Is John Stewart Mill a racist? That is a very strong charge against someone that promotes the sovereignty of the individual over that of the race/community/state. Many critics run the gamut on this issue. Some believe that he is because the list of those entitled to personal autonomy excludes those that live in “backward societies. ” Other critics argue that he is not because he acknowledges the achievements of other civilizations and trace any social defects to improper governance or depressed circumstances rather than physical characteristics, and he acknowledges the dark ages of Europe.
Others read his work and pronounce him a British Nationalist (Varouxakis, p. 5-6). If he were racist, it would prove to be more symbolic than overt. Symbolic racism manifests in indirect ways; in the United States, many whites are not directly racist toward blacks, however, they are strongly opposed to affirmative action and busing black children to better schools (McConahay & Hough). On another level, whites are very reluctant to give away any of their power to other racial groups and offering more opportunities to minorities diminishes that power, and they know this on at least a subconscious level.
Either way, he is acknowledged by many to be one of the most important figures of modern liberal thought. On Liberty was also one of the most famous books exploring the subject—mainly advocating the moral and economic emancipation of the individual from the state. The free and liberal state has only one rule: that each individual can do as he pleases as long as his actions do not harm others. However, if someone makes a conscious decision to harm himself only, it is not the role of society to stop him because it would interfere with his autonomy.
For example, many people wanting the government to legalize drugs will use this argument, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (Mill). However, many critics believe that these rights do not extend beyond the realm of Europe and the West, looking to interventionist actions taken by the US and the UK in the past decade, “The right to non-intervention, like the right to individual liberty, only belonged to those capable of using it, that is, to those ‘mature’ enough to think and judge for themselves and to develop unaided”(Parekh, p. 88).
This paper seeks to assess how nineteenth-century liberalism furthered the imperial ambitions of European countries, its inherent disdain for other ways of life, and review some of the erroneous assumptions that led to the exploitation of colonial subjects. We will also examine some of its better premises and how they will apply in certain societies, and will try to definitively answer the question of his racism. In Mill’s time, Great Britain possessed one of the largest empires in the world. The crown had granted independence to small colonies like Ceylon during his lifetime.
However, when the subject of independence for India was raised in parliament, Mills argued strongly against it (Parekh, p. 90). Perhaps he felt that they were not ready for independence because in his opinion, they were “backward. ” If rumors of his nationalism have merit, then he might have feared that his country was losing power around the world. The idea of relinquishing rule might have been based on the assumption that other nations will grow to supplant Britain as the main superpower on earth.
Also, if other nations with more backward beliefs were to possess resources that would make them wealthier and powerful than the civilized nations “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection”(Mill). If this is taken in terms of global relations, allowing others to wield power would be seen as a direct threat to Britain’s position, and abdicating their holdings would be tantamount to putting themselves in the inferior position.
In his own social context, Mill believed in the freedom to pursue activities, even immoral ones, provided that its pursuit does not harm anyone. The most obvious example of this is taking drugs. In Mill’s paradigm, a person smoking marijuana should not be punished for this action. Instead, society should only punish him if his actions under the influence lead to the injury or death of another person. On the grey areas of morality, scholars often dispute what it means to cause harm.
For example, post-colonial theorist Bhiku Parekh argues that liberalism takes an intolerant, missionary, dogmatic slant to life. As a critic of J. S. Mill, Parekh picks apart liberalism in great detail, particularly the liberal’s paternalism or outright scorn toward non-liberal communities that do not value materialism or ambition He argues that liberals believe that their path is the only legitimate one and that non-liberal societies do not have the right to decide the course of their existence, or even the right to decide to exist at all independent of the dictates of a “superior civilization.
“In order to justify the inherently unequal and exploitative colonial rule, liberals needed to show that the British had something to give to their colonies that the latter badly needed, were unable to acquire unaided, and which was so precious as to compensate for whatever economic and political price they were required to pay”(Parekh, p. 86). In the case of the British colonies, they brought civilization. India was considered civilized but stagnant, and needed British rule to move forward (Parekh, p. 88).
The political actions on part of the British imply that there is only a small list of ideological, philosophical, and religious beliefs that can be considered civilized. In fact, according to Parekh, Mill resisted every parliamentary effort to grant India some measure of independence because he did not believe the nation was ready to stand on its own. Perhaps, Mill believed that the Indians would unintentionally harm themselves or others without interference, because that was his only justification for intervention.
