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Keywords:

  • Mill;
  • democracy;
  • consensus;
  • authority;
  • expertise

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Consensus
  4. Dissent
  5. Judgement
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

The need for deference to well-grounded claims to expert authority often seems to conflict with democratic ideals and practices of equality and contestation. In this article I identify a parallel tension in Mill's work on authority. Against the idea that Mill's thought is contradictory, I argue that in both his early and later work he was very clear about the tension between the good of thinking for oneself and the necessity of epistemic dependence, and in particular deference to a consensus of experts. He does not resolve this tension, but he makes it productive in the figure of the ‘competent observer’, who exercises judgement in deferring to authorities. Mill's contribution is to focus on the process of questioning and scrutiny that underpins this sort of judgement. I conclude with some observations about the value and limitations of Mill's account of authority for understanding contemporary problems of expertise in democratic systems.

It is commonly thought that we are experiencing a crisis of expert authority. A consensus of scientists assures us that human activity is generating a global increase in temperature. Patient, careful research by communities of people who we might expect to know what they are talking about are telling us of climate change associated with our current patterns of production and consumption. Yet others are telling us this is a giant fraud, or at best a well-intentioned delusion. The contestation of the science of climate change speaks both to the huge material implications of the threatened consequences and their possible mitigation, and to the uncertainties involved in the science itself. However, there are two more general responses, which suggest a problem for political theory. On the one hand, we might lament the widespread loss of respect for facts and the ‘politicisation’1 of science, and demand deference to the well-grounded opinions of those who know what they are talking about. And on the other we might advocate the epistemic value of a free and full contest among conflicting viewpoints. These two responses capture an important tension within contemporary anxieties about the fate of expert authority in a democratic society.

These twin claims have a striking parallel in the work of John Stuart Mill, who introduces ‘On Liberty’ with reference to the ‘struggle between Liberty and Authority’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 217). Commentators on Mill have tended to place greater emphasis on either liberty or authority. The Mill of ‘On Liberty’ famously defended freedom of thought and opinion by appealing to the value of a vigorous clash of opinions.2 This is the Mill who argues that stifling minority viewpoints is an evil because it is possible that the lone voice is the voice of truth. This is the Mill who argues that the expression of falsehood still amounts to a good, because confrontation with falsehood forces us constantly to reanimate the arguments that settled the case in the first place, and thus hold opinions in the manner of ‘living truth’ and not ‘dead dogma’. However, against the readings of Mill as an ‘apostle of liberty’ (Rees, 1966, p. 9), Maurice Cowling (1963), Gertrude Himmelfarb (1974) and, most recently, Joseph Hamburger (1999), have drawn attention to what Himmelfarb called the ‘other’ Mill. This ‘other’ Mill writes that ‘every man should be encouraged to “use his own judgment”, but that to encourage him to “trust solely to his own judgment, and to receive or reject opinions according to his own views of the evidence” was to make him a “mere slave to the person next to him” ’ (Himmelfarb, 1974, pp. 337–8, emphasis in original).3 The received account of Mill, according to Hamburger, ‘relies on half [his] outlook’, privileging his Benthamism, opposition to Christianity and critique of the despotism of custom and tradition, but overlooking his call for ‘moral authority, individual restraint and social control’ (Hamburger, 1999, p. xiv). The ‘other’ Mill, then, makes a case for competence and well-placed deference to intellectual authority.

Mill's appeals to both criticism and deference, or participation and elitism, suggest that Mill was in two minds. It is tempting to think that in his late twenties and early thirties, when he wrote his essays on Coleridge (Mill, 1985 [1840]), the reviews of Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Volume I in 1835 and Volume II in 1840 – Mill 1977c [1835]; 1977d [1840]), and ‘The Spirit of the Age’ (Mill, 1986 [1831]), and perhaps influenced by the ideas of Saint-Simon and Comte, he expressed an elitist position on intellectual authority that was later superseded by his more mature work on liberty. However, rather than thinking of Mill's appeals to liberty and authority as a sign of contradiction or confusion, we might treat this as a long-standing tension in Mill's account of authority (Ryan, 1998, pp. 497–540), and take seriously the implication that the need for epistemic authority is in some sense bound up with the need for autonomy, critique and independent judgement. I am thus sympathetic to those readings of Mill that seek to account for the relations between these two polarities in his thought. Dennis Thompson (1976), for instance, writes of the productive tension between the principles of competence and participation in Mill's theory of representative democracy. Bruce Baum (2000) shows the relation between freedom and power in Mill's thought. And Nadia Urbinati (2002) relates Mill's ‘Athenian’ picture of self-critical and independent-minded citizens to his utilitarian concern for efficient and benevolent administration. This train of thought suggests that Mill not only recognised the virtues of both ‘skilled competence’ and ‘deliberative competence’, but also insisted on the value of their interrelation (Urbinati, 2002, p. 44). Thus, for instance, Mill suggests that a democratically ordered system of expertise is in fact more efficient than a modern ‘pedantocracy’.4 Following this line of interpretation, I will argue that Mill's account of authority expresses genuine and fruitful tensions, rather than mute contradictions. Not only do we find, for instance, some strong continuities between the early and later Mill on the question of authority; we also need to question the assumption that the two positions are indeed mutually exclusive.

