Study and Discussion Questions on Mill, Book VI, Chapters 7 and 8

Study questions:

1.  Mill is an empiricist, yet in Chapter 7 he apparently denies that observation and experiment  can get us knowledge of social generalizations, such as whether free trade is beneficial.  Is he contradicting himself?  How can we make sense of this?

2.  Why does Mill think that we cannot directly consult experience to answer questions such as whether free trade is socially beneficial?

3.  What does Mill identify as a central difference between geometry and physics, which makes physics rather than geometry a better model for the methodology of the social sciences?  (p. 33)

4.  What ambiguity does Mill identify (p. 35) in the claim of the Bentham school that people's actions are determined by their interests?

Discussion Questions:

A.  Mill begins chapter 7 with the following words (also quoted by Hollis):

"1. The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions  and passions of human beings united together in the social state. Men, however, in a state of society, are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance, with different properties; as hydrogen and oxygen are different from water, or as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and azote are different from nerves, muscles, and tendons. Human beings in society have no properties but those which are derived from, and may be resolved into, the laws of the nature of individual man. In social phenomena the Composition of Causes is the universal law."

think first about what this means. Do you think that Adam Smith would agree?  Is it true that "Human beings in society have no properties but those which are derived from, and may be resolved into, the laws of the nature of individual man."  Does this follow from or imply the following sentence, "In social phenomena the Composition of Causes is the universal law"?

B.  Contemporary economists have a very simple argument for the conclusion that increases in the minimum wage will increase unemployment  among the unskilled.  "Firms have a choice of different techniques, some of which use more unskilled labor, others which use more machinery or more skilled labor.  If the price of unskilled labor is increased by an increase in the minimum wage, firms will lower their costs by changing their methods and employing fewer unskilled laborers."  In a famous book published about fifteen years ago, a couple of economists, Card and Krueger, examined employment  of unskilled laborers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania after only one of the states increased its minimum wage and found that unemployment did not increase.  Is this a successful application of what Mill calls "the chemical method"?  What would Mill say about this case?

C.  According to Mill the Bentham school (and he is in fact referring to his father) made something like the following unsound argument:

1.  People pursue their own interests and nothing else.
2.  A ruler's interest will consistently coincide with the common interest if and only if the ruler is responsible to the public.
3. Rulers will consistently pursue the common interest if and only if they are responsible to the public.

Why is this argument unsound?  How is its unsoundness related to their reliance on a mistaken "geometrical" method?