Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority. The morality between Spartans and Helots, between planters and negroes, between princes and subjects, between nobles and courtiers, between men and women, has been for the most part the creation of these class interests and feelings: and the sentiments thus generated, react in turn upon the moral feelings of the members of the ascendant class, in their relations among themselves....
Ample warning may be drawn from the large infusion of the passions of a persecutor, which mingled with the general display of the worst parts of our national character on the occasion of the Sepoy insurrection. The ravings of fanatics or charlatans from the pulpit may be unworthy of notice; but the heads of the Evangelical party have announced as their principle, for the government of Hindoos and Mahomedans, that no schools be supported by public money in which the Bible is not taught, and by necessary consequence that no public employment be given to any but real or pretended Christians. An Under-Secretary of State, in a speech delivered to his constituents on the 12th of November, 1857, is reported to have said: “Toleration of their faith” (the faith of a hundred millions of British subjects), “the superstition which they called religion, by the British Government, had had the effect of retarding the ascendency of the British name, and preventing the salutary growth of Christianity. . . . Toleration was the great corner-stone of the religious liberties of this country; but do not let them abuse that precious word toleration. As he understood it, it meant the complete liberty to all, freedom of worship, among Christians, who worshipped upon the same foundation. It meant toleration of all sects and denominations of Christians who believed in the one mediation.” I desire to call attention to the fact, that a man who has been deemed fit to fill a high office in the government of this country, under a liberal Ministry, maintains the doctrine that all who do not believe in the divinity of Christ are beyond the pale of toleration. Who, after this imbecile display, can indulge the illusion that religious persecution has passed away, never to return?--John Stuart Mill On Liberty.
I have called attention to the fact that John Stuart's Mill's liberalism is, at its worst, no better than the expression of an ideology that justifies imperialism grounded not just in British military and economic power, but a sense of cultural and racialized superiority (recall here; and here). Today's post can be read, but is not so intended, as an attempt to balance the books a bit in favor of Mill against that charge. By contrast, I return to these issues because there is a genuine problem at the core of his liberalism, and in so far few of us can hope to surpass him, all of our liberalism(s) are tainted.
I have coupled two quotes from On Liberty. The first is from the rather curious introduction in which Mill offers us a historicized introduction to the history of thinking on different understands of the concept of civil liberty. I don't claim that Mill had Constant's famous lecture (recall here and here) open on his table, but some such story is one of his polemical targets here. (About that some other time more.) The second is from a footnote attached to part 2, where he is discussing the tendency to persecute politically weaker religions.
The first quote makes it clear that in conditions of domination/subordination, ruling ideologies will tend to favor the self-interest of the ruling classes. In so doing they corrupt the moral sentiments of the ruling class and even pervert how they treat each other. A bit further down, Mill seems to suggest they also corrupt the moral sentiments of the exploited class(es), by promoting servility.* I use 'subordination' because all five examples Mill offers are, he thinks, clear instances of domination. (Later readers of On Liberty can, after the publication of The Subjection of Women, be more confident about this, perhaps, than the very first.) So, it follows from this, that Mill is in a good position to be alert about the nature of British or Liberal claims made about India given the reality of colonialism; these will reflect primarily the interest of the ruling classes.
It is worth noting some context here. The British East India Company, Mill's employer (and he was an important employee), was dissolved due to the aftermath over the Sepoy insurrection. Mill had wished for the Company to continue to exist, and declined a leading position in its successor entity when he lost that political battle. So, when he wrote On Liberty, Mill was not himself directly involved in the rule over India anymore.+++
Philosophically, the second quote is directed against Locke's (far more narrower) position on toleration which by the middle of the nineteenth century had become a useful ruling dogma to serve the class interests of the British abroad.** Mill reminds his readers that a leading British politician -- who sees in colonial rule a good occasion for mass conversion of the colonized + -- is espouses it as common sense. It is notable that Mill thinks the Lockean view contemptuous; not worth engaging philosophically with.++ (This is also interesting because it suggests that Mill does not believe one is required to argue with all opposing views, even though that can be useful to one's personal, intellectual growth.)
The passage also shows that Mill was aware that, in practice, his own country's imperialism/colonialism allowed the intolerant to promote ideologies to those weaker than themselves (something his own theory of ideology predicted). Here Mill misses an opportunity to correct himself on the merits of imperialism.
A more subtle point of the footnote is that Mill thinks it illustrates that no advance in the liberal mores of society is really secure. For those of us writing today this seems obvious again. But it is notable to find it in Mill, who had introduced his treatment of liberty with an appeal to the thought that a new treatment is needed "in the stage of progress into which the more civilized portions of the species have now entered." (That's from the first paragraph of the book.) So, one might have thought that Mill had confidence in the progress of history, one that also seems to justify, in part, his defense of the rule of civilized over the less civilized. But, if we look more closely at the details of Mill's position, it seems clear that he could have been aware this must have seemed like an ideological and illusory construct.
*Mill emphasizes that this servility is not a matter of appearance, but because sincerely held and also expresses itself in scapegoating other victims.
**It's an interesting question if it was so intended from the start. Locke's views on property have the original sin of colonialism built into their nature.
+I have noted that this view was shared, alas, by the very humane, great Liberal humanitarian, T.H. Green.
++Perhaps he is only complaining about this particular application. But I think the more natural reading is mine.
+++I found the editorial comments by Mark Philp and Frederick Rosen of the Oxford World's Classics edition very useful.