Key thinker: John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
John Stuart Mill was born in London to Harriet Burrow and James Mill (1773-1836), a close friend and associate of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (see Key Thinker: Jeremy Bentham). Mill’s father hoped his son would become the heir to Bentham and take his place as the leader of the utilitarian school of philosophical radicalism (https://www.britannica.com/topic/philosophical-radical). Bentham took a keen interest in his education, which included a very early introduction to Greek and Latin texts, Scottish and English historians, as well as political economy, logic, and calculus (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/). When J.S. Mill was still a teenager, Bentham and his collaborators founded the Westminster Review, a journal which would become the organ of philosophical radicalism. Mill became closely involved with the production of the journal—he edited the journal in the 1830s—and followed his father into the service of the British East India Company (https://www.utilitarianism.com/jsmill.htm).
At the age of 20, Mill suffered a nervous breakdown, provoked in part by the realization that his success as a utilitarian philosopher and devotion to the public good would not make him happy. Hoping to develop his aesthetic sensibilities, Mill turned instead to the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Goethe, whom he hoped would help him develop his aesthetic sensibilities (https://www.utilitarianism.com/jsmill.htm). In 1830, Mill met Harriet Taylor, a married woman whom he would only get to marry 21 years later after the death of her husband (https://iep.utm.edu/milljs/). Harriet became Mill’s intellectual partner and they collaborated closely on a number of Mill’s key texts (see Key Thinker: Harriet Taylor Mill).
After the deaths of Bentham (1832) and his father (1836), Mill gained more intellectual freedom; he could now finally express his changing philosophical views and acknowledge his intellectual debt to ‘heretical’ thinkers like Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle (https://iep.utm.edu/milljs/). Mill hoped to build on Bentham’s original insight, while showing that he could create a better and more complete philosophical treatise. He followed Bentham and his father in arguing that the decline of the aristocracy and the growth of equality were a boon to the project of modernization. But he also acknowledged that this new order brings with it dangers of social unrest. In a sense, then, Mill’s philosophical and political project was to balance out the negative effects of rising equality while simultaneously taking advantage of the opportunities it presented (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/).
When the East India Company was wound up and placed under control of the British government following the Mutiny of 1857, Mill retired from his post and moved to Avignon, France (https://www.utilitarianism.com/jsmill.htm). After Harriet’s death in 1858, Mill spent the rest of his life between his house near Avignon and Blackheath near London. In 1865, he was surprisingly elected as the Liberal MP for Westminster. In Parliament, Mill was considered a radical due to his advocacy for the equality of women, compulsory education, and land reform in Ireland (https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/mill_john_stuart.shtml). Towards the end of his life, Mill began spending more time in France, where he died in 1873. He was 66 years old.
Mill was a prolific author and wrote on a wide range of subjects, including logic and political economy (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/). Taken together his major works—Utilitarianism (1861), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), On Liberty (1859), and On the Subjection of Women (1869)—constitute the core of Mill’s political thought. On the Subjugation of Women is a classic statement of liberal feminism and was heavily influenced by his late wife, Harriet. Mill’s views on gender were ahead of their time. The book, written collaboratively with Harriet, argued that the legal subordination of women should be abolished and that a principle of perfect equality should govern society (see 12.4. Race, Gender and Empire). Mill provides a strong argument against the view, prevalent at the time, that the subordination of women was somehow ‘natural’. He was a fierce critic of women’s oppression and worked to reform institutions that reinforced patriarchal society. Mill also spent much of his time as MP of Westminster promoting the cause of women’s suffrage; he even attempted to amend the 1867 Reform Bill to exchange the word ‘man’ for ‘person’ so that it would apply to women (https://iep.utm.edu/milljs/). His efforts to reform the bill failed and he was not re-elected to Parliament; nonetheless his advocacy for women’s rights had a lasting impact.
On Liberty, however, remains Mill’s best-known and most influential work (see 12.2. Liberalism and Utilitarianism). With his book, Mill hoped to demonstrate the nature and limits of power that can be legitimately exercised by governments. Mill based his argument against an over-mighty state on the view that governments should only interfere in the lives of citizens when their activities could cause harm to other people; this is called the liberty principle or harm principle (see 12.2.1. Liberty). The harm principle thus protects freedom of speech, thought, and discussion; liberty of choice and action; and the freedom to assemble. While the principle might, at first, seem straight forward, there is some room for debate over the meaning and definition of ‘harm’. Does malicious gossip, for example, count as harm? Moreover, how governments should respond to harm is not always clear: even if it is proven that second-hand cigarette smoke is harmful, it is still matter of judgement whether governments should ban smoking outright or create separate areas for smokers. Mill is unclear, however, about whether liberty is intrinsically or instrumentally valuable. The general tendency of Mill’s work, however, is to give the benefit of the doubt to individual liberty against state-enforced restrictions whenever the case is unclear.
On Liberty was Mill’s response to the utilitarianism of James Mill and Bentham (see Key Concept: Utilitarianism). There is a strand of perfectionism in Mill’s thought, evidenced in his claim that governments should aim to produce well-rounded citizens. Mill distinguished between lower and higher pleasures, and argued that we should prioritize the latter. As Mill put it, it was ‘better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied’. His strong idea of what constitutes the ‘good life’ was at odds with classical liberalism’s conviction that the public sphere should be neutral (see 12.1. Introduction). In Representative Government, Mill also broke with utilitarian thought by advocating for a democratic system in which the vote of educated people should hold more weight than that of other citizens (see 12.3.1. Government). Like Alexis de Tocqueville (see Key Thinker: Alexis de Tocqueville), Mill wanted to enfranchise the masses while mitigating any possible excesses. He thought that working-class people should be allowed to vote and participate in government, but that they first needed to be adequately educated (see 12.2.3. Democracy).
Despite his liberal upbringing and education, Mill was sympathetic to socialist ideas (McCabe, 2021). In his Autobiography (1873), Mill classed himself ‘under the general designation of Socialist’, and argued that his aim was to unite common ownership in the ‘benefits of combined labour’ with the principle of individual liberty (Mill, 2022). Taylor, who helped edit and shape Principles of Political Economy (1848) and On Liberty (1859), certainly contributed to Mill’s shift towards socialist politics (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii135/articles/alexander-zevin-gradualism-s-prophet). But, as Helen McCabe suggests, Taylor wasn’t solely responsible for the socialist additions to these works. Both Mill and his wife shared a socialist outlook based on the principles of progress, security, liberty, equality, fraternity, and the greatest utility to all (McCabe, 2021). For Mill and Taylor, socialism was not incompatible with individual freedom; there was no need to choose between either equality or liberty (McCabe, 2021).
Mill’s strategy for incremental and peaceful strategy for achieving socialism, understood as the greatest liberty and equality for all, still resonates today. But Mill kept a distance from the socialist politics of his day, most notably the Chartists and other organized worker’s movements, and the Paris Commune (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii135/articles/alexander-zevin-gradualism-s-prophet). He also indirectly clashed with Marx in debates over the direction of the International Workingmen’s Association (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx). Mill was averse to revolutionary socialism, i.e., the idea that the existing social order needed to be overturned to achieve a more equitable society. In this sense, his politics were closer to the utopian socialists like Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, or Fourier than Marx or Engels.
Although Mill insisted that there is no perfect form of government, and that the best form of government varies according to a population’s need, his argument that people must be educated to participate in government sustains a paternalistic argument that justifies the colonial domination of ‘uneducated’ or ‘uncivilized’ peoples (see 12.3. Government and Democracy). Mill’s lifelong belief in the superiority of Western civilization, and his defence of imperialism as a philosopher and employee of the East India Company, complicates his reputation as a champion of liberty (see 12.4. Race, Gender and Empire)). Mill famously declared in On Liberty that his principles do not apply to ‘backward’ societies which needed to first be civilized through the concerted efforts of Europeans. Mill’s defence of democracy, freedom, or liberty, then, cannot be separated from the imperialist context in which they were written. To fully come to terms with Mill’s political thought, it is therefore necessary to acknowledge his complicity in the British imperial project and its violent subjugation of large parts of the world.
Adam Gopnik, “Right Again: The Passions of John Stuart Mill”, The New Yorker, 29 September 2008.
Mill, J.S., Autobiography, New York: Dover Publications, 2022.
MacPherson, C.B., The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Losurdo, Domenico. Liberalism: A Counter-History. London/New York: Verso, 2005.
McCabe, Helen. 2021. John Stuart Mill: Socialist. Montreal; Kingston; London; Chicago: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021.