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Type: Conference paper
Title: John Stuart Mill: The liberal pessimist
Author: Corcoran, P.
Citation: Proceedings of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR)General Conference 2009.
Publisher: ECPR
Publisher Place: Germany
Issue Date: 2009
Conference Name: European Consortium for Political Research (5th : 2009 : Potsdam, Germany)
Statement of
Paul Corcoran
Abstract: Optimism has been an inveterate characteristic of political liberalism. The archetypal liberal is optimistic about: social, moral and material progress; the individual’s capacity for reason and self-determination; the potential for unlimited legal reform; human equality as both a foundational principle and a legislative telos; the gradual unfolding and expansion of prosperity, physical well-being and happiness. Consequently it is surprising to discover that John Stuart Mill was in many ways a pessimist and, in one sense of the word, a fatalist. Nevertheless it is true that Mill devoted much of his life not only to advocating liberal reforms but also to developing a science of morality that would lay the foundation upon which those optimistic goals could be achieved. The aim of this science was to illuminate the path to rational government and to enhance the moral and intellectual character of society as a whole. Its features would include optimal personal liberty and autonomy, a diverse and creative culture, and virtually unlimited, if always incremental, perfection of individual character. That Mill was also deeply pessimistic about the achievement of these goals is paradoxical. Mill’s many critics have often explained these contrasting features of his thought by attributing to Mill a degree of personal inconsistency and intellectual confusion. However it will be the specific aim of this paper to argue that Mill’s pessimism reveals his intellectual depth and a forthright political realism about England’s parliamentary democracy and the political and cultural consequences of growing affluence and social equality. His pessimism was prescient and about the methodological limits of scientific sociology and the aspirations of scientific social organization. His pessimistic critiques of liberalism and socialism in their original emergence point the way to explaining why his ideas remain provocative and illuminating in contemporary debates concerning multiculturalism and human rights.
Rights: © 2006 European Consortium for Political Research
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