A Book Makes a Case for the Enduring Relevance of John Stuart Mill

Philip Kitcher’s volume is one of the first in a new series put out by Columbia University Press that celebrates the Core’s centennial.

Eve Glasberg
February 22, 2023

The 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill expressed many of the central tenets of liberalism with clarity and enduring influence. Yet his apparent victory in the marketplace of ideas has numbed us to the power of his arguments. To many readers today, his views can seem familiar, even banal.

In On John Stuart Mill, Philip Kitcher, the John Dewey Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, makes a cogent case for why we should read Mill now. He portrays Mill as a conflicted humanist, who wrestled with problems that are equally urgent in our own time. Kitcher reflects on Mill’s ideas in the context of contemporary ethical, social, and political issues such as COVID mandates, gun control, income inequality, gay rights, and climate change. More broadly, he shows, Mill’s writings help us cultivate our own capacities for critical thought and ethical decision making.

Kitcher discusses his new volume with Columbia News, along with the best book he ever got as a gift, how he became a lifetime fan of James Joyce, and his dream dinner party guests.

What inspired you to write this book?

Since coming to Columbia in 1999, I have regularly taught the Core Curriculum. To celebrate the Core’s centennial, a series of books was issued, Core Knowledge (published by Columbia University Press), which would provide perspectives on texts for Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. This project was the brainchild of the late Deborah Martinsen, a Dostoyevsky scholar who not only taught regularly in the Core, but was also a dedicated administrator who helped generations of Columbia Core students.

I was invited to submit a proposal for a volume, so I chose one of my intellectual heroes, John Stuart Mill. I wanted to answer his contemporary skeptics. Mill, as I understand him, wrestled with issues of the kind we face today, and his struggles are relevant to our current situation. My book tries to make that evident by considering four examples.

The first centers on clashes among freedoms. Mill is famous for his passionate commitment to liberty. But he was well aware of the difficulties of reconciling the liberties of different people. He has things to teach us as we ponder whether vaccination or mask mandates interfere with freedom, or whether we ought to permit people to buy and carry automatic weapons.

The second focuses on democracy. Mill was worried about what happens to a state when uninformed people are prominent in the electorate, possibly even in a majority. He searches for ways to balance the claims of democracy against those of expertise. His explorations are meaningful to a polarized society like ours, in which some voters take refuge in alternative facts.

On John Stuart Mill by Columbia University Professor Philip Kitcher

Sometimes, commentators view Mill as a libertarian. He isn’t. In fact, based on my reading, he belongs on (or maybe beyond) the left wing of the Democratic party. He worries about inequality, and proposes a radical redistribution of wealth by restricting the amount that anybody can inherit. He opposes the version of cutthroat capitalism so evident in the world today. And he has good arguments for these positions.

Finally, Mill is often identified as a Utilitarian, someone who thinks we should act to maximize the greatest aggregate happiness. (He did, to be sure, write a book entitled Utilitarianism.) My book shows that this identification is mistaken. Mill does think that actions are to be judged by their consequences; we should try to make the world as good as we can. But he has a complicated and interesting approach to figuring out what is good. The result, I suggest, is a far more compelling and defensible view than the one usually attributed to him.

So Mill is one for the ages?

Yes. Some kinds of ethical and social problems arise (perhaps in different guises) across the ages. A brilliant thinker reflecting on the burning issues of the times will often have things to say to those who face kindred challenges a century or two later. We should expect some of the political philosophy of the past to be relevant to the present.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

There are lots of valuable books, and it’s hard to pick one, but since Mill is our focus, I’ll assign his On Liberty. It’s short, so read it twice, and think hard.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

Again, there are at least several candidates. One special present, however, was a leather-bound copy of Ulysses that my wife, Professor Patricia Kitcher, gave me long ago on a wedding anniversary. She isn’t a James Joyce fan, but she knows of my long-standing interest in Joyce. Along with Contemporary Civilization, my favorite Columbia class to teach was always the English Department’s Joyce course.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

In June of 1960, I was 13 years old, and at boarding school in England. It was a warm Sunday afternoon, and we were required to be outside, but there were no other restrictions on what we could do. At 2 p.m., I took a book I had found in the library, and went to lie on the grass and read under a tree. At 5:30 p.m., I went indoors, having finished the book. 

It was Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Early on in that book, Stephen Dedalus hears the “pock” of the cricket bats against the ball—and, lying on the grass, I heard it, too, as other boys practiced over by the nets. That afternoon, I acquired a lifetime love of Joyce.

As an emeritus professor, do you still teach?

No. I retired because I have too many writing projects, and know that I can’t postpone them. I still love teaching, and will, perhaps, return to it someday. But not yet.

What three academics, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party?

Let’s start with Mill. A couple of more recent people would be part of a lively conversation—the late evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin and Noam Chomsky. Likely conversation topic? Progressive politics.