Mill, John Stuart
"Stuart Mill" redirects here. For the town in Australia, see Stuart Mill, Victoria.
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John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill in 1865
Photo by John Watkins
||John Stuart Mill
||20 May 1806
Pentonville, London, England
||8 May 1873
||Empiricism, utilitarianism, liberalism
||Political philosophy, ethics, economics, inductive logic
||public/private sphere, hierarchy of pleasures in Utilitarianism, liberalism, early liberal feminism, harm principle, Mill's Methods
Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Francis Place, James Mill, Harriet Taylor Mill, Smith, Ricardo, Tocqueville, von Humboldt, Goethe, Coleridge, Saint-Simon (Utopian Socialists)
William James, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Ronald Dworkin, H.L.A. Hart, Peter Singer, Wilhelm Dilthey, Paul Feyerabend, Zechariah Chafee, John Maynard Keynes, Will Kymlicka, Carlos Vaz Ferreira
John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873) was a British philosopher and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of utilitarianism, an ethical theory developed by Jeremy Bentham, although his conception of it was very different from Bentham's. Hoping to remedy the problems found in an inductive approach to science, such as confirmation bias, he clearly set forth the premises of falsification as the key component in the scientific method. Mill was also a Member of Parliament and an important figure in liberal political philosophy.
John Stuart Mill was born on Rodney Street in the Pentonville area of London, the eldest son of the Scottish philosopher, historian and economist James Mill, and Harriet Burrow. John Stuart was educated by his father, with the advice and assistance of Jeremy Bentham and Francis Place. He was given an extremely rigorous upbringing, and was deliberately shielded from association with children his own age other than his siblings. His father, a follower of Bentham and an adherent of associationism, had as his explicit aim to create a genius intellect that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism and its implementation after he and Bentham had died.
Mill was a notably precocious child. He describes his education in his autobiography. At the age of three he was taught Greek. By the age of eight he had read Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Anabasis, the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.
At the age of eight he began learning Latin, Euclid, and algebra, and was appointed schoolmaster to the younger children of the family. His main reading was still history, but he went through all the commonly taught Latin and Greek authors and by the age of ten could read Plato and Demosthenes with ease. His father also thought that it was important for Mill to study and compose poetry. One of Mill's earliest poetry compositions was a continuation of the Iliad. In his spare time, he also enjoyed reading about natural sciences and popular novels, such as Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe.
His father's work, The History of British India was published in 1818; immediately thereafter, about the age of twelve, Mill began a thorough study of the scholastic logic, at the same time reading Aristotle's logical treatises in the original language. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied Adam Smith and David Ricardo with his father, ultimately completing their classical economic view of factors of production. Mill's comptes rendus of his daily economy lessons helped his father in writing Elements of Political Economy, which became the leading textbook exposition of doctrinaire Ricardian economics. Ricardo, who was a close friend of his father, used to invite the young Mill to his house for a walk in order to talk about political economy.
At age fourteen, Mill stayed a year in France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of Jeremy Bentham. The mountain scenery he saw led to a lifelong taste for mountain landscapes. The lively and friendly way of life of the French also left a deep impression on him. In Montpellier, he attended the winter courses on chemistry, zoology, logic of the Faculté des Sciences, as well as taking a course of the higher mathematics. While coming and going from France, he stayed in Paris for a few days in the house of the renowned economist Jean-Baptiste Say, a friend of Mill's father. There he met many leaders of the Liberal party, as well as other notable Parisians, including Henri Saint-Simon.
This intensive study however had injurious effects on Mill's mental health, and state of mind. At the age of twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown. In chapter V of his Autobiography, he claims that this was caused by the great physical and mental arduousness of his studies which had suppressed any feelings he might have developed normally in childhood. Nevertheless, this depression eventually began to dissipate, as he began to find solace in the Mémoires of Jean-François Marmontel and the poetry of William Wordsworth.
Mill had been engaged in a pen-friendship with Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and sociology, since the two were both young men in the early 1820s. Comte's sociologie was more an early philosophy of science than we perhaps know it today, and the positive philosophy aided in Mill's broad rejection of Benthianism.