My broader purpose in revisiting Mill's account of authority is to shed new light on the problem of expertise in modern democracies. Thompson recently noted in passing that democratic theorists have failed to show ‘how to incorporate the need for expertise and technical administration in a deliberative democracy’ (Thompson, 2008, p. 515). The problem is that there is a tension between the principle of democratic equality and the necessary inequalities implied by expert knowledge. The broadly democratic idea that people ought to have equality of opportunity to contribute to deliberation on matters that affect them is undermined by the inequalities in knowledge that are necessary for the analysis, regulation and management of social and technological problems. This generates difficulties for the ideal of government by discussion that is at the heart of deliberative democratic theory. It is clear that Mill's work on liberty and authority was not written with our problems of politicised expertise in mind. However, these two very different contexts have in common that they centrally involve relations of epistemic inequality and dependence. It is for this reason that I focus in this article on Mill's more general account of intellectual authority, and why I do not set out to give an account of his epistemology of science and social science or his view of the relations between science and politics.5 Rather, I focus in this article on the more basic question of the nature and conditions of deference to epistemic authority. In this context Mill is valuable because he recognises the need in complex societies for inequalities in knowledge and therefore the need of most people, most of the time, to take most things on authority, yet he is also acutely sensitive to the moral and epistemic dangers of unthinking deference and conformity. His attempt to manage this tension makes him a valuable source of insight on the problems of expertise in a complex modern democracy.

A further reason that Mill's thought can offer a fresh perspective on the relation of expert authority to democracy is that he does not draw a sharp distinction between scientific and political authority. This aspect of Mill's thought can seem outdated. ‘The disanalogies between moral and political judgment and scientific inquiry need no emphasis’, Alan Ryan curtly notes. ‘[W]hat needs emphasis is the fact that all his life Mill wrote as though there were no such disanalogies but fought for causes that presupposed that there were many’ (Ryan, 2007, p. 159). Mill's position on authority, in Ryan's view, is unfortunately vague about whether the kind of consensus at stake in scientific inquiry is the same as the kind of consensus sought in ‘cultural and ethical matters’. However, while it often seems obvious today to separate science from politics, it is clear that Mill himself regarded the problem of authority as continuous across those domains. As he notes in ‘On Liberty’, the subjects of morals, religion, politics and social relations may be ‘infinitely more complicated’ than the theories of ‘natural philosophy’, but they do not differ in kind (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 244). While Mill hoped to effect a scientisation of politics, and I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the politicisation of science, the fact that Mill regarded science and politics as continuous makes him a source of insight on the relation between judgement and authority in contemporary cases in which scientific and political authority seem both intertwined and deeply problematic. While, as we will see, Mill's thoughts are incomplete, they provide rich and valuable suggestions as to how we might develop a democratic, and indeed, deliberative democratic account of expert authority.

I will begin by discussing Mill's early account of the problem of intellectual authority in an ‘age of transitions’, exemplified in his essay ‘The Spirit of the Age’. I draw out in particular his ambivalent reliance on the notion of deference to the greater number. He laments unthinking deference to a societal consensus, but is more favourable to the idea of acknowledging the intellectual authority of a consensus of critical experts. I will then discuss the role of dissent in his account of the ‘struggle between liberty and authority’ in ‘On Liberty’. I suggest that while there are many well-recognised differences between these positions, there are also some less well-recognised continuities, which appear as tensions in his account of the role of the ‘competent observer’ in deferring to well-contested opinions. I will then discuss his account in ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ of a division of labour between a parliament of deliberating representatives and a powerful bureaucracy of public-spirited experts, which attends closely to the conditions in which judgement can be exercised within authority relations. I will then conclude with some observations about the value and limitations of Mill's account of authority for understanding contemporary problems of expertise in democratic systems.

Consensus

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Consensus
  4. Dissent
  5. Judgement
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

The Enlightenment, so the story goes, was characterised by a radical rejection of authority. For Kant, Enlightenment meant the rejection of authority in matters of beliefs, opinions and morals, and particularly the rejection of tradition and religion as guides to belief and action:

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding! (Kant, 1991 [1874], p. 54).

Mature, enlightened individuals take no belief on authority. Autonomy means being ruled by one's own reason, and taking claims on trust therefore involves a loss of autonomy.

Mill came of age in this tradition of thought. Indeed, one could say he was bred for it. He tells in his autobiography that his father James Mill, and Jeremy Bentham, ‘had always identified deference to authority with mental slavery and the repression of individual thought’ (Mill, 1961, p. 615). In his early essay ‘On Genius’, he argues that genius is not about discovering great truths, which can then be parcelled out and passed on to others. Rather, it is the faculty or power of thinking for oneself: ‘[I]f I would know it … I must make the thought my own thought’ (Mill, 1981 [1832], p. 331). Echoing Kant, Mill writes that what distinguishes those who first discover a truth is not genius, but courage (Mill, 1981 [1832], p. 332). In his later work it remains clear that thinking for oneself is the highest ideal.6 However, he was highly sensitive to the challenges of realising this ideal in a modern democratic society.

