John Stuart Mill was one of the most important intellectual figures of the nineteenth century. He contributed to economics, epistemology, logic, and psychology, among other fields. However, his most lasting influence has been through his utilitarian ethics and liberal political philosophy.
To understand Mill’s philosophical contribution, it is crucial to say something about his personal intellectual history. His most formative intellectual influences were the earlier utilitarians: his father, James Mill (1773-1836), and his godfather, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). These Philosophical Radicals, as they were often called, believed that all human motivation could be understood in terms of the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. As Bentham writes in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.” The foundational normative principle of utilitarianism is that actions should be judged according to how much happiness they produce. The course of action that produces the most happiness for the greatest number of persons, is the one that ought to be followed.
In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill defines the doctrine as follows: “The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals ‘utility’ or the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure.” Mill understood his essay as continuing the tradition founded by his father and Bentham. However, Mill was also troubled by some criticisms of utilitarianism, and in his attempts to answer these objections, Mill developed his own distinctive doctrine.
One of the objections to utilitarianism that most troubled Mill was the charge that it is based on a low view of humankind. It makes pleasure the measure of value, and it seems to put all human pleasures—from philosophical contemplation to drunkenness—on the same level. According to earlier utilitarians, such as Bentham, it is the quantity, not the type of pleasure, that matters. In The Rationale of Reward, Bentham seems to relish the equivalence: “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnished more pleasure, it is more valuable than either.” Mill disagreed, and set out to justify higher human pursuits on utilitarian terms.
In order to defend utilitarianism against the charge of philistinism, Mill develops a doctrine of higher pleasures. “Human beings,” he argues, “have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness that does not include their gratification.” The exercise of reason, the autonomous setting and pursuing of one’s own plan of life, and the appreciation of poetry are more important to human happiness than the satisfaction of sensual desire. In fact, Mill argues that even an unfulfilled capacity for higher pleasure contributes more to happiness than sensual satisfaction. As he puts it, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” No human, argues Mill, would exchange his higher capacities for a life of swinish satisfaction, just as Socrates preferred his own death to a life bereft of philosophy. Moreover, this is not a matter of subjective preference. According to Mill, we should accept human judgment of Socrates on these questions because we have experienced both sorts of pleasures and are therefore qualified judges of the matter. By contrast “if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
Another distinctive aspect of Mill’s utilitarianism is its progressivism. In On Liberty, he writes: “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” Mill believes that humans beings are shaped by their experiences and education, and, therefore, that they can augment their higher capacities. Thus, Mill’s utility principle aims not only at the satisfaction of existing desires, but also at human improvement. This progressive dimension of his thought recurs throughout his political writings.
On Liberty is one of the most important, and widely-read, articulations of liberal philosophy in the history of political thought. The single object of the essay, writes Mill, is to assert the principle 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 a sufficient warrant…. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Mill thus disqualifies other reasons that are often used to justify interference with individual liberty. The harm principle excludes paternalism, or constraining an individual’s freedom for the sake of what one believes to be that individual’s own benefit. Instead, Mill argues that each individual should be able to decide what constitutes his or her own good and how he or she will pursue it. Similarly, actions cannot properly be constrained on the grounds that they will cause offence, rather than harm, to other people. My own interests and possible offence to others may provide me with reasons to persuade someone else to select one course of action over another, but they cannot justify coercion.
The harm principle, then, relies on a clear distinction between: a) the sphere of action that concerns only the actor himself, in which the actor should enjoy unimpeded freedom; and b) the sphere of action that affects others, in which the harm principle might constrain my actions. Whether it is possible to maintain such a precise distinction, and where exactly the demarcation lies, has often been disputed. Mill himself, however, provides a relatively expansive interpretation of the sphere of liberty. He writes that individuals ought to enjoy complete liberty of conscience, thought, and feeling on all subjects, and a nearly complete liberty of expression. Expression should be restricted only when the act of expression could cause harm, such as incitement to violence. All should have the liberty to form and pursue their own plan of life, to do as they like, subject to whatever consequences might follow. Finally, Mill contends that the individual should enjoy freedom of association for any purpose not involving harm to others.
Mill also holds a relatively expansive notion of the potential threats to individual liberty. Mill does not believe that popular sovereignty alone is a sufficient safeguard for human freedom. Rather, he sides with Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville, and believes the tyranny of the majority to be a serious threat in an age of popular government.
Further, Mill does not regard the instruments of government as the sole, or even the most serious, constraint on individual liberty. The harm principle also applies to the informal sanctions imposed by society upon dissenting or eccentric individuals. When society oversteps its bounds, “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 is worried that the weight of public opinion can stifle individuality, and regards these informal social controls as a form of coercion. The yoke of opinion, in Mill’s view, poses as much of a threat to human liberty as the yoke of the law.
Early in On Liberty, Mill underlines the utilitarian character of his liberalism, writing: “I forego any advantage which could be derived to my argument from the idea of abstract right, as a thing independent from utility.” Other authors often treat individual rights as constraints on action that are justified independently of their consequences. Kant’s view of rights is the kind of view from which Mill is distancing himself. According to Mill, however, it is the consequences for the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being” that justify liberal rights.
The utilitarian basis of Mill’s liberalism is evident in his two-part defense of freedom of expression. The first part consists of an argument that contends that complete freedom of expression is the best means of determining the truth. Human knowledge, he argues, is necessarily fallible, and therefore we cannot know with absolute certainty which opinions are true and which are false. It is only through confrontation with competing ideas that any position can be shown to be better or worse than its rivals. Moreover, through debate it is possible to discover useful elements of truth contained within otherwise false positions. Limiting freedom of expression hinders the single most important instrument for the discovery of truth.
The second part of Mill’s argument contends that free expression is beneficial even when the opinions being expressed are false because open debate carries important developmental benefits. Engaging in free and equal conversation, considering ideas upon their merits, and defending one’s beliefs against others are invaluable means of developing one’s intellectual capacities. Further, Mill believes that the process of defending one’s beliefs against rival positions gives the individual a livelier sense of their truth and significance. Beliefs and values that are simply accepted without critical scrutiny are mindless dogmas that dull rather than improve human reason. In Mill’s words, “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” Free expression is vital because it provides the opportunity to exercise one’s capacities for reason and self-determination and, in doing so, develop them to a higher degree.
Representative Government and Democracy
Mill presents his most sustained defense of representative democracy in Considerations on Representative Government. Here, Mill proposes two criteria for good government. The first is the tendency of the government to promote the common good, understood as promoting the virtue and intelligence of the people. Second is the ability of the government to make use of the capacities of the populace for the common good. He then considers what kind of government is best, comparing benevolent despotism, in which the people are ruled by a wise and well-intentioned sovereign, with representative government.
Although Mill grants that there are benefits to rule by a benevolent and exceptionally capable individual, he argues that representative government excels benevolent despotism on both criteria. The best government, for Mill, is one in which a body of representatives is elected by universal suffrage. The purpose of the representative body is to articulate the needs and concerns of the electorate through free and open discussion, and to decide on the objectives of government policy. However, the representatives will not always craft the legislation themselves. Mill argues that the task of governing a large nation is sufficiently complex as to require a high level of technical knowledge, and, therefore, expert civil servants will conduct many governmental tasks, including drafting legislation, with the representatives providing oversight. Mill also encourages a high degree of local government, and as much participation in government as is practicable.
The most serious drawback of despotic government is that, even if is well-intentioned and wise, it produces a passive populace. Intelligence, virtue, and energy are the fruits of activity, and it is only through the exercise of one’s capacities that one can develop them. By doing everything for its citizens, the despotic government deprives them of the opportunity to act for themselves, and thus of the opportunity to develop their higher capacities. Representative government has the clear advantage in this regard. The process of selecting representatives, the open debate in parliament, and local participation, all have improving effects on the populace. The very operation of representative government constantly increases the stock of intelligence and virtue upon which government may draw.
According to Mill, representative government is also the most effective way to organize the capacities of the citizens for the common good. He envisions the best and wisest rising to the top of government as the people choose their betters to represent them. Moreover, Mill believes that the leading intellects of society, even out of office, will take a hand in governing society without attempting to dominate it. In general, Mill is significantly more confident about the effects of representative government than many of his contemporaries. For example, Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Mill greatly admired, expressed greater concern about the tendency of democratic elections to produce mediocrity in government rather than excellence.
The notion of man as a “progressive being” that underlies Mill’s defense of representative government also implies that his defense is only a relative one. According to Mill, there is no form of government that is appropriate in all times and places. Rather, governments must be tailored to the people they are to govern. While representative democracy is best in the civilized world, there are many peoples who are unfit for liberty. Therefore, argues Mill, “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians provided that the end be their improvement and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” Enlightened despotism can teach the crucial lesson of obedience, thus readying people for the next stage of civilizational development. Liberty only becomes valuable when the people are in a position to benefit from it: “as a principle [liberty] has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.” Thus, Mill’s support of liberty and representative government is tied to a theory of human progress.
The Status of Women
John Stuart Mill was concerned with the status of women in society, and he campaigned energetically to further the cause of equality between the sexes. In The Subjection of Women, he declares: “The legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and … it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”
As might be expected, Mill argues from utilitarian premises, showing how equal status and education for women will be advantageous to all of society. Women themselves will benefit most directly from their emancipation, winning “an unspeakable gain in private happiness…; the difference to them between a life of subjection to the will of others, and a life of rational freedom.” Liberation will result both in an immediate increase in happiness, and a gradual increase as the exercise of freedom expands women’s higher capacities.
The subjection of women not only limits the improvement of women, but is “the chief hindrance to human improvement” generally. To restrict women to domestic pursuits is to block them from turning their energies to the broader benefit of society.
“The… benefit to be expected from giving to women the free use of their faculties, by leaving them the free choice of their employments, and opening to them the same field of occupation and the same prizes and encouragements as to other human beings, would be that of doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity.”
Men too, argues Mill, will directly benefit from sexual equality. When both sexes are free, marriage will cease to be a form of bondage and will become a kind of friendship between equals. Mill thought that a principal means of self-development is to engage in free and equal conversation with intelligent companions. A well-educated spouse would provide just such a companion, creating a dynamic of mutual improvement within marriage.