14 June 2019

John Stuart Mill — blank-slate collectivist?

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
The following extract* from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography is cited in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.
I have long felt that the prevailing tendency to regard all the marked distinctions of human character as innate, and in the main indelible, and to ignore the irresistible proofs that by far the greater part of those differences, whether between individuals, races, or sexes, are such as not only might but naturally would be produced by differences in circumstances, is one of the chief hindrances to the rational treatment of great social questions, and one of the greatest stumbling blocks to human improvement.

This tendency [...is] so agreeable to human indolence, as well as to conservative interests generally, that unless attacked at the very root, it is sure to be carried to an even greater length than is really justified by the more moderate forms of intuitional philosophy. [italics added]
Mill makes it clear that a reason for his dislike of the idea of innate characteristics is his associating it with ‘conservative interests’. Mill was presumably hostile to ‘conservative interests’ because he thought of himself as a ‘social reformer’.

It is not clear what Mill could have meant by ‘irresistible proofs’ that individual differences are predominantly due to environment. There was little statistical data on the issue of human heritability when he wrote this in the 1870s.

Nowadays prejudice against innate characteristics, on the grounds that belief in them is an obstacle to social reform, has become a common attitude.

* Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, Penguin Books, 2003, p.18.