One major difficulty was emphasised by Mill's friend Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued that under the social condition of equality – which was more or less what he meant by ‘democratic society’ – people are not disposed to trust the authority of any man. His Americans did not readily defer to men of learning or to traditional religious authorities or political elites. Was this a case of Enlightenment heroes throwing off the yoke of ‘mental slavery’, rejecting dogmas and courageously using their own understanding? Hardly. Intellectual authority, Tocqueville suggested, does not – and cannot – disappear; it merely relocates. Under America's condition of equality, he argued, men look not to aristocracies or elites for the sources of truth, but to ‘themselves or … those who are like themselves’. That is, they switch the source of their reliance to ‘public opinion’. Thus the bonds of rank and privilege are broken only to be replaced by ‘a new physiognomy of servitude’ (Tocqueville, 1990 [1840], p. 9, p. 11).

Tocqueville asserts the unavoidability of what John Hardwig (1985) has more recently called ‘epistemic dependence’. The vast majority of our beliefs and opinions must come from somewhere other than our reckoning from first principles. As Tocqueville puts it, modern man (sic) ‘is reduced to take on trust a host of facts and opinions which he has not had either the time or the power to verify for himself, but which men of greater ability have found out, or which the crowd adopts’ (Tocqueville, 1990 [1840], p. 8). However, this departure from the ideal of owning your own opinions also makes possible a greater strength and range of facts and opinions. To devote any attention to some small number of beliefs and opinions, one must take a huge range of opinions on trust and without discussion. And indeed, if anybody were to strike out alone, ‘[h]is intellect would be at once independent and powerless’ (Tocqueville, 1990 [1840], p. 9). Thus, while reliance on authority is practically unavoidable, it also brings substantive benefits. The question is not whether we rely on intellectual authority at all, but rather where, or from whom, we get our beliefs and opinions.

In ‘The Spirit of the Age’, a series of magazine pieces written four years prior to Tocqueville's publication in 1835 of Volume I of Democracy in America, Mill offers a similar assessment of modern society. He argues that society is in ‘transition’ from an earlier ‘organic’ age of unquestioning deference to tradition and religion. The questioning of established opinions has undermined the old authorities, and people are now condemned to build their own foundations with no guide but their own reason. Mill recognises – perhaps under the influence of Saint-Simon – that the loss of established certainties generates in many people a deep psychological anxiety.7 And he suggests that many people are neither fitted nor inclined to ‘dare to use their own reason’. In one telling passage, he writes:

if you once persuade an ignorant or a half-instructed person, that he ought to assert his liberty of thought, discard all authority, and – I do not say use his own judgment, for that he never can do too much – but trust solely to his own judgment, and receive or reject opinions according to his own views of the evidence; – if, in short, you teach to all the lesson of indifferency, so earnestly, and with such admirable effect, inculcated by Locke upon students, for whom alone that great man wrote, the merest trifle will suffice to unsettle and perplex their minds (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 244).

There is much here to support an elitist reading of Mill. He notes that Locke's call for ‘indifferency’ – which should be taken to mean a willingness to assert one's liberty of thought (Friedman, 1968, pp. 407–8) – was directed towards those who were prepared for it through education.8 Mill gives no hint that anybody would be forbidden from asserting their liberty of thought. However, he is clearly alive to the dangers of a society in which all, regardless of their state of education, were to give priority to their own judgement.

Mill feared the widespread tendency to ‘receive and reject opinions according to [one's] own view of the evidence’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 244) on similar grounds to Tocqueville. When people cease to recognise others as intellectual authorities – that is, when they consider all to be epistemic equals – ‘the only authority which commands an involuntary deference is that of numbers’ (Mill, 1977d [1840], p. 179). Such involuntary deference prompted by weight of numbers is one important mechanism by which society can exercise despotism over the individual – Tocqueville's ‘tyranny of the majority’. The more each individual regards himself as equal to others, as Mill wrote in a review of Volume II of Democracy in America, the more improbable it seems that ‘the opinion of all the world can possibly be erroneous’ (Mill, 1977d [1840], p. 179). Foreshadowing his essay ‘On Liberty’, he highlights the extent to which dissenting voices are cowed by the weight of public opinion. The worry, he continues, is that ‘the right of private judgment, by being extended to the incompetent, ceases to be exercised even by the competent’ (Mill, 1977d [1840], p. 179). The widespread rejection of intellectual authority does not cause authority to disappear, he suggests, but merely to take on a new and more dangerous form.

