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John Stuart Mill
|Mill c. 1870|
|Member of Parliament|
for the City of Westminster
25 July 1865 – 17 November 1868Serving with Robert Grosvenor
|Preceded by||De Lacy Evans|
|Succeeded by||William Henry Smith|
|Born||20 May 1806|
Pentonville, London, England
|Died||7 May 1873 (aged 66)|
|Spouse(s)||Harriet Taylor(m. 1851; died 1858)|
|Alma mater||University College London|
|Main interests||Political philosophy, ethics, economics, inductive logic|
|Notable ideas||Public/private sphere, social liberty, hierarchy of pleasures in utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, classical liberalism, early liberal feminism, harm principle, Mill’s Methods, direct reference theory, Millian theory of proper names, emergentism|
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John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 7 May 1873), usually cited as J. S. Mill, was an English philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament (MP), and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory, and political economy. Dubbed “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century”, he conceived of liberty as justifying the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control. In his later years, whilst continuing to staunchly defend individual rights and freedoms, he became more critical of economic liberalism and his views on political economy moved towards a form of liberal socialism.
Mill was a proponent of utilitarianism, an ethical theory developed by his predecessor Jeremy Bentham. He contributed to the investigation of scientific methodology, though his knowledge of the topic was based on the writings of others, notably William Whewell, John Herschel, and Auguste Comte, and research carried out for Mill by Alexander Bain. He engaged in written debate with Whewell.
A member of the Liberal Party and author of the early feminist work The Subjection of Women, Mill was also the second Member of Parliament to call for women’s suffrage after Henry Hunt in 1832.
John Stuart Mill was born at 13 Rodney Street in Pentonville, Middlesex, the eldest son of Harriet Barrow and the Scottish philosopher, historian, and economist James Mill. 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, and 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, physics and astronomy.
At the age of eight, Mill began studying Latin, the works of 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 his earliest poetic 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, at 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 in 1821, a textbook to promote the ideas of Ricardian economics; however, the book lacked popular support. Ricardo, who was a close friend of his father, used to invite the young Mill to his house for a walk to talk about political economy.
At the age of 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 in 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.
Mill went through months of sadness and contemplated suicide at twenty years of age. According to the opening paragraphs of Chapter V of his autobiography, he had asked himself whether the creation of a just society, his life’s objective, would actually make him happy. His heart answered “no”, and unsurprisingly he lost the happiness of striving towards this objective. Eventually, the poetry of William Wordsworth showed him that beauty generates compassion for others and stimulates joy. With renewed joy he continued to work towards a just society, but with more relish for the journey. He considered this one of the most pivotal shifts in his thinking. In fact, many of the differences between him and his father stemmed from this expanded source of joy.
Mill had been engaged in a pen-friendship with Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and sociology, since Mill first contacted Comte in November 1841. 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 Benthamism.
As a nonconformist who refused to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, Mill was not eligible to study at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. Instead he followed his father to work for the East India Company, and attended University College, London, to hear the lectures of John Austin, the first Professor of Jurisprudence. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1856.
Mill’s career as a colonial administrator at the East India Company spanned from when he was 17 years old in 1823 until 1858, when the Company’s territories in India were directly annexed by the Crown, establishing direct Crown control over India. In 1836, he was promoted to the Company’s Political Department, where he was responsible for correspondence pertaining to the Company’s relations with the princely states, and in 1856, was finally promoted to the position of Examiner of Indian Correspondence. In On Liberty, A Few Words on Non-Intervention, and other works, he opined that “To characterize any conduct whatever towards a barbarous people as a violation of the law of nations, only shows that he who so speaks has never considered the subject”.(Mill immediately added, however, that “A violation of the great principles of morality it may easily be.”) Mill viewed places such as India as having once been progressive in their outlook, but had now become stagnant in their development; he opined that this meant these regions had to be ruled via a form of “benevolent despotism“, “provided the end is improvement”. When the Crown proposed to take direct control over the territories of the East India Company, he was tasked with defending Company rule, penning Memorandum on the Improvements in the Administration of India during the Last Thirty Years among other petitions. He was offered a seat on the Council of India, the body created to advise the new Secretary of State for India, but declined, citing his disapproval of the new system of administration in India.
In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor after 21 years of 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 in 1849. The couple waited two years before marrying in 1851. Brilliant in her own right, Taylor was a significant influence on Mill’s work and ideas during both friendship and marriage. His relationship with Taylor reinforced Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights. He said that in his stand against domestic violence, and for women’s rights he was “chiefly an amanuensis to my wife”. He called her mind a “perfect instrument”, and said she was “the most eminently qualified of all those known to the author”. 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, after only seven years of marriage to Mill.
Between the years 1865 and 1868 Mill served as Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews. At his inaugural address, delivered to the University on 1 February 1867, he made the now-famous (but often wrongly attributed) remark that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”. That Mill included that sentence in the address is a matter of historical record, but it by no means follows that it expressed a wholly original insight. During the same period, 1865–68, he was also a Member of Parliament (MP) for City of Westminster. He was sitting for the Liberal Party. During his time as an MP, Mill advocated easing the burdens on Ireland. In 1866, he became the first person in the history of Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, vigorously defending this position in subsequent debate. He also became a strong advocate of such social reforms as labour unions and farm cooperatives. In Considerations on Representative Government, he called for various reforms of Parliament and voting, especially proportional representation, the single transferable vote, and the extension of suffrage. In April 1868, he favoured in a Commons debate the retention of capital punishment for such crimes as aggravated murder; he termed its abolition “an effeminacy in the general mind of the country”.
