cover image On John Stuart Mill

On John Stuart Mill

Philip Kitcher. Columbia Univ, $14.95 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-0-231-20415-6

In this intermittently perceptive volume, philosophy professor Kitcher (Moral Progress) argues for the continued relevance of 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Kitcher explores Mill’s writings on liberty and utilitarianism, applying them to such contemporary problems as gun control, free speech, and climate change. Kitcher defends Mill against charges of naivete by portraying him as a “conflicted humanist” whose progressive writings demonstrate nuance. The author contends that Mill’s belief in democracy as education through ongoing discourse could provide a path forward for the U.S., which might benefit from citizen assemblies that reduce polarization through face-to-face deliberation with political opponents. On ameliorating wealth inequality, Kitcher explains that Mill believed that large inheritances are “detrimental to those who receive them” because they sap the “will for personal growth,” and notes that Mill supported limitations on them so as to redistribute wealth and increase opportunity on a larger scale. The astute examination of Mill’s attempts to balance conflicts between universal equality and individual agency offer much to ponder, even if the author sometimes embraces the naivete he seeks to acquit Mill of, exemplified by Kitcher’s rosy proposition that “a transnational citizens’ convention on climate change” might avert ecological destruction. Philosophy scholars will still find some food for thought in this insightful if uneven treatise. (Jan.)