The other part of Mill's story concerns the fragmentation of elite opinion. Just as unanimity generates popular deference, ‘divisions among the instructed nullify their authority, and the uninstructed lose faith in them’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 238). It is through its unification that intellectual authority could be restored. However, in order for such authority to be warranted, this unity must emerge from a process of free and vigorous questioning. This model of intellectual authority is well described by the jurist John Austin, whose lectures on jurisprudence Mill attended in 1832, and whose influence on Mill is described by Richard Friedman (1968). Austin argued that in the realm of ethics just as in the sciences it is in principle possible for the leading thinkers to come to agreement on their results. Such agreement would command the deference of the uninstructed: ‘In the unanimous or general consent of numerous and impartial inquirers they would find that mark of trustworthiness which justifies reliance on authority’ (Austin, 1832, pp. 63–4). If unanimity is achieved by such inquirers letting go of their prejudices and having the courage to exercise their own faculties of reason, then the settled body of doctrine that emerged would have a warranted authority. Mill, too, holds that there are particular inquiries which may be undertaken into ‘physical, moral and social truths’ such that some can become ‘masters of the philosophical grounds of those opinions of which it is desirable that all should be firmly persuaded, but which they alone can entirely and philosophically know’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 242). Unanimity among a knowledgeable few, he argues, is a mark by which people recognise those worthy of deference and are motivated to defer. Further, it is in virtue of the special conditions that would have to obtain for it to be possible for there to be agreement that such unanimity would be worthy of deference.

However, this position raises a problem. The mark of consensus does not, on the face of it, tell us whether an opinion was well contested. How do you tell the difference between a consensus that issues from courageous and ‘indifferent’ deliberation among the learned few, and a consensus that is a product of something less demanding, such as acquiescence, groupthink, laziness or conspiracy? Mill's view, in ‘The Spirit of the Age’ at least, is that you cannot. Even when ‘proofs of these truths may be brought down to the level of the uninformed multitude’, he writes, ‘there remains something which they must always and inevitably take upon trust: and this is, that the arguments really are as conclusive as they appear; that there exist no considerations relevant to the subject which have been kept back from them; that every objection which can suggest itself has been duly examined by competent judges and found immaterial’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 243). Those who defer to such a consensus among the instructed are unable to share their reasons and proofs; they must simply be impressed by their consensus. The enlightened few, on this account, are supposed to be at the same time free thinkers and authorities. As Friedman puts it, ‘they will have to continue to be “indifferent” and to criticize established ways even after those ways have become theirs and have been established by them’ (Friedman, 1968, p. 410). The Kantian demand to question established authorities thus leads to the establishment of a new authority.

At this point I will briefly consider some parallels between Mill's early account of authority and the problem of expert authority with which I began this article. Few people today hold Mill's and Austin's hopes for the eventual refinement of a science of ethics. The idea that the ‘chaos’ of differing opinions could eventually be supplanted by a settled body of ethical doctrine arrived at by careful study by impartial inquirers seems an unlikely prospect. And Mill himself later retreated from such strong formulations (Ryan, 2007, p. 159). But something very like this structure is found in many contemporary views of scientific and expert authority. Charles Seife (2008), for instance, notes that:

science clashes with the democratic ideal. Though it is meritocratic, it is practiced in the elite and effete world of academe, leaving the vast majority of citizens unable to contribute to it in any meaningful way. Science is about freedom of thought, yet at the same time it imposes a tyranny of ideas.

Experts are required to be both ideal Enlightenment self-critics, fearlessly questioning their own and their peers' opinions and practising ‘indifferency’ in the room, so to speak, while projecting unanimity, and thereby authority, outside it. Those outside, it is supposed, cannot be persuaded on rational grounds (those internal to the deliberation), but can only be impressed by a consensus of experts. This leads to a characteristic tension between the need for robust discussion and at the same time outward unity of voice. This tension is usually resolved by keeping the doors firmly closed; that is, by erecting high barriers between those experts in the room and those non-experts outside.

However, in the context of scientific and expert deliberations this solution is becoming increasingly hard to maintain, for at least three reasons. First, such closure is hard to maintain in the current era of freely available information and educated and articulate ‘critical citizens’ (Norris, 1999), who mobilise their own experts and access information that once would have been easily kept from them, such as the emails between climate scientists revealed (either hacked or leaked) in the ‘climate-gate’ scandal (see Hulme, 2009). Second, the demand (or perceived demand) for unanimity can generate pressure to suppress well-grounded (if not entirely persuasive) minority views, and thus lose discursive diversity (see Beatty, 2006; Beatty and Moore, 2010). Third, in this situation it would seem that it takes just one dissenter – or perhaps an ideologically motivated ‘denialist’ (Oreskes and Conway, 2010) – to invalidate what might nonetheless be a well-grounded consensus of experts.