Mill refused to study at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge, because he refused to take Anglican orders. Instead he followed his father to work for the East India Company until 1858.
In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor after 21 years of an intimate friendship. Taylor was married when they met, and their relationship was close but generally believed to be chaste during the years before her first husband died. Brilliant in her own right, Taylor was a significant influence on Mill's work and ideas during both friendship and marriage. His relationship with Harriet Taylor reinforced Mill's advocacy of women's rights. He cites her influence in his final revision of On Liberty, which was published shortly after her death. Taylor died in 1858 after developing severe lung congestion, only seven years into their marriage.
Between the years 1865-1868 Mill served as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews. During the same period, 1865-8, he was a Member of Parliament for City and Westminster, and was often associated with the Liberal Party. During his time as an MP, Mill advocated easing the burdens on Ireland, and in 1866 became the first person in Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote. Mill became a strong advocate of women's rights and such social reforms as labor unions and farm cooperatives. In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill called for various reforms of Parliament and voting, especially proportional representation, the Single Transferable Vote, and the extension of suffrage. He was godfather to Bertrand Russell.
He died in Avignon, France, in 1873, where he is buried alongside his wife.
 Theory of liberty
|Part of a series on
David Hume · William Godwin · Francis Hutcheson
Jeremy Bentham · John Stuart Mill
Henry Sidgwick · Peter Singer
Types of utilitarianism
Preference · Rule · Act
Two-level · Total · Average
Negative · Hedonism
Pain · Suffering · Pleasure
Utility · Happiness · Eudaimonia
Consequentialism · Felicific calculus
Mere addition paradox
Paradox of hedonism
Rational choice theory · Game theory
Social choice · Neoclassical economics
Main article: On Liberty
Mill's On Liberty addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. One argument that Mill develops further than any previous philosopher is the harm principle. The harm principle holds that each individual has the right to act as he wants, so long as these actions do not harm others. If the action is self-regarding, that is, if it only directly affects the person undertaking the action, then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. He does argue, however, that individuals are prevented from doing lasting, serious harm to themselves or their property by the harm principle. Because no-one exists in isolation, harm done to oneself also harms others, and destroying property deprives the community as well as oneself. Mill excuses those who are "incapable of self-government" from this principle, such as young children or those living in "backward states of society".
Mill argues that despotism is an acceptable form of government for those societies that are "backward", as long as the despot has the best interests of the people at heart, because of the barriers to spontaneous progress. Though this principle seems clear, there are a number of complications. For example, Mill explicitly states that "harms" may include acts of omission as well as acts of commission. Thus, failing to rescue a drowning child counts as a harmful act, as does failing to pay taxes, or failing to appear as a witness in court. All such harmful omissions may be regulated, according to Mill. By contrast, it does not count as harming someone if — without force or fraud — the affected individual consents to assume the risk: thus one may permissibly offer unsafe employment to others, provided there is no deception involved. (Mill does, however, recognize one limit to consent: society should not permit people to sell themselves into slavery). In these and other cases, it is important to keep in mind that the arguments in On Liberty are grounded on the principle of Utility, and not on appeals to natural rights.
The question of what counts as a self-regarding action and what actions, whether of omission or commission, constitute harmful actions subject to regulation, continues to exercise interpreters of Mill. It is important to emphasize that Mill did not consider giving offense to constitute "harm"; an action could not be restricted because it violated the conventions or morals of a given society.
On Liberty involves an impassioned defense of free speech. Mill argues that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress. We can never be sure, he contends, that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. He also argues that allowing people to air false opinions is productive for two reasons. First, individuals are more likely to abandon erroneous beliefs if they are engaged in an open exchange of ideas. Second, by forcing other individuals to re-examine and re-affirm their beliefs in the process of debate, these beliefs are kept from declining into mere dogma. It is not enough for Mill that one simply has an unexamined belief that happens to be true; one must understand why the belief in question is the true one.
