READING GUIDE TO:  Ryan, A (1974) J S Mill, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

My selections are influenced mainly by the problem of the  'science of ethics' in the work of John Stuart Mill. Ryan argues that this also involves a wider discussion of how Mill conceived of science itself. The main sources in Mill include the System of Logic  (which is huge but skippable), and articles such as Hamilton ( in the Collected Works) in particular. 

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. 

Key issues

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? 

  1. First, causes do not necessarily constrain. A uniform sequence of events, as in a causal chain, need not involve irresistibility. Fatalism is rejected, as is the Owenite view that says that men are determined by their  'characters', and that thus they cannot be held to be morally responsible.  Mill says that a person can change their character, by exposing themselves to new influences (causes). 'Character' is causal, and it does cause us to do things if we let it, but we don't have to let it! Apart from anything else, we might have had a complex series of events exerting causal influences on our lives in different directions --and some of the causals might have led us to be especially self-reflective and self-critical. Of course, not everyone will have had this nice complex pluralist and highly-educated background [in fact probably only the elite have, which is why they might be especially important as 'the wise']--but at the very least, we can all, as a long, laborious, difficult and maybe limited project for some, obstruct these causals. The snag is, however, that our choice to deny our character might itself be really determined all along -- either by something in our character already, or by some form of social determinism. [For example Durkheim has always argued that deviance itself secretly conforms to elements in the collective consciousness]. 
  2. Predictability is often seen as a sign of complete determinism, or as a lack of freedom. Predictability makes a science of social life possible, and again, it is not inconsistent with freedom for Mill. Predictability could be the result of the consistent application of principles derived from freedom, rationality, and intelligence: as in Kant's view of freedom as the consistent application of a self-chosen rule of conduct. Ryan says that this contradicts the whole notion of moral responsibility, though, since it implies that people can act voluntarily in an unpredictable way -- this is where Mill is being criticised for not conforming with  'common-sense' notions of freedom and so on. [I prefer to think of Durkheim's criticisms of Kant for not realising that these moral rules owe their compulsion to the social nature of morality]. 
  3. Mill thinks that we always do what we want to do, that there is always freedom in principle if not in practice  [this reminds me of the later works of Giddens!].  What what looks like compulsion is often merely a summary of future, remote consequences which we wish to avoid -- 'I have to go to work' means 'I do not wish to incur the long-term consequences of not going to work'. In a curious way, though, these future remote consequences can be seen as causes of action, hence preserving determinism and causal analysis -- my wish to avoid future consequences causes me to go to work  [compare with Schutz on the need to carefully separate  'because' and  'in order to' motives, to avoid precisely this determinism]. 
Behind this notion is Mill's view of the causal theory of will. Mill denies an independent, autonomous will in human affairs. Instead, human actions are prompted by volitions. These are literally inner, psychological events, akin to physical events. Volitions are themselves causes of action and are caused by external events in their turn, including the influence of other people. So events lead to volitions which lead to action as a straightforward causal sequence. This makes action in human terms an exact parallel to Newtonian physics as an account of physical movements, of planets, molecules, objects and so on. 

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. 

  1. First, the abstract issues about freedom are OK, but what matters is what happens in practice, where the abstract freedom to resist or master or supplement the causes of one's actions is very limited. What constraints actually do exist to limit this abstract freedom?  [try Durkheim, Marx, or Freud].
  2. Secondly, some predictability does imply an absence of freedom, surely  [for example those produced by social patterns, stratified life chances, taken for granted cultural and structural imperatives and so on. Indeed some social theorists claim that individual freedom is itself a structural effect, of course]. 
  3. Third, a purely abstract notion of freedom of choice mystifies the real context of action. In some circumstances, I can choose, but this is far from supporting the view that I am always free. [The abstract nature of this freedom in principle can also be seen as a dangerous myth as with the notion of abstract rights -- to 'free' labour, 'free' press, free speech and so on]. 
The notion of  volitions as causes, producing a science of action, suffers from definite limits, which breaks the parallel with physical sciences. For example, we do not have independent control over these intermediate causes of action -- some are supplied ready made, as it were, as standard responses to cultural events. Apart from anything else, this means it is impossible in practice to separate out volitions and external events -- so we relapse into good external determinism again. Despite Mill's sophistication, the notion of volition is not a suitable term to allow for human agency.  Ambiguities exist in Mill anyway: sometimes volitions can stop causal chains, sometimes the execute or implement them. Anyway, there does seem to be something unusual about volitions as events. They actually initiate action, so they cannot be seen simply as a response to other antecedent events: they are, even by Mill's account, special events 

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: 

  • not investigating the social modifications thoroughly, as we have argued, and 
  • for operating with laws of mind at all -- could we not begin with ethology? Is there a need at all to produce underlying and general laws of mind? What are these laws anyway -- as Ryan points out, they seemed to be generalisations, statements of essences, tendencies and so on. Given such ambiguity, can logical propositions really be deduced, even in principle, from them? Do these laws cause specific events in ethology, and if so how? 
  • Ryan also accuses Mill of opting for causal accounts as the only rational account of human action -- there is no choice for him about adopting a scientific framework. But there are other rational accounts, for example, historical explanations, or even verstehen as in Weber  [the rational reconstruction of complexes of subjective meaning]. [And of course we know from Habermas that restricting rationality to scientific rationality is a serious error]. 
Ryan concludes that despite Mill's quest for rigour, what the proposed science of ethics amounts to is an attempt to draw inferences rather weakly, according to some general principles, rather than a strict deductive (or inverse deductive) social mechanics. 

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.'

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