Dissent

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Consensus
  4. Dissent
  5. Judgement
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

The picture of authority we get from the early Mill seems both instructive and flawed. It plausibly describes aspects of contemporary practices of deference to expert authority, but it reveals the extent to which the faith involved in such deference (that ‘the arguments really are as conclusive as they appear’) is fragile in a context of contestation. Contestation, however, is a central theme in his later work, ‘On Liberty’. There Mill made two broad arguments against stifling minority viewpoints. First, it is always possible that the lone voice is the voice of truth. And second, even if the opinion is false, we would be wrong to suppress it because that would lead to our holding it as ‘dead dogma’ and not as a ‘living truth’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 243). The confrontation with falsehood forces us to reanimate the arguments that once settled the case. This emphasis on contestation was not a late development. Rather, it expresses his lifelong concern with developing the faculty of thinking for oneself. In his early essay ‘On Genius’, he argues that it is in virtue of their practices of disputation that the ancient Greeks more fully realised ‘genius’ than the moderns, for whom education was ‘all cram’ (Mill, 1981 [1832], pp. 336–7). The manner in which beliefs were acquired and held was at least as important as their truth or falsehood. This train of thought seems to lead in a very different direction to the work on intellectual authority I outlined in the previous section. It is for this reason that it can seem as though there are two Mills – the ‘apostle of liberty’ and the ‘other’ Mill, who called for ‘moral authority, individual restraint and social control’ (Hamburger, 1999, p. xiv). However, I suggest that there are continuities as well as differences between the earlier and later positions.

Mill continues to insist on the importance of acknowledging intellectual, moral and cultural authorities. Although he still thinks that ideally we should all ‘own’ all of our opinions, he accepts that this is simply not feasible in an increasingly complex world. And his later work is still animated by the fear that the conditions of mass society make it impossible for many to tell genuine from spurious intellectual authority. Nobody in a free society, of course, may be compelled to believe or forbidden from contesting opinions, but Mill remains deeply anxious about the dangers of misplaced deference. Thus, he begins section II of ‘On Liberty’ with a discussion of ‘collective authorities’, which is authority acquired by the weight of numbers of people who share an opinion. People tend to place implicit trust in the infallibility of their party, sect, community or class (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 230). This ‘world’ functions as a ‘deliberative enclave’ (Sunstein, 2002), where no dissenting opinion is heard and where people thus presume the truth of ‘such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 230). Authority so acquired, Mill argues, is socially dangerous because it tempts people to think their opinions are infallible, and it is morally lamentable because people should ‘learn … the grounds of [their] own opinions’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 230). Mill's main target here is the ‘democratic disposition of mind’, as Ryan puts it, which is characterised by the ‘majoritarian superstition’ that an opinion is better if other people hold it too, and best if shared by everyone (Ryan, 1998, p. 516).

However, Mill's early hope for a way out of the ‘age of transitions’ clearly fell away. He concluded ‘The Spirit of the Age’ with the clarion call: ‘when the first men of the age unite, no force on earth or in hell can resist’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 245). Such breathless anticipation is hard to find in his later work. Instead, he focuses on processes and capacities for progress within our imperfect age. That is, he retains the telos of truth, but suggests that in many domains the truth is ‘many sided’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 252). The different doctrines often possess at least a fragment of the truth, and the collision of such diverse opinions rearranges doctrines so as to accommodate another fragment of truth. And such truths as we settle on are provisional and fallible. ‘The beliefs for which we have most warrant’, he tells us in ‘On Liberty’, ‘have no safeguard to rest on but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 232). This seems not simply to be a matter for ‘the first men of the age’. Yet neither is it quite a matter for everyone. Mill recognises (albeit with disappointment) that many people defer uncritically to their world, that is, hold their beliefs out of ‘faith in this collective authority’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 230). Further, such one-eyed partisans are unlikely to be moved by argument. The benefits of a contest among diverse opinions go to the ‘calmer and more disinterested bystander’ (Mill, 1977b [1859], p. 257). Thus, while Mill consistently (in early and late work) idealises the person who fully owns the grounds of his opinions, and consistently decries the person who blindly defers to ‘the person next to him’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 244), he focuses increasingly on the figure of the competent observer or judging spectator as a way to reconcile the need for deference to well-grounded opinions and the impossibility of truly owning all of our opinions.

This ‘calmer and more disinterested bystander’ is not a participant in the debate, and is not herself fetching any conclusions by reckoning from first principles. Yet she is also not in the position of the unthinking, unreflective person whose beliefs are triggered by the fact of there being a consensus among her ‘world’. This concern is continuous with Mill's earlier position in ‘The Spirit of the Age’. There, as he worried about the effects of encouraging everybody to assert their liberty of thought and discard all authority, he made an important distinction between ‘trusting’ solely to one's own judgement – that is, to ‘receive or reject opinions according to [one's] own views of the evidence’ – and ‘using’ one's judgement (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 244). By trusting one's judgement he means accepting or rejecting opinions on one's own view of the evidence. This means giving priority to your own judgement over everyone else's, which amounts to a form of epistemic arrogance.