John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor. Helen was the daughter of Harriet Taylor and collaborated with Mill for fifteen years after her mother's death in 1858
Mill believed that “the struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history.” For him, liberty in antiquity was a “contest... between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government." Mill defined "social liberty" as protection from "the tyranny of political rulers." He introduces a number of different tyrannies, including social tyranny, and also the tyranny of the majority.
Social liberty for Mill was to put limits on the ruler’s power so that he would not be able to use his power on his own wishes and make every kind of decision which could harm society; in other words, people should have the right to have a say in the government’s decisions. He said that social liberty was “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual”. It was attempted in two ways: first, by obtaining recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights; second, by establishment of a system of "constitutional checks".
However, limiting the power of government is not enough. "Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
 View on liberty
John Stuart Mill’s view on liberty, which was influenced by Joseph Priestley and Josiah Warren, is that the individual ought be free to do as he wishes unless he harms others. Individuals are rational enough to make decisions about their good being and choose any religion they want to. Government should interfere when it is for the protection of society. Mill explains,
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns him, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
 View on freedom of speech
An influential advocate of freedom of speech, Mill objected to censorship. He says: "I choose, by preference the cases which are least favourable to me - In which the argument against freedom of opinion, both on truth and that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief of God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality... But I must be permitted to observe that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less if it is put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However positive anyone's persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion. - yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.”
 Human rights and slavery
In 1850, Mill sent an anonymous letter (which came to be known under the title "The Negro Question"), in rebuttal to Thomas Carlyle's anonymous letter to Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country. Carlyle had defended slavery on grounds of genetic inferiority and claimed that the West Indies development was due to British ingenuity alone and dismissed any notion that there was a debtedness to imported slaves for building the economy there. Mill's rebuttal and references to the ongoing debate in the U.S. at the time regarding slavery were emphatic and eloquent. The full text, as well as a link to the Carlyle letter which prompted it, is available online.
 Connection to feminism
"A Feminine Philosopher". Caricature by Spy published in Vanity Fair in 1873.
Mill saw women’s issues as important and began to write in favor of greater rights for women. With this, Mill can be considered one of the earliest feminists. In his article, “The Subjection of Women” (1861, published 1869), he talks about the role of women in marriage and how he felt it needed to be changed. There, Mill comments on three major facets of women’s lives that he felt are hindering them: society and gender construction, education, and marriage. Mill is also famous for being one of the earliest and strongest supporters of ever greater rights for women. His book The Subjection of Women is one of the earliest written on this subject by a male author. He felt that the 'oppression' of women was one of the few remaining relics from ancient times, a set of prejudices that severely impeded the progress of humanity.
Mill's ideas were opposed by Ernest Belfort Bax in his treatise, 'The Legal Subjugation of Men'.
Main article: Utilitarianism (book)
The canonical statement of Mill's utilitarianism can be found in Utilitarianism. This philosophy has a long tradition, although Mill's account is primarily influenced by Jeremy Bentham and Mill's father James Mill.
Mill's famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the "greatest-happiness principle". It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, within reason. Mill's major contribution to utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, whereas Mill argues that intellectual and moral pleasures are superior to more physical forms of pleasure. Mill distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that "[i]t is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question."
Mill defines the difference between higher and lower forms of happiness with the principle that those who have experienced both tend to prefer one over the other. This is, perhaps, in direct contrast with Bentham's statement that "Pushpin is as good as Poetry", that, if a simple child's game like hopscotch causes more pleasure to more people than a night at the opera house, it is more imperative upon a society to devote more resources to propagating hopscotch than running opera houses. Mill's argument is that the "simple pleasures" tend to be preferred by people who have no experience with high art, and are therefore not in a proper position to judge. Mill supported legislation that would have granted extra voting power to university graduates on the grounds that they were in a better position to judge what would be best for society. It should be noted that, in this example, Mill did not intend to devalue uneducated people and would certainly have advocated sending the poor but talented to universities: he believed that education, and not the intrinsic nature of the educated, qualified them to have more influence in government.
The qualitative account of happiness that Mill advocates thus sheds light on his account presented in On Liberty. As Mill suggests in that text, utility is to be conceived in relation to mankind "as a progressive being", which includes the development and exercise of his rational capacities as he strives to achieve a "higher mode of existence". The rejection of censorship and paternalism is intended to provide the necessary social conditions for the achievement of knowledge and the greatest ability for the greatest number to develop and exercise their deliberative and rational capacities.
