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'Experiments in Living'

I’m late to the party, but Patrick Deneen, of the University of Notre Dame, has a splendid little essay over at The American Conservative, on the effects of John Stuart Mill’s “emancipatory” liberalism. SPOILER ALERT: The effects are not good. Deenen dwells particularly on Mill’s contempt for “Custom” and the society that it has created:

We live today in a Millian world: everywhere, at every moment, we are to be engaged in experiments in living. Custom has been largely routed: much of what today passes as “culture”—affixed with the adjective “popular”—consists of the flouting, mocking, ironizing and dismissal of Custom. Society has been transformed along Millian lines in which everyone is to be engaged in “experiments in living,” liberated from the dominion of “judgmentalism” and rather embracing any and every form of “diversity.” . . .

Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed.” It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong, as Mill recognized. . . . The results of this civilizational transformation are accumulating everywhere we look. The Strong are flourishing: congregating in the wealthy counties around Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and the like, they participate merrily in a society that disassembles all the old Customs, while their growing wealth insulates them against the ravages of our new economy shorn of the old ways. Beyond their vision, in the “fly-over” country, their countrymen are sinking in the quicksand of their new liberties. Pre-marital sex, abortion, out of wedlock birth, an epidemic of fatherless children, the incapacity to hold down secure employment in a globalized and increasingly automated economy—these and a host of other social ills are the fruits of their liberty. Experiments in living will lead to a few successes and many failures; the latter are part of the price of success for the Strong.

Deenen rightly suggests that Edmund Burke, for whom Custom was key, offers a much needed antidote to our modern Mill-ism. But the disease may, at this point, be terminal.

Agree or disagree? Read the entirety of Professor Deneen’s piece here.


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