John Stuart Mill and the democratic creed

The nineteenth century was perhaps the last when philosophers could openly declare that belief in democracy and equality was indeed a belief, not even a completely harmless one. As John Stuart Mill wrote in his On Representative Government (1861):

The American institutions have imprinted strongly on the American mind that any one man (with a white skin) is as good as any other; and it is felt that this false creed is nearly connected with some of the more unfavourable points in American character. It is not small mischief that the constitution of any country should sanction this creed; for the belief in it, whether express or tacit, is almost as detrimental to moral and intellectual excellence as any effect which most forms of government can produce.

Let’s read the passage carefully, though. What Mills says is NOT that the creed is “false” because it declares that men and women, or people with white and black skin are equal. Quite to the contrary: it is false (or self-contradictory) because it fails to live up to its own premises when it comes to issues of race and gender; and false (or irrational) because its idea of equality ignores obvious differences in people’s moral and intellectual capabalities.

Being an “elitist” (as Mill and other “politico-theological” critics of democracy are often called) does not necessarily mean that they were, at the same time, sexists or racists. It was exactly their worries about prevailing majorities that led them to reject a purely majoritarian idea (or even religion) of democracy. A few lines down, Mill explicitly argues for women’s suffrage:

All human beings have the same interest in good government; the welfare of all is alike affected by it, and they have equal need of voice in it to secure their share of its benefits. If there be any difference, women require it more than men, since, being physically weaker, they are more dependent on law and society for protection. Mankind have long since abandoned the only premises which will support the conclusion that women ought not to have votes.

Should anyone make the objection that this belief in women’s rights also sounds like a “creed”, I readily admit it does. I’ve never said that so-called “secular beliefs” are bad in themselves; only that they are what they are: beliefs and not assertions of scientific “truths” or historical “facts.” When it comes to principles and values, we always have to choose, without pretending that our choice is determined by anything else than our belief in something higher then ourselves.

For more on the pro-minority traits of the elitist tradition see my next post.

The Subjection of Women (1869) - John Stuart Mill