 Economic philosophy
Main article: Principles of Political Economy
Mill's early economic philosophy was one of free markets. However, he accepted interventions in the economy, such as a tax on alcohol, if there were sufficient utilitarian grounds. He also accepted the principle of legislative intervention for the purpose of animal welfare. Mill originally believed that "equality of taxation" meant "equality of sacrifice" and that progressive taxation penalized those who worked harder and saved more and was therefore "a mild form of robbery".
Given a tax break to the rich, Mill agreed that inheritance should be taxed. A utilitarian society would agree that everyone should be equal one way or another. Therefore receiving inheritance would put one ahead of society unless taxed on the inheritance. Those who donate should consider and choose carefully where their money goes—some charities are more deserving than others. Considering public charities boards such as a government will disperse the money equally. However a private charity board like a church would disperse the monies fairly to those who are in more need than others.
Later he altered his views toward a more socialist bent, adding chapters to his Principles of Political Economy in defense of a socialist outlook, and defending some socialist causes. Within this revised work he also made the radical proposal that the whole wage system be abolished in favour of a co-operative wage system. Nonetheless, some of his views on the idea of flat taxation remained, albeit in a slightly toned down form.
Mill's Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, was one of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period. As Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations had during an earlier period, Mill's Principles dominated economics teaching. In the case of Oxford University it was the standard text until 1919. The text that replaced it was written by Cambridge's Alfred Marshall.
 Economic democracy
Mill promoted economic democracy in the capitalist economy whereby labourers would elect members of management. Mill believed that this was necessary to end what he deemed to be dictatorial management of capitalist firms and to establish liberty and equality in the capitalist economy. Mill's promotion of the right of labourers to elect management has been seen as support for economic corporatism.
 Mill's views on the environment
Mill demonstrated an early insight into the value of the natural world - in particular in Book IV, chapter VI of "Principles of Political Economy": "Of the Stationary State"  in which Mill recognised wealth beyond the material, and argued that the logical conclusion of unlimited growth was destruction of the environment and a reduced quality of life. He concluded that a stationary state could be preferable to neverending economic growth:
I cannot, therefore, regard the stationary state of capital and wealth with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by political economists of the old school.
If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it.
 Major publications
- "Two Letters on the Measure of Value", 1822, The Traveller
- "Questions of Population", 1823, Black Dwarf
- "War Expenditure", 1824, Westminster Review
- "Quarterly Review -- Political Economy", 1825, Westminster Review
- "Review of Miss Martineau's Tales", 1830, Examiner
- "The Spirit of the Age", 1831, Examiner
- "What is Poetry", 1833, 1859
- "Essay on Bentham" 1838
- "Essay on Coleridge" 1840
- A System of Logic, 1843
- Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, 1844
- "Claims of Labour", 1845, Edinburgh Review
- The Principles of Political Economy: with some of their applications to social philosophy, 1848
- "The Negro Question", 1850, Fraser's Magazine
- Dissertations and Discussions, 1859.
- A Few Words on Non-intervention, 1859
- On Liberty, 1859
- Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform, 1859.
- Considerations on Representative Government, 1861
- "Centralisation", 1862, Edinburgh Review
- "The Contest in America", 1862, Harper's Magazine
- Utilitarianism, 1863
- An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, 1865.
- Auguste Comte and Positivism, 1865.
- Inaugural Address at St. Andrews - Rectorial Inaugural Address at the University of St. Andrews, concerning the value of culture, 1867.
- "Speech In Favor of Capital Punishment", 1868 
- England and Ireland, 1868.
- "Thornton on Labor and its Claims", 1869, Fortnightly Review
- The Subjection of Women, 1869
- Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question, 1870
- On Nature, 1874
- Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, 1873
- Three Essays on Religion, 1874
- "Notes on N.W. Senior's Political Economy", 1945, Economica
 See also
- List of liberal theorists
- Mill's Methods
- Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom