What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong About Freedom

Graham Tomlin wrote a piece for Prospect, upon which I comment and whence comes the title of this post. Always the deconstructivist curmudgeon, it seems, I agree with Tomlin’s assertion that Mill was wrong, but so is Tomlin.

In a nutshell, Tomlin makes the argument that the Ancients had it right, and the Enlightenment derailed it. Tomlin wants to return to the days of yore when the artifice of character and virtue ruled the day, a time when men were men and women were women. A return to the good ole days.

Tomlin waxes poetic, nostalgiac to a time that never was, a time that the prescription was to chase windmills of virtue and amass the currency of character. But character as currency is more unstable than Bitcoin.

Don Quixote Tilting Windmills

Is there anything more capricious than the held perception of character? Is there anything more futile than chasing the vicious cycle of virtue, always searching for that deserving true Scotsman?

Character is a term especially bandied about by political Conservatives, although Progressives tend to play the #MeToo game because it’s a game of appearances. It doesn’t matter what you do; it only matters what it looks like you do.

And even this is a game. Time and again politicians ‘slip’ (read: get caught), they apologise for the temporary lapse, and ask for forgiveness. Whether or not they keep their position, they are still forgiven and may return to their position learning their lesson (read: don’t get caught again). Let’s just dispense with the formalities.

Percaption is reality

In Plato’s day, he holds out four moral virtues to pursue: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence.

Courage: the resolve to act virtuously, especially when it is most difficult

Temperance: moderation in all things; the middle path

Justice: to render every man what’s due

Prudence: application of practical wisdom

Courage seems to be caught in an infinite loop, as it essentially says to exercise temperance, justice, and prudence in the face of danger. Typically, courage is associated with heroic acts, though I fail to see the connection to rescuing a baby from a burning building with any of these other virtues. Perhaps the definition has morphed over the years. Everyone needs a hero. Only Zeus needs a Hera.

Temperance is to find the middle ground: eat but not too much; drink but not too much; rape but not too much; kill but not too much. Is there really a middle ground for all things? In traversing a canyon, shouldn’t one stay close to the edge—or what about sidewalks? Is it temperance that led US President Donald Trump to declare that Nazis and white supremacists. are ‘some very fine people‘, or does he just lack prudence?

Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due.

Justinian — Institutes 1.1

Justice I’ve written about at some length so I won’t spend any additional time here.

Common sense is not so common.

Voltaire

Prudence, which advises one to use common sense, relies on a rare jewel. As Voltaire wrote, « le sens commun est fort rare ».

Perhaps I’m just too hard on people, but I find that most people are pretty dimwitted outside of some small area of focus, and I have to agree with Voltaire’s position on common sense. This is why as an economist, I find it so difficult to accept the homo economicus assertion so key for modern microeconomic theory and why behavioural economics has become a bigger deal in the past 30 years as more and more social scientists realise that people are predictably irrational.

Thanks but no thanks. There’s got to be a better way.

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The Ones Who Walk Away

As a (slightly) more considered response to Marvin Edwards’ comment in response to a prior post: ‘I’m working under the presumption that “the best good and least harm for everyone” is behind every rule that our consequentialists have created…’, I wanted to bring to the forefront the adolescent-appropriate short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (PDF). Among the key themes,  author Ursula K Le Guin paints a thought experiment that showcases the weakness of the foundation of Utilitarianism.

To summarise, Omelas is a utopian city, and the residents are copacetic—all but one. The one is a veritable scapegoat. The one suffers all of the pain, to create a system wherein the best good and the least harm could be experienced. Whilst the concept breaks down well before this scale, this thought experiment illustrates the absurdity of the claim.At a more basic (and classic) level, we can simply look at the various trolley experiments or the conceptual dilemma proposed in the scenario wherein some number—4 and 5 seem to be popular—of ill people may be saved at the expense of 1 healthy one.

At a more conceptual level, at its inception in the Age of Reason by Bentham and Mill, a time where Scientism was wrestling the reins from the Age of Superstition Scholasticism, utililty was thought to be able to be quantified and measured. As with other non-ontic concepts, it can’t be.

As with other non-ontic concepts, utility is specious. Like a Pointillist painting, it looks coherent at a distance, but upon any scrutiny, it becomes incoherent, and the best an adherent can do is to step back until it again feels rational, arguing that to get any closer is to make perfection the enemy of the good. But that’s not the point, to ask for a workable definition prior to engaging in discourse is not about perfection; it’s creating a common basis for discussion. Utility offers little utility.

Henri Cross - Three Nudes
Henri Cross – Three Nudes

Utilitarianism

As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.

£1 ≠ £1

The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.

I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.

Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):

  1. Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.

  2. Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.

Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a.,  gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.

This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.