities we face. He makes us think harder and more critically about the idea that there is some list of indefeasible goods or rights that apply in every society. Moreover, he does so while sustaining a conception of the core ethical criteria that must enter into the assessment we make of what can and should be done, here and now, in relation to particular challenges.
The partisan world of Westminster politics was one that Mill found challenging during his brief period as an MP. But he brought an intelligence and judgment to debates that is now rarely seen. He did so partly because he was a deep and systematic thinker, because he was open-minded and tolerant, because he did not think the happiness of the few should be sacrificed to that of the manyor vice versa, and because he was historically and sociologically aware that his time had a particular character, calling for particular measures. The sloppy generalities of most politicians and commentators, the sound-bite filled 24/7 news culture that they live in and exacerbate, and the shabby appeal to partisanship rather than principle, threaten to further deplete the trust of ordinary people in the political process. Doing that will leave us open to abuse, as values of fairness, equality, tolerance, and respect for the individual are not an inheritance that we can take for granted; they are an increasingly fragile cultural legacy that has either failed to take root, or has yet to take root in the majority of countries around the world.
Keeping ‘core liberal values’ alive is not simply a case of rehearsing standard pieties. It demands deep and challenging thought about what is required in this particular historical situation, in order to protect and advance the potential for the success of all of its members against a range of potential threats, including members from the state as well as forces outside the state. Mill has no simple solutions to our problems, but understanding his thinking cannot fail to improve our own.
Image Credit: “Old Books” by ChristopherPluta. Public Domain via Pixabay.