Richard Reeves' biography, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand, explains Mill’s lifelong dedication to defining and promoting individual liberty.  

Reeves’ speech refuted communitarian charges against liberalism as too individualist. He talked about the necessity of individual character to create a working society.

“Liberal societies only work if they’re populated with people of good character,” he said. “… I think that character traits such as the ability to stick at a task, empathize with others, regulate your own emotional responses and delay gratification are vital for a good life, but also for a good society.”

Reeves stressed the importance of delaying gratification by working hard toward a better future. He said it was up to the workplace and the university to set a prevailing tone of duty and honest seeking of the truth in order for their members and for society as a whole to progress. 

“Mill argued that progress depends on truth, and that truth was most likely to emerge from the constant collision of opinions,” he said. “Liberalism forces us to accept the truth that everything we now believe may be rejected in the future.”

Reeves said it was important to realize there was no absolute truth and no fixed good, but rather, liberals had to insist that it was up to everyone to challenge institutions and norms to change the way they lived. He also argued that the elite and the professors had their role to play but the common good had to be determined democratically – through argument, persuasion, dialogue and deliberation – in a free society.

“At the heart of liberalism – certainly of Mills’ liberalism – is an unquenchable conviction in the capacity of all men and all women to lead good lives of their own choosing and construct common goods for all of us,” Reeves said. “Mill wrote that ‘The worth of the state in the long run is the worth of the individuals composing it. A state which dwarfs its men in order to make them more docile instruments in its hands, even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.’”

Reeves was recognized as European Business Speaker of the Year in 2007. He is the co-founder of the Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy, and was recently appointed director of Demos, a think tank with a vision of "a democracy of free citizens, with an equal stake in society." He holds a degree from Wadham College, Oxford University.

The forum is an annual speaker series organized by the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. The 2009- 10 season of the Forum explored “The Common Good,” the complicated tensions between the individual and the community, cooperation and competition, regionalism and globalism, and partiality and impartiality.  The conceptual roots of THE COMMON GOOD run deep in history, in society, and in the study of leadership. Just what is best for a group may require sacrifices by some group members. Sometimes, these costs are borne by few and sometimes, by many. Almost always, The Common Good asks that we constrain or rethink self-interest. How can the resulting good be truly common if some people suffer in the process of achieving it? And who decides who sacrifices? 

Watch the video of Richard Reeves’ speech here


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