That is the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will”(Mill). Though India was recognized as civilized by the West, it was a civilization in its infancy, not yet ready for self-determination. Most of the “East” did not embrace capitalism and laissez-faire governments. The primary emphasis of each citizen was the community and the family rather than the individual. However, the European vision was spread throughout the world via colonialism.
Had the Chinese or Indians taken over every continent on earth, the prevailing global norms would be quite different, and a new standard of values would be spread. In fact, Parekh raises the point that if one was to critique the West using non-liberal philosophical systems, it might be found lacking. “If we took the Indian, the Chinese or the Islamic views of man as our standard, it is the self-centric and even self-obsessed liberal societies that would appear inferior”(Parekh, p. 99).
In the United States and Western Europe, there is a sharp separation between church and state, and strong social pressure to have the biggest, newest, and best products on the market. Other cultures value achievement much as well, but consumerism very little. Economic freedom in the West is greater than in China or India. “The tendency to homogenize the West and to view liberalism as its sole authentic voice is also evident in the way many contemporary liberals ground their moral judgments.
Take the frequently invoked and philosophical dubious concept of moral intuition. Although liberal philosophers admit that moral intuitions are fallible and often confused and contradictory, they assign them an ontologically privileged status and view them as more or less authentic indicators of our cultural identity and expressive of our deepest moral being”(Parekh, p. 100). Mill embraced the ideal that each person was autonomous and needed to live according to his inclinations.
Those living in societies that sublimated Mill’s fundamental law of human interaction needed to be guided toward the “truth” which lent his writing a feeling of religious certainty rather than racist sentiment. While Parekh saw liberalism as a system of thought that promoted racism and intolerance, Georgios Varouxakis argues differently. Although Mill was a man of his time, he was not a racist as he judged the merit of a culture by its technology and philosophy rather than the physical appearance of the citizens. While accepting vaguely that racial origin is one of the factors influencing the formation of national character, Mill went further to establish that racial predisposition in itself could prove nothing and was liable to be modified out of any recognition through the agency of circumstances such as institutions, historical accidents, and human Effort”(p. 43).
For example, those dwelling at the bottom rungs of society often have no interest in working and try to do as little as possible because there is no genuine incentive for them to invest themselves in any way. Any race would be indolent and idle, he stressed, if the arrangements under which they lived and worked resulted in their deriving no advantage from forethought or exertion”(Varouxakis, p. 45). Examples of this include enslaved and oppressed African-Americans, the Irish under England, and the Dalits in India. Most members of an underclass lack ambition, not because they lack the intelligence, but because they believe that the hard work ahead of them will not amount to anything as they lack a stake in society.
Parekh argues that liberalism is inherently European in character. He is correct in this assertion because in Western European culture, a significant portion of identity is derived from profession rather than through family unlike much of the world. Western Europeans also value rugged individualism much more than other cultures. This affection for personal independence existed prior to formalizing it into a philosophy. Varouxakis also shows evidence that liberal philosophy blurs the borders between nations, as it had gained the admiration of many people on earth.
Mill’s own countrymen described him as an “extreme radical and ‘un-English’” before acknowledging his contribution to political theory (p. 1). Therefore, while liberalism is European (or English) in origin, it has grown far beyond its borders to inspire people in other countries to leave their homes and live a more ‘liberal’ and individualistic lifestyle. In sum, even though the people of Europe and Asia belong to different racial groups, the liberal devaluation of their culture is by no means racially motivated.
Liberal ideology disdains all systems that subject the individual to the state, the group, or God. For example, while liberals were often contemptuous of the East and tribal cultures in general, they often did not think any better of the Fascists, Communists, and Socialists in their midst. Parekh is correct in arguing that contemporary liberalism does not allow for much variability in thought and belief, “In spite of their emphasis on choice and diversity then, most contemporary liberals are hostile to non-individualist forms of life.
They aspire to a culturally homogeneous world in which all alike are wedded to the narrowly defined values of autonomy and choice”(Parekh, p. 101). The true liberal way of life would be broad enough to encapsulate everyone and prompt an exchange of ideas in order to continually reach for better solutions in this rapidly evolving world. Non-individualist cultures will not impose their views on those that do not follow their path, and individualists will live and let live.