The following is from an interesting comment thread provoked by a post at Warp, Weft, and Way (a Chinese philosophy blog) that linked to an op-ed in the New York Times (July 10, 2012) by Jian Qiang and Daniel A. Bell on “a Confucian Constitution for China.” As you might guess, at one point Mill is brought into the discussion, although it took me a while to consider precisely how Mill might indeed be relevant to our conversation. This being a blog comment, what follows should be considered more or less “seed-thoughts” capable of germination.
I’d like to say a few things about Mill (standing on the shoulders of others) relevant to my earlier comments, some remarks by Alexus [McLeod], and the response here by Bill [Haines]. In some respects, I think it reveals how even a “Millian” might be sympathetic to at least the efforts of Jiang and Bell. The portrait of Mill I have in mind is in large measure captured by the discussion of his thought in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, The Ethics of Identity (2005), which provides in some respects a more nuanced and thus original interpretation of the younger Mill’s thoughts on democracy, politics, community, identity, and so forth than one finds in the secondary literature that invokes his ideas on these subjects.
It’s interesting to recall what J.S. Mill wrote in Considerations on Representative Government: “The first element of good government…being the virtue and intelligence of human beings composing the community, the most important point of excellence which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves.” Mill did believe representative government was the best form of collective government “because it is uniquely qualified as the staging-ground in which the latent, merely potential capacity of individuals for self-government can be developed. This is because democracy is participatory collective government and thereby encourages the active character-type against the passive….” (David L. Norton*) Mill described or defined political participation as the “school of public spirit” owing to its capacity for encouraging the moral self-development of individuals, as it involves serving the public spirit in a way that transcends the exclusive self-interests of the individuals qua individuals. For Mill, in what may sound strange to our ears today, given the cynicism and apathy that surrounds the mere mention of “the political,” political participation is tantamount to “salutary moral instruction.” As Norton rightly points out, the role Mill assigns to political participation is “too great to be generalized,” reminding one of the more unrealistic proposals for participatory democracy for all, or most of, what ails us.
While the kind of political participation Mill had in mind was eminently reasonable: voting, jury duty, and service on parish councils, for example, “it borders on giddy optimism to anticipate that from it the large strides in the moral self-development of individuals that Mill describes.” Politics is many things, not all of them degrading or pernicious, and much of politics is worthy of vigorous defense (cf. Bernard Crick, In Defense of Politics, 1962, and Matthew Flinders, Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century, 2012), but so little of politics today strikes one as on the order of a “school of public spirit,” although admittedly our views are often distorted by mass media representations of “the political” and corresponding meager public knowledge or appreciation of the less or “invisible” work of politicians and public officials we routinely take for granted (see, for example, and just with regard to legislators, Jeremy Waldron’s Law and Disagreement, 1999, and The Dignity of Legislation, 1999). To some extent, Mill appreciated this fact, thereby setting conditions on that type of politics equivalent to a “school of public” spirit so as to enable the bulk of its participants to identify and emulate, that is, show deference to, their moral betters (exemplars of technical and moral excellence). Mill, like the authors of the Federalist Papers, was concerned about the tyranny of the majority, and his conditions were one way of avoiding or minimizing the effects of such tyranny. These conditions included “plural voting” and the “transferable vote,” the former meaning persons of “higher” occupational status (or superior education) are accorded extra votes on the belief that they are above average in moral development! In any case, there does not appear in Mill an independent argument for accounting precisely why we “deference” mechanisms will operate even in these cases.
Mill was right, I think, to attempt to tie individual self-development or self-determination and self-fulfillment, what we’ll loosely refer to as the basis of eudaimonia, to collective self-governance, but perhaps wrong to look in the first place to government or the State as the means for this linkage rather than, say, the “community” (which need not, indeed, and with Norton and others, I believe should not, be defined in ‘communitarian’ terms) in which a well-lived life involves individuals recognizing and utilizing values produced and exemplified by others, a mutual interdependence of values recognition and realization wherein individuals have a moral obligation to realize objective value in the world as part of the process of self-actualization and self-governance.
As I said in an earlier comment, the primary role of democratic government dedicated to the Good is thereby located in its provision of the material or practical conditions for same that are not self-suppliable by these individuals (probably something not far from what historically is identifiable as the social democratic form of the welfare state, the other main forms being ‘corporatist’ and ‘liberal’). The State, in other words, grants universal entitlement to necessary non-self-suppliable conditions so individuals can engage in autonomous projects of self-realization in community, a process that amounts to individuals interdependently creating the common good, a common good that is the joint enterprise of both individuals-in-community and the democratic State (this overcomes the tensions in Mill’s thought between the classical liberal conception of the individual and more eudaimonistic conceptions of same, or between what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls his antipaternalism and perfectionism).
* The Norton reference is from his book, Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (1991).