|READING GUIDE TO:
Ryan, A (1974)
J S Mill, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
My own interests will also be clear: I want to defend the notion of a rational account of ethics or morals against various traditions which wish to make it all mysterious, intuitive, or personal. Needless to say, however I don't accept Mill's formulation of science as exhaustive of rationality, and I want to link this discussion particularly with 'Critical Theory's' attack on positivism. You might be interested in seeing this differently -- as an early attempt to develop a scientific sociology and wrestle with some problems. In this respect, Mill's work is still surprisingly relevant.
Ryan's arguments are often related to other famous philosophers -- sometimes this is useful and sometimes it is rather annoying. I also get cross when he criticises Mill for not giving an account that squares with 'everyday usage'. So who cares? As usual, I have added my own comments, and these are usually enclosed in square brackets.
Mill is a self - conscious systematiser. The only alternative to explicit systematic thinking for him is to allow concealed constraints by an implicit system -- unexamined assumptions and prejudices. Mill particularly attacked 'intuitionism' (the belief that there were self-evident truths, axioms that were true because it was inconceivable to deny them). As an example, intuitionists believed that there must simply be a law of universal causation, since it was literally inconceivable to think of an event without a cause. Mill believed in a law of universal causation too, but argued that it had to be discovered empirically, and proved by logic (by induction, as we shall see). Views like intuitionism really offered a disguise for prejudice, privilege, and reactionary politics. Mill believed we could and should try to be rational instead of relying upon such prejudice -- we should have reasons for what we do, and action should be explicable (in particular, deducible from scientific laws) and thus justifiable.
This leads Mill to develop a philosophy of science. As with the model of science of the day -- Newtonian physics -- this led him to embrace atomism, induction, inference, and the need for scientific laws and so on. Attempts to apply this scientific view to morals involves all sorts of problems, however. For example, how can we be scientific and allow individual freedom? What should a social science actually look like? Relations between science and what Mill called the 'Art of Life' were particularly interesting.
Ryan's Chapter 7 pursues some of these issues. How can one develop a science and ethics, and still believe in individual liberty and freedom? Mill's science is deterministic, causal, and mechanistic. However, he still thought that this would allow for individual freedom. Why?
So here we have a causal account of action that allows for will and human agency (seen as implementing, modifying, or becoming causes of human action). Ryan's criticisms of this view are rather flabby -- I have added some good sociological points in square brackets.
All these problems arise from Mill's atomism and his belief in universal causality. In a sense, it is still a crude physical determinism that is being advanced here. [I think more plausible denials of human agency, or justifications of a science of action are found in the vaguer or more ambiguous notions of social determinism in classic sociological theory -- in Durkheim, structuralism and so on, and until we've grasped these, we have failed to uncover real constraints. Mill's view of abstract freedom and physical causes seems very open to charges of ideological distortion as a result -- men seem to be free, subject only to the laws of the universe and so on, with real social constraints not analysed].
Mill's Philosophy of Science
This can only be brief. Ryan's Chapter 8 sets out Mill's objections to Bentham's and James Mill's uses of a 'geometry' which begins with axioms about human nature [e.g. that they seek pleasure and avoid pain], and deduces statements about economic and social activity from them. Such exercises are arbitrary and selective, leading, for example, to a focus upon crude calculations of gain as the universal guide for human action. Further, they face serious logical problems involving the difficulty of assuming that social life now represents 'human nature' in a clear and unambiguous way. Mill argues that we cannot trace with any rigour any primary, or original human nature from current arrangements -- our 'original' state is simply too far away and long ago, for one thing. [We know of Marx's objection to Utilitarianism and political economy along these lines too, of course. Mill's objection is a useful one: it applies to any attempt to deduce anything about 'nature' from the existing state of society].
Mill's famous general arguments about scientific method [where he defends 'methodological individualism'] are well discussed in Ryan's chapter 1. We are concerned here with the implications of these for a science of ethics, and these implications are described in Ryan's Chapter 9:
We begin with psychological 'laws of mind' which are common to all human beings. There are only a few of these, but the actual possible combinations found in cultural or social life are immense . Any simple Benthamite deductions from these are thereby ruled out. You can only identify tendencies, [cultural ideal-types almost] and these can only be probabilistic. Prediction is impossible, and social events can only be traced to these laws of mind post hoc.
We need a consideration of concrete factors which might modify the pure laws of minds. This is what Mill called ethology. These middle level propositions are arrived at in two ways: first by inferring or inducing them from the existing facts about social practices in concrete societies, and second by seeing if they are consistent with the general laws of mind, acting as if they were deducible, so to speak. [They cannot in principle actually be strictly deducible, since the propositions of ethology are only one possible concrete manifestation of the laws of mind. They are never strictly necessary].
We can deduce more specific propositions from ethology. For example, we might wish to explain economic behaviour specifically, as kind of sub-set of behaviour. The specific behaviours are in turn only possibilities, and are not strictly deducible from what is known in ethology -- but they should be compatible with ethological principles. Incidentally, here Mill offers a critique of Bentham and of his father (James Mill), which is rather like Marx's in a way -- their error was to take economic behaviour as some kind of universal model for behaviour in general, and to leap from observations of economic behaviour to general laws. But economic behaviour is actually rather special in that it is particularly law-like and calculable. Behaviour in other areas, or, indeed, in other countries, need not be like this at all.
Mill's is also a curious method too, though. It works by weak inference, a kind of appeal to double consistency, a speculative attempt to ground specific actions and general propositions in some middle ground -- what Mill calls ' inverse deduction'. Its rationale is an attempt to use the apparatus of natural science (laws, causes, facts) but in a probabilistic and speculative way that leads not to rigid determinism but to a model of determinants plus concrete modifying events, which together produces actual social behaviour. This sort of thing has been attacked by Popper as 'psychological reductionist', as Ryan explains, but Mill does not offer a strict reductionism. Social, cultural, and historical events do modify the 'laws of mind' as in ethology. Mill can be better criticised for:
Politics as an Art
We have seen that Mill advocates rationality in politics rather than intuition or naturalism. We have seen he believes in reform, in gradual enlightenment and so on. We have seen he also believes in determinism. Politics must, therefore, be a rather ambiguous enterprise -- it is about rational practice which takes full account of determinism, yet it is also about improvement, freedom and choice. It is really about improving one's character but on a national scale, then? It must be about 'obstructing the causals', so to speak. It must be limited, not strictly deducible from science, and long, laborious, and difficult -- and doubtless best left to the wise.
Hence, a [dangerous] ambiguity persists -- politics is a science and ethics, an art involving the application of science, and also a moral science. Given the problems of grounding this science in strictly agreed public and debatable ways, this must surely leave open the possibility of any political practice being justifiable as a shrewd application of some immutable laws of human nature, or as a plausible inference from the ethological principles deduced by scientists. Apologetics and conservatism triumph after all, in practice at least? Nasty, irrational elements intrude at the core [a mere belief in universal causality and laws, an undiscussed socially-supported notion of plausible inference, and a highly dubious double shuffle between economics and laws of the mind]. Mill shows us the real limit of natural science as rationality -- but fails to develop an alternative rationality, so we're left having to choose between science or intuition.
I think the answer lies in serious examination of critical theory for a proper critique of scientific rationality and an alternative notion of rationality 'free from domination.'