Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

Political Thought

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Mill


Parallels: Eccentricity, Hate Crimes, and Chivalry

There are so many ways in which Mill's writings in these two works are still applicable to our society and government it is difficult to choose particular issues. Mill's views on the conformism of mass society, however, seem particularly relevant today. So, too, in an era of hate crime legislation, does his discussion of what offenses are punishable and for what reasons. Finally, in an age where women are considered equal and able to take care of themselves, Mill's discussion of the (welcome) decline of chivalry is likely to resonate with his contemporary audience, but I will provide a counter-argument to get discussion going.

The Value of Eccentricity

One of Mill's main complaints in On Liberty is the mind-numbing impact of conformism. Democratic government itself tends to have this result, according to Mill, as well as the commercial impulse which tended even in his own time to make the culture homogenous. How much more in our own times do we see the effects of both in erasing cultural differences. At one time, America may have been a "melting pot," but it was a pot with a lot of lumps-individuals in various subcultures who adopted the American political creed as their own, but kept their own particular language, traditions and beliefs and tended to live together. Now, at a time when the diversity or "salad bowl" image of America is being promoted, there seems to be more cultural homogeneity than ever. In a society where almost everyone is educated in public schools, where almost everyone has access to the same television programs, where almost everyone's tastes are driven by the same commercial culture, is it possible for there to exist the kind of individualism Mill was urging?

Mill even encouraged eccentricity, and in On Liberty not only the kind he found worthwhile (which would have certainly been intellectual nonconformism), but any kind of eccentricity. He reasoned that the homogenizing influence of mass society was so great that in his own day, eccentricity was valuable in its own right, as a way of striking out against conformity and reminding others that they do not have to always do what everyone else does. But in our own times, most of our eccentricity, if we examine it carefully, is actually a sort of joining in. We are awash in fashion, music, technology and spiritual trends, just to name a few. Often these trends only capture a section of the American population. In this way, some people can stand out, but only as a member of a group relative to other groups. The trends are generally not dictated from below, but from above, from those who market and sell the latest fashion, music, technology or spirituality. People who join the trend are in a sense simply choosing among varieties of conformism. Again, is it possible to be a true individual in such a society?

Perhaps individuality lies in ignoring the trends, severing oneself from the sources of their influence. Then, if a person could achieve the quiet necessary to explore who they are and what they want apart from societal expectations and trends, the true eccentric might emerge. Such a person, however, would probably not be trying to make a statement to the larger society, such as Mill urged, but would instead simply be doing what they felt like doing.

Then again, perhaps there is no such thing as the level of individualism that Mill is proposing. Mill's views on the existence and value of the individual can be seen as a sort of hangover from the 18th Century Enlightenment view of atomistic individuals whose relationship with society was more like a contract than like a family. Granted, Mill disavows the idea of the social contract and at times attributes to the environment a great deal of influence in the shaping of human nature, but when he extolls individualism he still seems closer to that philosophy's view of human nature than he does, say, to the socialists' view of man as defined by his relationships to his fellow human beings. Mill's defense of eccentricity and individualism leaves us with tough questions. What is the value of the individual and his separate experience of life? If it has any value, can Utilitarians like Mill really prove its worth apart from arguments concerning natural rights or spiritual value? Is there anything really wrong with cultural assimilation? If the common understanding of conflict as caused by differences is correct, could we not expect less conflict among human beings once homogenization is complete?

Hate Crimes?

In Chapter 4 of On Liberty, Mill discusses the appropriate reasons for the government to punish bad behavior. He states that people should not be punished for doing things others deem morally incorrect, such as drinking or gambling. However, if that behavior leads to actual injuries to other people, such as violence against ones family or indebtedness, the offender should be punished for causing the injuries. In other words, Mill does not approve of punishing someone for drunkenness, but does approve of punishing someone for wife-beating, regardless of the cause. In a striking example, he writes, "George Barnwell murdered his uncle to get money for his mistress, but if he had done it to set himself up in business, he would equally have been hanged." (On Liberty, Ch. 4, para. 10)

This line of reasoning would seem to suggest that Mill advocated punishing the action but not the supposed underlying cause, whether this be drunkenness or some other motivation. Given Mill's ideas about freedom of thought, speech and press, it is hard to imagine that he would approve of today's "hate crimes" laws in various states which increase the penalty for a particular crime if it can be shown that it was motivated by a hatred for a particular protected class of people-women, minorities, gays, etc. The idea behind such laws is that crimes which are motivated by hatred for a particular group in society should be punished more severely in order to discourage more attacks on that class, or more organization of hate-groups. This is an admirable goal, so why would someone like Mill likely disagree with hate crimes laws (and other laws, such as those restricting pornography, which punish certain ideas and speech as noxious to society)?

Mill did not approve of punishing someone for their ideas or desires. Additional penalties based upon motivation seemed to him to violate this principle. Mill reasoned that if government started to punish motivations or ideas, even if they were obviously bad and harmful, this would have a chilling effect on the individualism he so highly prized because of its impact on the progress of society. Once government established a precedent that it could punish ideas and not just injurious acts, it could easily punish other ideas which were not so clearly wrong. Such a precedent could lead to the type of tyrannical government Mill so hoped to avoid.

Those in our own times who argue against hate crimes laws do so largely on the same basis that Mill employed in On Liberty to argue against punishing the George Barnwells of the world for their immorality instead of simply for their crime. They do not accept the argument that the hateful ideas alone are harmful enough to society to justify government repression of them. It is not that these ideas, such as racism, are not bad and harmful, but that the precedent of government intrusion into the area of ideas is even more harmful. In addition, opponents of hate crimes legislation point out that it necessarily makes it appear that some people's lives and property are more valuable than others'. To these opponents, such legislation is also a bad precedent because it tends to promote group oriented thinking in what is supposed to be a society of equal individuals.

After WWII, this question of whether to punish people for the ideas they promote has been a particularly difficult one in democratic societies. In today's Germany, there are indeed laws against the promotion of Nazi propaganda, and these laws are enforced. One can certainly understand why the government and people of Germany might wish to have such laws, although Mill would argue that the precedent set by such laws is more harmful to individual liberty than the propaganda and activities they target.

In countries like Austria, Belgium, France and Germany, there is a growing tendency for governments to form "sect commissions" to monitor minority religious groups, including in Belgium the YWCA. In France lawmakers have proposed legislation which would make it illegal for religious "proselytizers" to "manipulate" the public. In the latest French proposal, no less than 173 religious sects have been named in legislation aimed at removing their influence from society. Some of these groups include Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, Unificationists and even Southern Baptists. Do we really want to leave the judgment of what ideas are harmful in the hands of government authorities?

Has the Decline in Chivalry Been Good for Women?

In The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill discusses the ethic of chivalry, which he says is in decline. While we tend to think of knights in shining armor when we think of chivalry, the attitude of chivalry outlasted the medieval era and was still to be found in Mill's own time. The essence of that attitude, according to Mill, is the tendency to see women as the repositories of a superior morality. According to the old view, women's influence was supposed to be essential to tame men's brutish characteristics, and they were to perform this service to society by withholding their highly-prized affections from those men who did not conform to civilized behavior. Women (at least of the upper classes) were thus held up on a "pedestal" and expected to fulfill the role of promoting morality and civilization. At the same time, as Mill points out, women were in practical terms not superior at all, but treated as inferiors. Outside of their informal influence on their suitors or husbands, they were to have little influence on politics, business, or even family matters. This position seemed to Mill very ironic and unacceptably confining.

In Mill's day, the attitude of chivalry in decline. There was less and less inclination among men to see women as morally superior or to put women "up on a pedestal" to be treated particularly delicately. At the same time, there was no countervailing inclination to give women a more equal status so that they could take care of themselves instead of relying on men. If anything, the laws had become less ambiguous in favor of restricting women's freedom, to the point of women losing possession of their own property upon marriage and being unable to decide to divorce their husbands. So in Mill's time, women had the worst of both worlds; women they could count less and less on men's sensitivity brought about through the chivalric attitude, but had actually fewer means to prevent men from taking advantage of them.

In our own time, it can be said without much controversy that chivalry is dead in the western world. Men still open doors occasionally, but the attitude of women as having the moral high ground and of men as having the duty not only to protect them but to treat them with delicacy and respect due their sex, is a thing of the past. Clearly, many women consider this change a great improvement. Old-fashioned chivalry appears to them to be condescending, because it used to be accompanied by an assertion of male dominance in almost every sphere of life. Because women enjoy far more equality now, there appears to be little need for chivalry. In this conclusion, they would agree with Mill, who thought there would be no need for chivalry if women were given their freedom and enjoyed equality with men.

However, there is an argument to be made that, even in our own times, we have lost something valuable by rejecting the last vestiges of chivalry. The relationships between men and women are arguably coarser. Women live in a world in which they largely have equal opportunity but in which they must endure a constant degradation in the popular culture in the form of pornography, embarrassing music lyrics, and belittling depictions on TV and in the advertising media. It is a world in which men are much more familiar with women, and where neither party knows what to expect from the other because there is no universally accepted code of conduct. Chivalry was an ethic which at least encouraged a certain respect for women while treating brutish and crude behavior toward them as socially unacceptable. One difference between men and women has not changed, and that is that the physical strength of men remains on the average greater than that of women. There are more rapes and other forms of violence against women than ever. Under these circumstances we might reasonably ask if the ideal of the gentleman or the code of chivalry had to be extinguished to make way for female equality, or whether women would have been better off with it, albeit in a necessarily modified form. Maybe some part of the chivalric ethic needs to be resurrected, one which sees the need for respect for women without condescension.




Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate