Kenneth Minogue's The Liberal Mind at 50

In his autobiography, John Stuart Mill relates the mental crisis that he experienced as a young man when he asked himself whether he would be happy if all the reforms that he thought necessary were granted or achieved. Would they necessarily fulfill him?

The answer, obviously, was ‘No,’ and Mill, having been nothing if not a man of the most complete integrity, suffered a nervous collapse. ‘The end had ceased to charm,’ he wrote, ‘and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.’

Few people, however, are as intelligent or scrupulous as Mill; but like him, they need something to live for. Indeed, the struggle for existence (or subsistence) having been more or less won—how, without a great deal of determination, do you starve in a modern society?—more people than ever before are in search of a meaning in life. In the absence of religious belief, one way of finding such a meaning in life is to attach yourself to a cause, the gaining of which is sufficiently distant to occupy you for years, and yet not totally impossible either. This imparts to you the pleasing glow of righteous transcendence, of doing good and feeling good at the same time.

Professor Minogue’s book, The Liberal Mind, first published fifty years ago this year and reprinted by the Liberty Fund, early recognized this mindset as a mass phenomenon. He appreciated sooner than most the role that victimhood would soon play in the national life of liberal democracies, even (or especially) among people who, objectively-speaking, suffered the least of any generation that had ever lived. The importance of what he calls ‘suffering situations’ is that ‘they convert politics into a crudely conceived moral battleground,’ with oppressors on the one hand and liberators on the other. It turns politics into a Punch and Judy show, the main question becoming who is Punch and who is Judy. Politicians vie to be not holier-than-thou but more-compassionate-than-thou, while continuing, of course, to indulge in all their accustomed knavish tricks.

The liberal mind, as anatomized by Minogue, acknowledges no limits and accepts no human suffering as being consequent upon the inherent limitations of human existence. It denies that perfection is not of this world because it believes that no other world exists in which perfection might be possible. It is as if it accepted the following syllogism:

No other world exists.

Perfection is possible.

Therefore perfection must be of this world.

No consideration of or reflection on the incompatible and contradictory desires that constantly arise within the human breast because of man’s very nature deters or discourages the liberal mind from its pursuit of perfection. The liberal mind is like the Émile Coué of political philosophy: Every day, in every way, I’m feeling better and better. What the Émile Coué approach to existence failed to explain, much less accept and prepare for, was the death of so many people, everyone in fact.

And yet no one can deny the success of what Minogue calls meliorism, the doctrine of or faith in constant improvement until all human (and quite possibly animal) suffering should be abolished. For the fact is that many particular sufferings can be and have been abolished by human intelligence and effort: not all, or even most, human suffering arises from the inherent nature of man and the universe he inhabits.

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, in which tens of thousands of people were killed by a natural event lasting only minutes, caused an outpouring of reflection throughout Europe on the nature of evil and human suffering. Faith in the beneficence of divine providence was severely tested by the earthquake; and Voltaire, in his Candide, savagely mocked those who complacently assumed that the destruction of whole cities and thousands of people was all in accordance with a beneficent plan to which, however, we never could be party.

In the question of earthquakes, the liberal meliorists were correct: we need not be defenseless in the face even of the most violent of natural forces. An earthquake in Chile, a thousand times greater in force than that in Haiti, killed fewer than a thousandth as many people, all because of the melioristic attitude of Chilean builders compared with the fatalistic one of Haitian builders.

The fact is that we are all now to a degree – even a large degree – possessed of liberal minds. Bentham is easily mocked: he was the very model of the English type of philosopher and psychologist so despised by Nietzsche. And yet it seems to me that he, Bentham, was right, and decent, when he said with regard to animals:

. . . the question is not, Can they reason?

nor can they talk? But, Can they suffer?

This may now seem to us obvious, but it was not always obvious, nor did people conform in their conduct to its ethical corollary. The reason that you can be cruel to a dog but not to a stone is that a dog can suffer as a stone cannot; you may destroy the beauty of a stone, but not be cruel to it. A man who smashes a beautiful pebble is not in the same category as a man who torments a dog. And this is so irrespective of whether the Benthamite liberal way of looking at the matter produces a cascade of difficult or even unanswerable subsequent questions: for example, at what stage in the evolutionary scale an animal can be said plausibly to suffer (the campaigners against cruelty to animals have moved on to fish, which until recently were thought of more or less as Descartes’ automata). It is true that we reprehend a boy who picks the legs and wings off a fly even though we do not really believe that a fly can suffer; it is the boy’s enjoyment that we think is sinister for the development of his character. But Macaulay was surely only partly right when he said that the Puritans objected to bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. That the pain of the bear was one of the reasons for the objection seems to me likely; and if this objection was a manifestation of the liberal mind, so much the better for the liberal mind.

One of the problems of the liberal mind is that it does not know where to stop. It is always searching for new problems to solve, not because the problems are so great or so important, but because without them it is deprived of its sense of purpose. A certain degree of complacency is a necessary condition of human contentment; but instead of complacency about the small pleasures of life guiltlessly enjoyed, the liberal mind (as described by Minogue) is complacent with regard to its capacity to see or spy out suffering where lesser, non-liberal minds perceive none. And although the liberal mind perceives problems – all potentially soluble, of course – everywhere it looks, itself it sees as more or less perfect. Recently, for example, I read a book by an author who was surprised to find himself the object of persecution, despite being, in his own estimation, a man of ‘impeccably liberal’ opinions. The liberal mind is inherently at one with the angels:

a potentially dangerous unison with regard to the freedom of others, whose lack of unison with the angels suggests unison with the beings of the other place. Few are the men who care more for the freedom of others than the self-evident rightness of their own opinions.

As I have hinted, we practically all are of liberal mind now, at least to some extent. Whatever policy we propose, we argue in its favor as the amelioration of some social problem or another. Even those who argue against welfare do so on the grounds that the economy cannot afford it, or that, in practice, it impoverishes more than it enriches. The argument that it corrupts human character and corrupts minds, not necessarily only of its recipients, is seldom heard, and would be harmful even if it did not in fact impoverish, is seldom heard. The liberal mind is profoundly impatient with intangibles; butter on parsnips is what counts because it can be measured.

Minogue’s book was prescient but not in all respects, as a preface written by him nearly 40 years later admits. He believed in 1963 that the society of his day had certain bastions that the liberal mind would never take, such as the armed services, universities, churches and cultural academies.’ This was because, as it then seemed, the condition of their very existence was non-liberal. But the universities, at any rate, have turned in the meantime from being bastions to siege engines, more liberal-minded than the rest of society. Such illiberally liberal phenomena as speech codes emanate from them, and from them alone: for it takes academics to understand that we can speak freely and without constraint only if others may not unjustly insult us or contradict us from mere prejudice. To be truly free, then, we must be unfree; for is not freedom the recognition of necessity?