In a recent Public Discourse essay, Brandon McGinley mentioned a discussion, carried on over several presentations at a conference hosted by the Pennsylvania Family Council and ISI, about the role that John Stuart Mill should play in the politics of the pro-life movement. As he noted, I suggested that Mill should be considered an important figure for our thinking, while others were critical of that claim.
The reasons for criticism are clear: Mill was a utilitarian, who held that what is “right” is simply whatever brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill’s defense of utilitarianism is considered a touchstone of moral philosophy, but its theses are quite problematic. Mill reasonably sought to modulate his predecessor Jeremy Bentham’s hedonistic value theory. For Bentham, the only thing good was pleasure, and the only thing bad, pain. Mill adopted the same claim, yet attempted to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures so as to avoid some obvious objections: why, for example, would it really be the case that, as Bentham thought, “pushpin is as good as poetry”?
But in making this change, Mill inadvertently made clear the Achilles heel of utilitarianism and all forms of consequentialism. For when a more plausible value theory is substituted for Bentham’s hedonism, it becomes clear that there is no real sense to the expression “greatest good for the greatest number.” That expression requires that it be possible to weigh essential human goods against one another. Yet instances of goods such as life, friendship, and knowledge appear to be incommensurable.
Moreover, attempts to weigh goods so as to determine the “greatest” good inevitably turn into rationalization. If there is no truly greatest good, then the claim that one has found one is no more than a rhetorical cover for expressing one’s preferences. Think of abortion. Coming from a consequentialist framework, many say that preventing the suffering of an unready mother, or even an unloved child, is the greater good which may or must be promoted by killing that child.
Clearly, there are good reasons to balk at an unqualified endorsement of Mill as a leading light of the political thought of the pro-life cause. But Mill’s influence and importance go beyond and indeed transcend his utilitarianism. In particular, Mill’s great work On Liberty should be acknowledged by pro-lifers as essential for two related reasons.
Liberty and Neutrality
On Liberty is rightly considered a founding document of “liberal” political theory—political theory, that is, that takes freedom and equality as its key concepts and argues that the state and its activities should respect these two features of human persons. But proponents of so-called “political liberalism” have argued that a further feature of liberalism should be a commitment to “neutrality”: various—perhaps all—aspects of public and political life should remain systematically neutral, refusing to choose between or favor any competing conceptions of the good. Thus, substantive conceptions of the good, including, of course, religious conceptions, should play no role in political argument, legislation, or constitutional essentials.
This argument has been directed not just against religious conceptions, but even against viewpoints identified and defended purely on grounds of reason. The implications for the life issues are then drawn out. The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson argues, for example, that restrictions on abortion are not compatible with liberal democracy because they are grounded on reasons, including conceptions of the good, with which other citizens may reasonably disagree.
The argument attempts to settle by fiat the abortion question without allowing any argument, religious or secular. And political liberalism’s commitment to neutrality suffers from further difficulties, including its deep inability to itself be neutral toward competing conceptions of the good, favoring, as it clearly does, individualistic and autonomybased conceptions over communitarian forms of life with rich ties to tradition and social obligation.
I won’t pursue those deficiencies here. Rather, I would like to argue that a liberalism—call it “Classical Liberalism”—indebted to Mill provides much surer ground on which to base a sound politics, and a defense of unborn life.
Abortion and the Harm Principle
According to Mill’s “Harm Principle,” it is impermissible coercively to restrict another’s actions unless those actions threaten harm to another person. The Harm Principle thus provides guidance for what may rightly be considered within the authority of the state to restrict by means of criminal legislation.
This principle strikes some as insufficiently robust, in not making offense or immorality as such legitimate grounds for criminal legislation. But this principle amply supports the idea that the law should protect the unborn from abortion precisely insofar as abortion harms the unborn. All that is required to make this case is to show that unborn beings in a human womb really are human beings, as developmental biology reveals, and that the Harm Principle should be considered to extend to the protection of all human beings.
And here other tenets of Classical Liberalism may play their role. For not just freedom, but equality is a central marker of Classical Liberalism; all beings equal with us—with the one writing and those reading this essay comprising the class of beings that the law is to protect, and to render immune from deliberate harm. But in what respect are we—the beings who are reading and the one writing this essay—genuinely equal? Not as regards intelligence, attractiveness, wit, or moral character; we can assume there are many variations in these characteristics across us all. Rather, we are equal as regards only our humanity, and all other human beings are equal to us in precisely that respect.
So Mill’s political thought does indeed provide a low but solid foundation for the essential convictions of the pro-life movement: that the unborn, by virtue of their common humanity, deserve the full protection of the laws. But it provides something else as well, something at increasing risk in our increasingly illiberal society.
Freedom of Thought and Expression
In the second chapter of On Liberty, Mill defends an expansive conception of freedom of thought and expression. The liberty he defends in these respects extends even to those principles and precepts so seemingly obvious to a majority that it is inconceivable to them that they might be wrong. Yet on two suppositions, Mill argues, they must be willing to give opposing positions adequate freedom of consideration and expression, even refraining from exercising a merely social sanction against their defenders.
The two suppositions are that the dissenting view might be right, or at least partly so, in which case the majority will have been deprived, by their suppression of that view, of the chance to correct their error; and that the dissenting view is wrong. Here it might seem there could be no ill effects in stifling error, but Mill correctly, in my view, recognizes that a true view that is in no need of defending itself against objections will eventually become a dead dogma, in which not only the grounds, but even the meaning itself of the true claim will be lost to its proponents.
Mill concludes his discussion in Chapter Two with a number of claims whose timeliness can hardly be doubted. Some say, according to Mill, that free expression of dissent may be permitted so long as it is temperately expressed. Mill, of course, has no quarrel with temperate expression, and neither should we. But much worse, he points out, is “to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion.”
If anything has a claim to be suppressed, it will be these offenses, over merely intemperately but honestly presented opinions. But Mill argues that these greater flaws may still be committed by people of good will, and that it would be impossible to find a reasonable procedure for screening out only those sophistical claims that had been made for the sake of mischief.
All the more so, then, must we be tolerant of dissent when intemperately expressed. And here Mill makes, I think, a very astute observation:
With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally against both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.
And Mill goes on:
The worst offense of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed.
Mill foresees with great accuracy the current strategy of “liberal” polemic against dissent, which moves rapidly from claims about that dissent’s incivility, and alleged dishonesty, to attacks on the character of those engaged in the dissent. No good social cause can hope ever to be successful if it is blocked from opportunity of free expression and public argument. A classical form of liberalism such as that defended by Mill thus offers not only an approach to law and politics conducive to the protection of unborn life; it also offers an approach to culture and public discourse without which the pro-life cause cannot hope to flourish.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2014).