However, Mill is less clear on what exactly is meant by using one's own judgement. While ‘there is no person who does not prefer truth to authority – for authority is only appealed to as a voucher for truth’, the ‘real question, to be determined by each man's own judgment, is, whether most confidence is due in the particular case, to his own understanding, or to the opinion of his authority’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 243). But what is the nature of this judgement? On what grounds might we place most confidence in our own understanding over that of a putative authority? The observer judging with ‘eyes open’ is clearly different from the person who is arguing from first principles. Mill, we have seen, recognises that even if someone can be taught a basic version of the argument, it is still not the same as actually producing it for oneself, and that it always remains to be taken on trust ‘that every objection which can suggest itself has been duly examined by competent judges and found immaterial’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 243). Mill's reliance on consensus among ‘indifferent’ and knowledgeable inquirers as a mark of genuine authority, as I have suggested, breaks down principally because there is nothing about consensus as such that tells us how it came about. In ‘On Liberty’, however, instead of a leap of faith, trusting that ‘the arguments really are as conclusive as they appear’, Mill puts great emphasis on the value of witnessing a clash of opinions. Yet the idea that a calm and disinterested spectator to a clash of opinions would be likely to place their trust in the most warranted of those opinions is also unsatisfactory. The problem is that if a viewpoint is contested, then clearly it will not carry the authority of consensus, and if it is not contested, how do we know it was produced by thorough argument? How are outsiders to tell the difference between consensus achieved through contestation and consensus achieved some other way? How might dissent and contestation be legible in the unanimous view of the learned few?

This problem of consensus, dissent and authority is central to contemporary problems of expertise in politics. Consider again the issue of the authority of a consensus of experts on climate science. While few people expect unanimous agreement on what we ought to do in the face of climate change, many expect some degree of agreement on the factual dimensions of the problem of climate change, even accounting for inevitable complexities and uncertainties. The common assumption, as in Mill's theory of authority, is that a consensus will generate authority from the point of view of those who are not in a position to judge the evidence for themselves. It is for this reason that groups of experts in institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change aim to present consensus positions to their audiences, be they political decision makers or general publics. Nobody wants an expert committee to report six on one side and seven on the other. And many expect that deference to a consensus of those who know what they are talking about will be rationally justified, and not a blind surrender of judgement.

The chief problem with this model of authority looms large in contemporary cases of contested science in politics: consensus as such tells us nothing about the conditions of its production, and this is what would really make a consensus trustworthy. And the dissensus that might assure us that the consensus position has been robustly argued only proves that there is in fact no consensus, and hence no warranted deference. The authoritative declaration of a ‘consensus of scientists’ merely begs the question: how do we (who do not have access to ‘first items’) know the consensus is a product of good contestation, free argument and rational persuasion? If we rely simply on the institutions and practices of science to guarantee a good standard of contestation, then the question comes again – how do we know that this process, this time, was held to the highest standards of open contestation, debate and argument? As Mill noted in his early work, we still need to take on trust ‘that every objection which can suggest itself has been duly examined by competent judges and found immaterial’ (Mill, 1986 [1831], p. 243). In short, deference to a well-contested viewpoint seems problematic: if it is well contested, then it will not carry the unanimity that for Mill is the mark of authority, and if there is unanimity, then it is not clear how we would know about the conditions that produced it.

Judgement

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Consensus
  4. Dissent
  5. Judgement
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

One reason why the themes of liberty and authority seem so at odds in Mill's work is that Mill finds autonomy not simply in the rejection of authority but in the exercise of judgement within authority relations.9 In ‘The Spirit of the Age’, we saw Mill distinguish between using one's judgement and trusting to it. He was, it seems, trying to distinguish between the suspension or surrender of judgement with regard to substantive claims (the idea that one should not simply proceed according to one's own assessment of the evidence), and the exercise of judgement with regard to one's choice of authorities. In this he foreshadows more recent work on democratic authority by theorists such as Richard Flathman (1980) and Mark Warren (1996). ‘On Liberty’ brings out more clearly the tension involved in such an exercise of judgement. On the one hand, he decries mindless deference to the majority (that is, excessive epistemic humility), but on the other he still decries the epistemic arrogance involved in ‘trusting’ to one's judgement alone.10 At the root of both of these positions is a deep scepticism about the idea of epistemic equality. If it is assumed that all are epistemically equal, then presumably a majority is likely to be right. This notion can prompt deference to the majority, which Mill wants to discourage. However, if equality is taken to mean that all are to rely only on their own reason then we risk the opposite vice of epistemic arrogance. Mill contends that we cannot avoid being involved in relations of epistemic inequality and dependence. What we can all aspire to, however, is the exercise of judgement within those relations. Thus, in ‘On Liberty’, Mill focuses on the figure of the ‘competent observer’, who does not ‘make the thought [his or her] own thought’ (Mill, 1981 [1832], p. 331), but also does not blindly defer to his or her authorities. Mill's later work addresses the question of how best to exercise and develop the capacity to think for oneself in a context of competing collective authorities and specialist knowledge that we cannot hope to master, but to which we must often trust. We can get a better sense of how this judgement can be fleshed out by considering his account of the relation between bureaucratic expertise and deliberative competence in his ‘Considerations on Representative Government’.

In ‘Considerations’, Mill lays out a strict division of labour between ‘controlling the business of government, and actually doing it’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 423). The benefits of popular control on the one hand, and skilled administration on the other, can only be secured ‘by disjoining the office of control and criticism from the actual conduct of affairs, and devolving the former on the representatives of the Many, while securing for the latter, under strict responsibility to the nation, the acquired knowledge and practised intelligence of a specially trained and experienced Few’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 433). Administration, he argues, requires special expertise and experience, and thus ought to be the province of specially trained experts. Thus one of his recommendations was that legislation ought to be proposed, developed and drafted by a separate committee and presented to the deliberative chamber (parliament) only for an up-or-down vote (with an option to return for revisions). The representatives in parliament, on Mill's model, are not to amend legislation themselves, or, as he puts it, those members of the ‘tribunal of ignorance’ are to resist the temptation to use their ‘clumsy hands’ to ‘tinker’ with it (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 429). To let representatives amend legislation themselves would be to have ‘inexperience sitting in judgment on experience, ignorance on knowledge: ignorance which never suspecting the existence of what it does not know, is equally careless and supercilious, making light of, if not resenting, all pretensions to have a judgment better worth attending to than its own’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 426). The reasoning behind this strict division of labour recalls his comment in ‘Spirit’ about not ‘trusting’ to one's own judgement. Those in the deliberative chamber are not to give priority to their own views of substantive issues that they do not fully understand. They are, however, expected to exercise their judgement in placing their trust in those who know what they are doing.

While Mill extols the virtues of ‘aristocracies of public functionaries’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 437), he assigns an important role of ‘superintendence and check’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 440) to the deliberative chamber. The advantage of bureaucracy is that it can accumulate knowledge and experience in the form of well-considered traditional maxims. Its great weakness is that those maxims can become a deadening routine, and routine is the disease of which bureaucracies often die. ‘[A] bureaucracy’, he writes, ‘always tends to become a pedantocracy’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 439). This echoes his account in ‘Liberty’ of the danger of uncontested truth becoming ‘dead dogma’. And his solution also runs on a parallel track. The ‘office of control and criticism’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], p. 433) exercises what Urbinati calls a ‘watching power’ (2002, p. 49). For Mill the roles of skilled judgement and deliberative judgement are to be strictly separated, and those in the deliberative chamber are to surrender their judgement on substantive matters to those specialists who have studied them, but they are to exercise their deliberative judgement in placing such trust. The exercise of such judgement involves questioning, scrutinising, criticising, and demanding and evaluating justifications. This in itself is a high-level activity requiring a good deal of knowledge and practice (including those skills of ‘disputation’ that he extols in ‘On Genius’). There is some debate within Mill scholarship over how widely shared Mill thought this deliberative competence was, or could become.11 However, the point is that Mill describes authorities being not simply chastened or constrained, but rather constituted by the context of criticism.

That is, as in ‘On Liberty’, the key is in the relationship between putative authorities and the judging spectator. Mill is indeed concerned with competence and only sees autonomy exercised within well-conducted authority relationships, but the key to their good conduct is contestation. ‘In all human affairs’, he writes in ‘Considerations’, ‘conflicting influences are required, to keep one another alive and efficient even for their own proper uses; and the exclusive pursuit of one good object, apart from some other which should accompany it, ends not in excess of one and defect of the other, but in the decay and loss even of that which has been exclusively cared for’ (Mill, 1977a [1861], pp. 439–40). Mindless deference to intellectual authorities leads to the degradation of that which would make them worthy of deference. While Mill values skilled competence highly, it is clear that it is only in its relationship with deliberative competence that it can maintain its virtue, and the same is true for deliberative competence. Without the possibility of relying on expert authorities, deliberative competence would be, in Tocqueville's phrase, both independent and powerless. That is, I do not think Mill seriously doubts the necessity, even in a well-developed civilisation, of some degree of epistemic dependence. Indeed, his account of the division of labour in government speaks to a keen sense of how one might mindfully defer to others, provided they are subject to demands for justification and control by the ‘watching power’ of those with deliberative competence. He does not imagine that inequalities of knowledge and experience can be erased. Rather, he seeks to make those inequalities productive. It is in the relationship between the judging spectator and the putative authority that we find both the warrant for (provisional) acceptance of expert authority and the questioning that prevents such expertise from settling into dead dogma or routine.

Mill's account of mindful deference to expert authority is in some ways incomplete. He emphasises the role of the individual ‘competent observer’ in exercising judgement, which leads Ryan to suggest that Mill leaves ‘too much on the individual's shoulders’ (Ryan, 2007, p. 161). Thus we might now seek a more differentiated account of the associations, institutions and mechanisms that support the kind of judgement Mill invokes. Mill, of course, talks of education (see Donner, 2007), but we might also point to the importance of ‘knowledge associations’ (Turner, 2003, p. 127) or information proxies in generating the conditions that support the kind of mindful deference that Mill seeks to develop. Also in ‘Considerations’ Mill focuses on the parliament as the locus of deliberative competence, whereas today we might note a shift towards more societally dispersed forms of scrutiny, questioning and judgement (see Rosanvallon, 2008). However, this takes us further from Mill, and towards contemporary issues in deliberative democratic theory. My aim in this article was simply to draw attention to the role of authority in Mill's thought and suggest its potential significance for how we think about expert authority today.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Consensus
  4. Dissent
  5. Judgement
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography

I began this article by contrasting the seemingly unavoidable need for inequalities in knowledge, experience and skill with the democratic ideals and practices of equality and contestation. In outline, I have argued that throughout his work Mill recognised this tension, and elaborated with increasing sophistication an account of autonomy exercised from within authority relations. Instead of thinking in terms of a contradiction between Mill the ‘apostle of liberty’ and Mill the elitist, I have suggested that liberty and authority are in a productive tension in Mill's thought. What emerges from the early essays is not so much elitism (in the sense of rule by the knowledgeable), but rather a set of anxieties about the fate of enlightenment when it is impossible for all to exercise their own reason and ‘own’ their own opinions. These anxieties remain evident throughout Mill's work. He fears unthinking – which is to say uncritical – deference to one's ‘world’. In bureaucracies or expert communities as in any other area of life, he holds that an absence of criticism and contestation leads to a deadening of knowledge. But he also fears the consequences of always ‘trusting’ to one's own judgement, which is to say, of not deferring to appropriately constituted authorities. In his later work he focuses this tension on the figure of the competent observer or judging spectator, who ‘uses’ his or her judgement by exercising a kind of watching power and demanding justifications from experts even as he or she does not share in all of their reasoning from the ground up. Mill does not resolve the tension that arises between epistemic inequalities and the need to own one's opinions; rather, he makes it productive.

Mill is clearly sensitive to both the epistemic and moral dimensions of deference to a weight of opinion. His early emphasis on unanimity as a mark of authority is troubling in the context of expert authority today in that it implies that just one credible dissenter can invalidate the authority of a broad scientific consensus. This opens the door to politically motivated ‘merchants of doubt’, dedicated to throwing sand in the eyes of those politicians, policy makers and members of the public who are unable to reach their conclusions from first principles. We still face the question of how to balance the likelihood that a majority, a supermajority of some sort or a consensus is more likely to be right on some question and the tendency of a majority to engender social pressure to conform that amounts to a form of despotism. Mill points to a solution in terms of the exercise of judgement by a competent observer – a kind of deliberative judgement. Cultivating such judgement, and giving it institutional support and encouragement, is the key to reconciling expertise and democracy. By questioning the motives of experts, examining the political imperatives behind various claims or counter-claims and scrutinising the conditions of deliberation, non-experts can in fact exercise a kind of judgement that does not amount to examining the evidence for themselves, but that clearly does relate to the question of warranted trust in expert authority. This leaves open many questions about how such judgement might be exercised in this context, how widespread or specialist it might be, and so on – questions that have been addressed with some sophistication in recent social epistemology and sociology of expertise. What Mill can offer, however, is an account of the challenge of exercising judgement from within relations of authority and the need for institutions and practices that develop capacities for thinking for oneself while following others. If we are concerned, as I think we should be, with realistically responding to the contestation of epistemic authority while preserving the value of hard-won knowledge, then we need to attend to the conditions and capacities for supporting such public judgements.

Notes

The research leading to these results was funded by the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under grant agreement no. 237230.

  1. 1

    The notion of ‘politicisation’ of science is critically discussed by Brown, 2009.

  2. 2

    This insight has been taken up by Bernard Manin (1987) among others as a central justification of deliberative democracy.

  3. 3

    The quoted passages are from ‘The Spirit of the Age’, to be discussed in more detail below.

  4. 4

    Although Jonathan Riley differs from Urbinati in his account of skilled and deliberative competence in Mill's thought, he corroborates the view that they are in a dynamic interrelation. He notes, for instance, that Mill thought that ‘a representative democracy whose bureaucracy is required to struggle against elected lawmakers will outperform a “bureaucratic oligarchy” even with respect to the skilled business of government’ (Riley, 2007, pp. 242–3).

  5. 5

    As he does in A System of Logic (Mill, 1974 [1843]), in particular in Volume VI, Book XII.

  6. 6

    See, for instance, his ‘Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St Andrews’ (Mill, 1984 [1867]).

  7. 7

    Alan Ryan (2007, pp. 159–60) discusses the influence of Saint-Simon on Mill's early work in more detail.

  8. 8

    Indeed, we might read Mill's later ‘Address to the Students at St Andrews’ (Mill, 1984 [1867]) in this light.

  9. 9

    We might think of this as a specific manifestation of the ‘thinking from within’ that Skorupski identifies as a crucial element of Mill's thought (Skorupski, 2006, pp. 8–11).

  10. 10

    For an excellent account of a similar tension in the work of Rousseau, see Melissa Schwartzberg's (2008) essay on the epistemic and moral dimensions of Rousseau's use of majority and supermajority voting rules.

  11. 11

    See Urbinati (2002) and Riley (2007) for good recent contributions to this debate, and Thompson (1976) for an important earlier contribution.

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  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography
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Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Consensus
  4. Dissent
  5. Judgement
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
  8. Biography
  • Alfred Moore is a Research Fellow at Cambridge University, CRASSH. The research for this article was supported by a Marie Curie Fellowship on ‘Epistemology and Democracy in Complex Societies’, during which time he worked in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. Before moving to Cambridge, Dr Moore was a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department of University College Cork. He specialises in political theory, democratic governance and the politics of science and technology. Alfred Moore, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT, UK; email: am2214@cam.ac.uk