Works and theories
Portrait of Mill by George Frederic Watts (1873)
A System of Logic
Main article: A System of Logic
Mill joined the debate over scientific method which followed on from John Herschel‘s 1830 publication of A Preliminary Discourse on the study of Natural Philosophy, which incorporated inductive reasoning from the known to the unknown, discovering general laws in specific facts and verifying these laws empirically. William Whewell expanded on this in his 1837 History of the Inductive Sciences, from the Earliest to the Present Time, followed in 1840 by The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon their History, presenting induction as the mind superimposing concepts on facts. Laws were self-evident truths, which could be known without need for empirical verification.
Mill countered this in 1843 in A System of Logic (fully titled A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation). In “Mill’s Methods” (of induction), as in Herschel’s, laws were discovered through observation and induction, and required empirical verification. Matilal remarks that Dignāga analysis is much like John Stuart Mill’s Joint Method of Agreement and Difference, which is inductive. He suggested that it is very likely that during his stay in India he may have come across the tradition of logic, on which scholars started taking interest after 1824, though it is unknown whether it influenced his work or not.
Theory of liberty
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Main article: On Liberty
Mill’s On Liberty (1859) addresses the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual. However, Mill is clear that his concern for liberty does not extend to all individuals and all societies. He states that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with Barbarians.”
Mill states that it is not a crime to harm oneself as long as the person doing so is not harming others. He favours the harm principle: “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.”[page needed] He excuses those who are “incapable of self-government” from this principle, such as young children or those living in “backward states of society”. More controversially, he also argues that the state may legitimately regulate marriage and child-bearing. In fact, Gregory Claeys argues, this effectively renders his method of social analysis family-centred rather than individualistic, as is usually assumed. But this in turn must be understood as defined in part in class terms. For the harm principle seemingly permits the wealthy to do many things denied to the poor.
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. (He does, however, recognise one limit to consent: society should not permit people to sell themselves into slavery.)
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. He did not consider giving offence to constitute “harm”; an action could not be restricted because it violated the conventions or morals of a given society.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.
Social liberty and tyranny of majority
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 introduced a number of different concepts of the form tyranny can take, referred to as social tyranny, and tyranny of the majority. Social liberty for Mill meant putting limits on the ruler’s power so that he would not be able to use that power to further his own wishes and thus make decisions that 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); and second, by establishment of a system of “constitutional checks”.
However, in Mill’s view, limiting the power of government was 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 practises 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.
Mill’s view on liberty, which was influenced by Joseph Priestley and Josiah Warren, is that the individual ought to be free to do as they wished unless they caused harm to others. Individuals are rational enough to make decisions about their well being. Government should interfere when it is for the protection of society. Mill explained:
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.
Freedom of speech
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. Along those same lines Mill wrote, “unmeasured vituperation, employed on the side of prevailing opinion, really does deter people from expressing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who express them.”:51
As an influential advocate of freedom of speech, Mill objected to censorship:
I choose, by preference the cases which are least favourable to me – In which the argument opposing 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.
Mill outlines the benefits of ‘searching for and discovering the truth’ as a way to further knowledge. He argued that even if an opinion is false, the truth can be better understood by refuting the error. And as most opinions are neither completely true nor completely false, he points out that allowing free expression allows the airing of competing views as a way to preserve partial truth in various opinions. Worried about minority views being suppressed, he argued in support of freedom of speech on political grounds, stating that it is a critical component for a representative government to have to empower debate over public policy. He also eloquently argued that freedom of expression allows for personal growth and self-realization. He said that freedom of speech was a vital way to develop talents and realise a person’s potential and creativity. He repeatedly said that eccentricity was preferable to uniformity and stagnation.
The belief that freedom of speech would advance society presupposed a society sufficiently culturally and institutionally advanced to be capable of progressive improvement. If any argument is really wrong or harmful, the public will judge it as wrong or harmful, and then those arguments cannot be sustained and will be excluded. Mill argued that even any arguments which are used in justifying murder or rebellion against the government shouldn’t be politically suppressed or socially persecuted. According to him, if rebellion is really necessary, people should rebel; if murder is truly proper, it should be allowed. However, the way to express those arguments should be a public speech or writing, not in a way that causes actual harm to others. Such is the harm principle: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
Holmes suggested that falsely shouting out “Fire!” in a dark theatre, which evokes panic and provokes injury, would be such a case of speech that creates an illegal danger. But if the situation allows people to reason by themselves and decide to accept it or not, any argument or theology should not be blocked.
Nowadays, Mill’s argument is generally accepted by many democratic countries, and they have laws at least guided by the harm principle. For example, in American law some exceptions limit free speech such as obscenity, defamation, breach of peace, and “fighting words“.
Freedom of the press
In On Liberty, Mill thought it was necessary for him to restate the case for press freedom. He considered that argument already won. Almost no politician or commentator in mid-19th-century Britain wanted a return to Tudor and Stuart-type press censorship. However, Mill warned new forms of censorship could emerge in the future. Indeed, in 2013 the Cameron Tory government considered setting up a so-called independent official regulator of the UK press. This prompted demands for better basic legal protection of press freedom. A new British Bill of Rights could include a US-type constitutional ban on governmental infringement of press freedom and block other official attempts to control freedom of opinion and expression.