In the current of destructive criticism which has dominated Mill scholarship during much of the century since the publication of On Liberty a number of common elements may be discerned, and I have marked three of these in the exposition I have given of the main grounds Mill’s critics have adduced for their view that his enterprise in On Liberty is radically misconceived. If anyone wants an example of what I have called the traditional criticism of Mill on liberty, he can do no better than turn to James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity16 in which all three elements are strikingly evident.
In this,still by far the most powerful criticism of Mill’s doctrine of liberty, Stephen maintains that Mill has no need and can have no use for a principle specially designed to protect liberty in that, for Mill, utility itself must be the sole test of the justification of all policies and institutions. Further, Stephen argues, liberty and happiness are wholly distinct, and liberty can have no intrinsic value within a utilitarian morality, still less can it have any priority when it competes with the demands of utility. Finally, Stephen insists, talk of moral rights has always been and ought in consistency to remain foreign to the utilitarian outlook on political questions. Stephen’s argument illustrates in particularly clear form a number of assumptions, taken for granted by most of Mill’s critics, which have been put in question by a new wave of Mill scholarship which emerged in the 1960s. It is the upshot of this wave of revisionary interpretation17 that traditional criticisms of Mill’s writings on liberty and utility display an insensitivity to the subtlety and complexity of the argument of On Liberty and neglect the many connections holding between the argument of that book and the doctrines set out in several of his other writings. We may say even more forcefully of On Liberty what one of Mill’s revisionary interpreters18 has recently said of Utilitarianism: