Essay John Mill

"Stuart Mill" redirects here. For the town in Australia, see Stuart Mill, Victoria.

John Stuart Mill

Mill c. 1870

Born(1806-05-20)20 May 1806
Pentonville, Middlesex, England
Died8 May 1873(1873-05-08) (aged 66)
Avignon, France
Alma materUniversity College, London
Spouse(s)Harriet Taylor
Era19th-century philosophy
Classical economics
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolEmpiricism, utilitarianism, classical liberalism

Main interests

Political philosophy, ethics, economics, inductive logic

Notable ideas

Public/private sphere, hierarchy of pleasures in utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, liberalism, early liberal feminism, harm principle, Mill's Methods, direct reference theory[1]


  • Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Epicurus, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Babbage,[2]Berkeley, Bentham, Francis Place, James Mill, Harriet Taylor Mill, Smith, Senior, Ricardo, Tocqueville, W. von Humboldt, Goethe, Bain, Auguste Comte, Saint-Simon (Utopian Socialists),[3]Marmontel,[4]Wordsworth,[4]Coleridge,[4]Herder[5]


  • William James, John Rawls, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Ronald Dworkin, H. L. A. Hart, Peter Singer, Wilhelm Dilthey, Roger Crisp, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, William MacAskill


John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 8 May 1873) was a British philosopher, political economist and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory and political economy. Dubbed "the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century",[6] Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.[7]

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. Mill engaged in written debate with Whewell.[8]

A member of the Liberal Party, he was also the first Member of Parliament to call for women's suffrage.[9]


John Stuart Mill was born at 13 Rodney Street in Pentonville, Middlesex, 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.[10]

Mill was a notably precocious child. He describes his education in his autobiography. At the age of three he was taught Greek.[11] By the age of eight, he had read Aesop's Fables, Xenophon's Anabasis,[11] and the whole of Herodotus,[11] and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato.[11] 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 Mill's 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 scholasticlogic, 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.[12] 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 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 pondered 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.[2] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15] He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1856.[16]

Mill's career as a colonial administrator at the British East India Company spanned from when he was 17 years old in 1823 until 1858, when the Company was abolished in favor of direct rule by the British crown over India.[17] 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, Mill defended British imperialism by arguing that a fundamental distinction existed between civilized and barbarous peoples.[18] Mill viewed countries such as India and China as having once been progressive, but that were now stagnant and barbarous, thus legitimizing British rule as benevolent despotism, "provided the end is [the barbarians'] improvement."[19] When the crown proposed to take direct control over the colonies in India, 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.[20] 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 rule.[20]

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. 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, 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. During the same period, 1865–68, he was a Member of Parliament for City and Westminster.[21][22] He was sitting for the Liberal Party. During his time as an MP, Mill advocated easing the burdens on Ireland. In 1866, Mill 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. Mill became a strong advocate of such social reforms as labour 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. In April 1868, Mill 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."[23]

He was godfather to the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

In his views on religion, Mill was an agnostic.[24][25]

Mill died in 1873 of erysipelas in Avignon, France, where his body was buried alongside his wife's.


A System of Logic[edit]

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, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. In Mill's Methods of induction, like Herschel's, laws were discovered through observation and induction, and required empirical verification.[26]

Theory of liberty[edit]

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. 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".[27]

Mill states that it is acceptable to harm oneself as long as the person doing so is not harming others. He also argues that individuals should be 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 may also harm others, and destroying property deprives the community as well as oneself.[28] Mill excuses those who are "incapable of self-government" from this principle, such as young children or those living in "backward states of society".

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, recognise one limit to consent: society should not permit people to sell themselves into slavery). In these and other cases, it is important to bear 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 emphasise that Mill 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.

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."[29]

Social liberty and tyranny of majority[edit]

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 his power on his own wishes and make decisions 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, in Mill's view, limiting the power of government was not enough. He stated, "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."[30]


John Stuart 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 he wishes unless he harms 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.[31]

Freedom of speech[edit]

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 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.[32]

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.[33] Worried about minority views being suppressed, Mill also argued in support of freedom of speech on political grounds, stating that it is a critical component for a representative government to have in order to empower debate over public policy.[33] Mill 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.[33]

Harm principle[edit]

The belief that the freedom of speech will advance the society was formed with trust of the public’s ability to filter. 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. But, the way to express those arguments should be a public speech or writing, not in a way that causes actual harm to others. This 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.[34]

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made the standard of "clear and present danger" based on Mill's idea. In the majority opinion, Holmes writes:

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.[35]

Shouting out "Fire!" in a dark theatre, which makes people panic and gets them injured, is a case of that. 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 about the harm principle. For example, in American law some exceptions limit free speech such as obscenity, defamation, breach of peace, and "fighting words".


Mill, an employee for the British East India Company from 1823 to 1858,[38] argued in support of what he called a 'benevolent despotism' with regard to the colonies.[39] Mill argued that "To suppose that the same international customs, and the same rules of international morality, can obtain between one civilized nation and another, and between civilized nations and barbarians, is a grave error....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."[40]


In 1850, Mill sent an anonymous letter (which came to be known under the title "The Negro Question"),[41] in rebuttal to Thomas Carlyle's anonymous letter to Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country in which Carlyle argued for slavery. Mill supported abolition in the United States.

In Mill's essay from 1869, "The Subjection of Women", he expressed his opposition to slavery:

This absolutely extreme case of the law of force, condemned by those who can tolerate almost every other form of arbitrary power, and which, of all others, presents features the most revolting to the feeling of all who look at it from an impartial position, was the law of civilized and Christian England within the memory of persons now living: and in one half of Angle-Saxon America three or four years ago, not only did slavery exist, but the slave trade, and the breeding of slaves expressly for it, was a general practice between slave states. Yet not only was there a greater strength of sentiment against it, but, in England at least, a less amount either of feeling or of interest in favour of it, than of any other of the customary abuses of force: for its motive was the love of gain, unmixed and undisguised: and those who profited by it were a very small numerical fraction of the country, while the natural feeling of all who were not personally interested in it, was unmitigated abhorrence.[42]

Women's rights[edit]

Mill's view of history was that right up until his time "the whole of the female" and "the great majority of the male sex" were simply "slaves". He countered arguments to the contrary, arguing that relations between sexes simply amounted to "the legal subordination of one sex to the other – [which] is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality." With this, Mill can be considered among the earliest male proponents of gender equality. His book The Subjection of Women (1861, published 1869) is one of the earliest written on this subject by a male author.[citation needed] In The Subjection of Women Mill attempts to make a case for perfect equality.[43] He talks about the role of women in marriage and how 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. He argued 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.[42][44]


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.

Jeremy Bentham'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 aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, 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 (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures). 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 "it 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."[45]

Mill defines the difference between higher and lower forms of pleasure 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 "Quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry",[46] 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 also argues that people who, for example, are noble or practice philosophy, benefit society more than those who engage in individualist practices for pleasure, which are lower forms of happiness. It is not the agent's own greatest happiness that matters "but the greatest amount of happiness altogether".

Mill separated his explanation of Utilitarianism into five different sections; General Remarks, What Utilitarianism Is, Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility, Of What Sort of Proof the Principle of Utility is Susceptible, and Of the Connection between Justice and Utility. In the General Remarks portion of his essay he speaks how next to no progress has been made when it comes to judging what is right and what is wrong of morality and if there is such a thing as moral instinct (which he argues that there may not be). However he agrees that in general "Our moral faculty, according to all those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments". In the second chapter of his essay he focuses no longer on background information but Utilitarianism itself. He quotes Utilitarianism as "The greatest happiness principle" And defines this theory by saying that pleasure and no pain are the only inherently good things in the world and expands on it by saying that "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure." He views it not as an animalistic concept because he sees seeking out pleasure as a way of using our higher facilities. He also says in this chapter that the happiness principle is based not exclusively on the individual but mainly on the community.

In his next chapter he focuses in more on the specifics of Utilitarianism when he writes about the sanctions of oneself. He states that a person possesses two sanctions; the internal sanction and the external sanction. According to Mill, the internal sanction is "a feeling in our own mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility." Shorthand, he basically just explains that your internal sanction is your conscience. The external sanction he says is "the hope of favour and the fear of displeasure, from our fellow creatures or from the Ruler of the Universe". This states that the external sanction is almost a form of fear of God himself. The sanctions are mentioned because according to Mill the internal sanction is what grasps onto the concept of Utilitarianism and is what make people want to accept Utilitarianism.

In Mill's fourth chapter he speaks of what proofs of Utility are affected. He starts this chapter off by saying that all of his claims cannot be backed up by reasoning. He claims that the only proof that something is brings one pleasure is if someone finds it pleasurable. Next he talks about how morality is the basic way to achieve happiness. He also discusses in this chapter that Utilitarianism is beneficial for virtue. He says that "it maintains not only that virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterestedly, for itself." In his final chapter Mill looks and the connection between Utilitarianism and justice. He contemplates the question of whether justice is something distinct from Utility or not. He reasons this question in several different ways and finally comes to the conclusion that in certain cases justice is essential for Utility, but in others social duty is far more important than justice. Mill believes that "justice must give way to some other moral principle, but that what is just in ordinary cases is, by reason of that other principle, not just in the particular case."

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 humanity "as a progressive being", which includes the development and exercise of rational capacities as we strive 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.

Mill redefines the definition of happiness as; "the ultimate end, for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people) is an existence as free as possible from pain and as rich as possible in enjoyments". He firmly believed that moral rules and obligations could be referenced to promoting happiness, which connects to having a noble character. While John Stuart Mill is not a standard act or rule utilitarian, he is a minimizing utilitarian, which "affirms that it would be desirable to maximize happiness for the greatest number, but not that we are not morally required to do so".

Mill’s thesis distinguishes between higher and lower pleasures. He frequently discusses the importance of acknowledgement of higher pleasures. "To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure- no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit they designate as utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine".[page needed] When he says higher pleasures, he means the pleasures that access higher abilities and capacities in humans such as intellectual prosperity, whereas lower pleasures would mean bodily or temporary pleasures. "But it must be admitted that when utilitarian writers have said that mental pleasures are better than bodily ones they have mainly based this on mental pleasures being more permanent, safer, less costly and so on – i.e. from their circumstantial advantages rather than from their intrinsic nature". All of this factors into John Mill’s own definition of utilitarianism, and shows why it differs from other definitions.

Economic philosophy[edit]

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.[56] Mill originally believed that "equality of taxation" meant "equality of sacrifice" and that progressive taxation penalised those who worked harder and saved more and was therefore "a mild form of robbery".[57]

Given an equal tax rate regardless of income, 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 disburse the money equally. However, a private charity board like a church would disburse 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 defence of a socialist outlook, and defending some socialist causes.[59] 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,[60] albeit altered in the third edition of the Principles of Political Economy to reflect a concern for differentiating restrictions on "unearned" incomes, which he favoured, and those on "earned" incomes, which he did not favour.[61]

Mill's Principles, first published in 1848, was one of the most widely read of all books on economics in the period.[62] 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, when it was replaced by Marshall's Principles of Economics.

Economic democracy[edit]

Mill promoted economic democracy instead of capitalism, in the manner of substituting capitalist businesses with worker cooperatives. He says:

The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and work-people without a voice in the management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.[63]

Political democracy[edit]

Mill's major work on political democracy, Considerations on Representative Government, defends two fundamental principles, extensive participation by citizens and enlightened competence of rulers.[64] The two values are obviously in tension, and some readers have concluded that he is an elitist democrat,[65] while others count him as an earlier participatory democrat.[66] In one section he appears to defend plural voting, in which more competent citizens are given extra votes (a view he later repudiated). But in chapter 3 he presents what is still one of the most eloquent cases for the value of participation by all citizens. He believed that the incompetence of the masses could eventually be overcome if they were given a chance to take part in politics, especially at the local level.

Mill is one of the few political philosophers ever to serve in government as an elected official. In his three years in Parliament, he was more willing to compromise than the "radical" principles expressed in his writing would lead one to expect.[67]

The environment[edit]

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"[68][69] 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 unending economic growth:

I cannot, therefore, regard the stationary states 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.

Economic development[edit]

Mill regarded economic development as a function of land, labour and capital. While land and labour are the two original factors of production, capital is "a stock, previously accumulated of the products of former labour." Increase in wealth is possible only if land and capital help to increase production faster than the labour force. It is productive labour that is productive of wealth and capital accumulation. "The rate of capital accumulation is the function of the proportion of the labour force employed productively. Profits earned by employing unproductive labours are merely transfers of income; unproductive labour does not generate wealth or income". It is productive labourers who do productive consumption. Productive consumption is that "which maintains and increase the productive capacity of the community." It implies that productive consumption is an input necessary to maintain productive labourers.[70]

Control of population growth[edit]

Mill supported the Malthusian theory of population. By population he meant the number of the working class only. He was therefore concerned about the growth in number of labourers who worked for hire. He believed that population control was essential for improving the condition of the working class so that they might enjoy the fruits of the technological progress and capital accumulation. Mill advocated birth control. In 1823 Mill and a friend were arrested while distributing pamphlets on birth control by Francis Place to women in working class areas.[71]

Wage fund[edit]

According to Mill, supply is very elastic in response to wages. Wages generally exceed the minimum subsistence level, and are paid out of capital. Hence, wages are limited by existing capital for paying wages. Thus, wage per worker can be derived by dividing the total circulating capital by the size of the working population. Wages can increase by an increase in the capital used in paying wages, or by decrease in the number of workers. If wages rise, supply of labour will rise. Competition among workers not only brings down wages, but also keeps some workers out of employment. This is based on Mill's notion that "demand for commodities is not demand for labourers". It means that income invested as advances of wages to labour creates employment, and not income spent on consumer goods. An increase in consumption causes a decline in investment. So increased investment leads to increases in the wage fund and to economic progress.

In 1869, Mill recanted his support of the Wage-Fund Doctrine due to recognition that capital is not necessarily fixed in that it can be supplemented through "income of the employer which might otherwise go into saving or be spent on consumption." Walker[who?] also states in "The Wages Question" that the limits on capital and the growth in population "were accidental, not essential" to the formation of the doctrine. The limitation on the growth of industrial capacity placed a limit on the number of workers who could be accommodated more than the limit on capital. Furthermore, English agriculture "had reached the condition of diminishing returns."; therefore, each additional worker was not providing more output than he needed for himself for survival. Given the improvements in technology and productivity that followed 1848, the original reasons that gave rise to the doctrine were seen to be unusual and not the basis for a universal law.

Rate of capital accumulation[edit]

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.
"A Feminine Philosopher". Caricature by Spy published in Vanity Fair in 1873.
Essays on economics and society, 1967

It is a hard thing, being right about everything all the time. Nobody likes a know-it-all, and we wait for the moment when the know-it-all is wrong to insist that he never really knew anything in the first place. The know-it-all, far from living in smug superiority, has the burden of being right the next time, too. Certainly no one has ever been so right about so many things so much of the time as John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century English philosopher, politician, and know-it-all nonpareil who is the subject of a fine new biography by the British journalist Richard Reeves, “John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand” (Overlook; $40). The book’s subtitle, meant to be excitingly commercial, is ill chosen; a firebrand should flame and then die out, while Mill burned for half a century with a steady heat so well regulated that it continues to warm his causes today—“Victorian Low-Simmering Hot Plate” might be closer to it.

Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals; and opposed adulterating Anglo-American liberalism with too much systematic French theory—all this along with an intelligent acceptance of the free market as an engine of prosperity and a desire to see its excesses and inequalities curbed. He was right about nearly everything, even when contemplating what was wrong: open-minded and magnanimous to a fault, he saw through Thomas Carlyle’s reactionary politics to his genius, and his essay on Coleridge, a leading conservative of the previous generation, is a model appreciation of a writer whose views are all wrong but whose writing is still wonderful. Mill was an enemy of religious bigotry and superstition, and a friend of toleration and free thought, without overdoing either. (No one has ever been more eloquent about the ethical virtues of Jesus of Nazareth.)

All of which makes trouble for a biographer. Every time we turn a corner, there is Mill, smiling just a touch too complacently at having got there first. Admiration for intelligence and truth easily turns into resentment at the person who has them; Aristides the Just was banished from Athens because people were fed up with hearing him called Aristides the Just. It is one of the many virtues of Reeves’s funny, humane biography that it brings Mill to life in the only way sententious great men can be brought to life, and that is by showing us what he was like when he lost his heart and when he lost his reason. Both happened to him just once, but that was sufficient. Mill’s is a story of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.

Mill’s boyhood was one of the strangest of the nineteenth century, and is one subject of his own matchless memoir, published posthumously. He was born in 1806 to a driven Scottish writer, James Mill, and a passive and mostly invisible mother. Chosen for an experiment in education, he was crammed with learning by his father and his father’s mentor, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The aim was to produce a mind distended out of all proportion—force-fed facts, as unlucky geese are force-fed corn. The foie gras of the boy’s mind was then to be dined on by a grateful nation; the boy’s life, like the goose’s comfort, was secondary. Latin, Greek, ancient history, political economy: “By the age of six,” Reeves notes, “young Mill had written a history of Rome; by seven he was reading Plato in Greek; at eight soaking up Sophocles.” By twelve, he more or less sat his examinations for university entrance.

The curriculum had no room for new poetry, and not much for old music. It was nothing but history, math, economics, the classics, and the Benthamite axioms: actions could lead to pleasure or pain, happiness or distress, and the right action was the one that led to the most happiness for the most people. In hard hands, the principle could seem like a mechanical parody of ethics, but it had its points. Bentham’s real achievement was to squeeze the piety out of Enlightenment talk of “rights.” People didn’t have rights because their creator endowed them with rights; they had them because rights were useful to have.

Mill’s odd education became one of the nightmares of the nineteenth century; in “Little Men,” Louisa May Alcott imagines a child who is so stuffed with learning by an ambitious father that he blows his circuits and becomes permanently feebleminded. But Mill emerged as the prodigy he was meant to be. At the age of seventeen, he became a clerk at the East India Company, the private corporation that then ran India, and remained at its headquarters in London for thirty-five years, administering Indian affairs at a distance—a servant of British imperialism, but a benevolent kind. (When, later, the government tried to cut funds for Indian colonial colleges teaching Arabic and Sanskrit, Mill fought to keep the practice going, for fear of losing all contact with the élites. “Without knowing the language of a people, we never really know their thoughts, their feelings, and their type of character,” he wrote.) He was such a demon for work that, growing overheated through feverish memo-writing, he would gradually strip off his clothes and work gravely at his stool without waistcoat or pants, as his colleagues watched in prim Victorian wonder.

More important for his thought, Mill became, before he was twenty, a popular writer out on the radical edge of journalism. He plunged into the new world of professional writing in newspapers and magazines that was as much a part of the early Victorian scene as the booming railroad. He became a leading contributor to, and by far the most effective polemicist for, the Westminster Review, which Bentham had started in 1823 as a counterpart to the conservative Quarterly Review and Edinburgh Review. “Journalism is to modern Europe what political oratory was to Athens and Rome,” the young Mill announced grandly. While some of the great minds of the previous century, Samuel Johnson most memorably, had begun as journalists, where the money was, and had been promoted in the popular mind to the dignity of philosophers, Mill began in philosophy, where ideas were found, and chose to write for the magazines and papers, where the fighting was.

Through the eighteen-twenties, Mill attacked David Hume’s history (Hume, though philosophically radical, was politically conservative), William Cobbett’s sentimental populism, the false idea of “balance” in the British constitution (if a government was indeed perfectly “balanced,” then “the machine must stand still”), and discrimination against Catholics. In all of it, he was still following his mentors’ ideas, and affecting his mentors’ chilly mien. “The description so often given of a Benthamite, as a mere reasoning machine . . . was during two or three years of my life not altogether untrue of me,” he confessed much later.

Reasoning machines, as we all know, have a high failure rate; sooner or later, the hard drive just stops spinning. Mill’s did, too: in 1826, he was plunged into a black depression. His description in his memoir of his breakdown, which lasted for about two years, is among the best in English: “I sought no comfort by speaking to others of what I felt. If I had loved anyone sufficiently to make confiding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was.” Though he was able to continue working, he could no longer write. With his quick intelligence, he recognized that the problem lay somewhere in his formation, in things that had been given too little attention. He turned to music for solace. It helped for a while, until he grew obsessed with the thought that there are only so many notes, and so many combinations of notes, and that, sooner or later, they would be used up, and all melody exhausted.

Poetry saved him. He read the early romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth in particular, and by the end of the decade was cured, or at least better. He began to see a new light. It couldn’t change his affect: he remained a tight, mild, buttoned-down man. But it changed his affections. From that time on, he was as evangelical for the arts as any Ruskinian. (“He was most emphatically a philosopher, but then he read Wordsworth,” a disappointed utilitarian friend remarked in 1840.) He toured Italy regularly, making rounds of the churches to see the pictures. He became an aesthete—a dutiful and systematic one, but an aesthete all the same.

His love of poetry and music and art also led him toward conservative thought. Aesthetes always bend to the right, in part because the best music and the best buildings were made in the past, and become an argument for its qualities. Someone entering Chartres becomes, for a moment, a medieval Catholic, and a person looking at Bellini or Titian has to admit that an unequal society can make unequalled pictures. To love old art is to honor old arrangements. But even new and progressive art is, as Mill knew, a product of imagination and inspiration, not of fair dealing and transparent processes; the central concerns of liberalism—fairness, equity, individual rights—really don’t enter into it. Mozart, whom Mill loved, would have benefitted as a person had he lived in a world that gave him the right to vote for his congressman, collect an old-age pension, and write letters to the editor on general subjects, and that gave his older sister her chance at composing, too. But not a note of his music would have been any better. Art is a product of eccentric genius, which we can protect, but which no theory of utility can explain.

So when, in 1834, Mill—having been chastened by madness and instructed by art (and having mourned, and been emancipated by, the death of Bentham, two years earlier)—began a new journal, the London Review, the contributor he sought most eagerly was no utilitarian but the great Scottish reactionary prose-poet Thomas Carlyle. (The keen friendship between these two utterly unlike men would itself be a good subject for a book.) Mill revered Carlyle’s originality of vision and soul, while Carlyle, though he mocked Mill’s pensive faith in rational argument, recognized that the younger man had the far more finished and exact mind. The friendship survived even the most scarifying incident in the history of letters, when Mill’s housemaid accidentally burned the only manuscript of Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution in the kitchen fire. (Carlyle was goodhumored about it, perhaps because, like many writers, he really preferred having the project to brood on to the brief melodrama of publication.) Throughout the eighteen-thirties, the give-and-take between Carlyle’s deeply pessimistic sense of the primal violence that lay beneath the surface of civilization and Mill’s insistence that the cure for the primal illness was more civilization was one of the creative engines of English thought.

Beginning in the late eighteen-twenties, Mill took on a great deal of Continental philosophy that, then as now, was regarded as just this side of charlatanism by his bread-and-butter Anglo-Saxon colleagues. He borrowed the term “self-development” from the German Romantic philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, and considered that, rather than utilitarian pleasure, to be the end of life. A good life for Mill, post-madness, is not one where you have queued before the slot machine of utility and got the candy it dispenses. It is one where you have gone out into the world to build the best self you can—travelled where you wanted and seen what you could and said what you had to, sung your own songs and heard your own poems. Mill was a romantic and an epicurean in a gray tweed suit, and his mature liberalism is both what a narrow historian means by liberalism—a theory of free conduct justified by its good results—and what the rest of us mean when we say that someone is liberal-minded: open to all the pleasures of life and generous in their enjoyment.

Like every intelligent Englishman of an epicurean cast, he spent as much time as he could in France. Though he was quietly Francophile from early on, his illness and recovery made him declaratively so. He bought a little house in the papal town of Avignon, in the South of France; it became the home of his heart, where, in his later years, he lived and wrote, and where, eventually, he died. He always condescended to the French, as even Francophile Englishmen will: “Whenever anything goes amiss, the habitual impulse of French people is to say, ‘Il faut de la patience’ ”—One must be patient—“and of English people, ‘What a shame.’ The people who think it a shame when anything goes wrong—who rush to the conclusion that the evil could and ought to have been prevented, are those who, in the long run, do most to make the world better.” The hopes that had been raised and then ruined by the 1848 revolution in France played the same role for Mill’s generation that the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of Putin have played in our time: inspiring proof that liberalism might win after all, followed by the crushing realization that it was no match for authoritarian, strongman nationalism, which, in France, took the form of the papier-mâché emperor Louis-Napoleon. (The French experience burned Mill badly. It led him, for a while, to propose, in the ideal republic, giving educated voters more votes than uneducated ones—it was a nation of peasants who had voted in Louis-Napoleon.)

Yet France, even after Mill’s disappointments with its politics, remained for him the great good place. The humanizing influence of French civilization—“the free and genial atmosphere of Continental life,” as he called it—tempered his drier certainties. The mature Mill is a stable thinker but not a systematic one. He recognizes the existence of half-truths alongside near-truths, and of “almost so”s right by “yes, nearly”s. “Truth, in the great practical concerns of life, is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites,” he once wrote. “Even progress, which ought to superadd, for the most part only substitutes, one partial and incomplete truth for another.”

Throughout the thirties and forties in early-Victorian England, no one was more attended to than the radical Mill. We can only envy his public, for he would have been a terrible pundit for our sound-bite age. He isn’t an aphorist; his stuff takes space. Mill’s sentences sway and ponder with the heavy grace of elephants, and are often about the same size. Defending a philosophy of hedonism, he writes sentences that contain more philosophy than hedonism: “The happiness which they meant was not a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures, with a decided predominance of the active over the passive, and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” in other words, but no rosebuds fall on the page. Whatever the subject, Mill surveys the ground, clears it of underbrush, builds a house of straw to demonstrate what a shoddy house looks like, sets it on fire, and in its place builds a house of brick, which he dares you to knock down. The house of brick is, as Victorian brick houses usually were, lacking in grace and lightness and charm, but it still stands. You don’t come away from Mill dazzled, as you do with Ruskin or Carlyle, but you come away with a place to live your life.

Mill had an allergy to dogma, including his own—which makes him an occasional friend to the dogmatist. When someone says that proof of God’s existence can be found in Nature, he doesn’t say it’s bosh. He asks what this would actually entail if it were true, and infers that such a creator would have to be limited, inept, well-meaning, forgetful, and in a daily contest with another power: “A Being of great but limited power . . . who desires, and pays some regard to, the happiness of his creatures, but who seems to have some other motives of action which he cares more for, and who can hardly be supposed to have created the universe for that purpose alone.” What natural theology, taken seriously, shows is not the great Watchmaker or the All-Seeing Jove but the absent-minded Landlord, a sort of eternal Lord Emsworth, who, though he helps the young lovers, cares mainly about his pig.

But Mill really means it: take the argument for God’s existence seriously, and that’s where it leads you. That’s the key thing about Mill, hustling between London and Avignon, climbing mountains and administering India and surveying churches: he always really means it. When, in the eighteen-sixties, the English-appointed governor of Jamaica punished a native uprising with hideous cruelty—the accused were tortured and many hanged, after trumpery trials—Mill led the fight in England against him, chairing a committee to have him tried not for maladministration but for murder. (A committee formed in defense of the governor included Dickens and Carlyle.) When Mill said that his rights were worthless unless everyone else had them, too, he really meant it. His friendship with Carlyle broke only when the Scotsman’s racism became too much for Mill, a passionate abolitionist, to bear.

Of all Mill’s causes, his championing of the rights of women is still the most heroic, and its heroism turns out to be rooted in a passionate love for another person. Mill said that he had always been a feminist, but there isn’t any doubt that the engine of his feminism was his friend, love, collaborator, and eventual wife, Harriet Taylor. They met at her home, in Finsbury, in the summer of 1830, over dinner among liberal friends. Harriet, a year younger than Mill, was married, to a slow-witted, well-meaning pharmacist named John Taylor; they had two children. She was smart and pretty—“a small head, a swan-like throat, and a complexion like a pearl,” the daughter of someone present at the momentous dinner wrote later—and already oppressed by her very unequal marriage. If you see her pictures, and make allowances for the cosmetic conventions of the portraiture of the time, she still looks pretty wonderful: big Natalie Portman eyes and that fine long neck. She and Mill fell for each other quickly, and began working together. Within a year, someone was writing to her to ask, of a new review of Byron, “Did you or Mill do it?”

For the rest of the decade, theirs was a complicated lobster quadrille of love. If the lovers were just a touch less fierce-looking, Mill and Taylor would make as good a Victorian love story as Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. They were seen everywhere together. Carlyle’s wife, Jane, gossiped that “Mrs. Taylor, tho’ encumbered with a husband and children, has ogled John Mill so successfully that he was desperately in love.” After years of intrigue, the Taylors finally decided on a separation. To test Mill’s love, Harriet went to Paris, and invited him to spend six weeks with her there. The interlude was splendid—but then Harriet, with a rather sweet imperiousness, allowed her husband to come to Paris for his own audition. Harriet ultimately decided—with mingled propriety, uncertainty, and something like flirtatiousness—that they could share her, on an alternating schedule, at the Taylor house, her husband entertaining guests with her on some days, and Mill on others. Taylor paid the bills, while Mill stocked the wine cellar. When John and Harriet were pining for each other, they held secret meetings at the London zoo, by the cage of their “old friend Rhino,” whose horn—as they perhaps knew, perhaps did not—was an Asian agent of erotic love.

The gossips gossiped all the more. The gawking Carlyle reported that in France they had “eatin’ grapes off o’ one bunch, like two love-birds.” Though in his memoir Mill denied that they had had sex before they were married, there are purring letters that suggest the contrary. “While you can love me as you so sweetly & beautifully shewed in that hour yesterday, I have all I care for or desire,” he wrote in one letter. “The influence of that dear little hour has kept me in spirits ever since.” An earlier biographer of Mill, Bruce Mazlish, makes the point that Mill’s mother was the real missing presence in his life, and that Harriet (as Yoko Ono did for John Lennon) helped fill his need for a woman who was both an intellectual match and thoroughly maternal. The romance in Mill’s life helped turn him from a thinking machine into a feeling mensch; the know-it-all became an anything-for-love.

Harriet’s own writing of the eighteen-thirties and forties on the oppression of marriage has the urgency of immediate experience. A smart woman who had been obliged to be someone’s idea of a wife, she had been at that table with the dumb little dictator: “The most insignificant of men, the man who can obtain influence or consideration nowhere else, finds one place where he is chief and head. There is one person, often greatly his superior in understanding, who is obliged to consult him, and whom he is not obliged to consult. He is judge, magistrate, ruler, over their joint concerns.” Mill and Taylor, in their later writing, most famously in the 1869 “The Subjection of Women,” aren’t content to show that women would be happier if freer; they go right to the ground and ask what reason we have for thinking that any restraint on women’s freedom is just. The arguments against women’s liberty have to do with what is natural for women to do, or what women are capable of doing, or what some men would be offended by. They take each case and show that its only rationale is our slavery to custom. Women are naturally passive? Go tell Queen Elizabeth. They are happy in their lot? All slaves say as much to the slave master. They are “designed” to have children? No argument from nature can ever alter an argument from ethics: if women want to raise children, excellent; if they don’t, there is no natural reason to think they must any more than there is a reason to think that male philosophers should all put down their pens and go out hunting for mammoths.

Mill makes the point again and again that no one can possibly know what women are or are not “naturally” good at, since their opportunities have been so vanishingly small compared with the length of their oppression. Arguing against the notion that women have no talent for the fine arts, Mill makes the shrewd point that in the one liberal art where women are encouraged as much as men, acting on the stage, everyone admits that they’re just as good or better. In any case, nature has nothing to do with what should be done. In his essay on “Nature,” he writes, “Nature cannot be a proper model for us to imitate. Either it is right that we should kill because nature kills; torture because nature tortures; ruin and devastate because nature does the like; or we ought not to consider what nature does, but what it is good to do.” Mill’s rejection of a natural case isn’t that anything goes; it’s that nobody can really know what goes until someone goes farther. He doesn’t believe in a blank slate on which anything can be inscribed; he believes in the power of the chalk-holding hand to change the sum on the blackboard.

On a list of modern words that changed the most lives, those which Harriet and John wrought together in “The Subjection of Women” must rank high. Before it, women were for all intents and purposes chattel; afterward, they would sooner or later have to be made citizens. You could argue against it, try to unmake it, but you couldn’t ignore it. The beach was taken, and the cautious odd couple by the rhino’s cage had taken it.

John and Harriet’s intellectual idyll was long-lived in shadow, short-lived in sunlight. Mr. Taylor died in 1849, and in 1851 John and Harriet were married. But after only seven and a half years Harriet died of one of those sad, unnamed wasting diseases that blighted the period. Mill had a monument—of the same Carrara marble as Michelangelo’s David—constructed for her in Avignon, with an inscription that included the lines “Were there but a few hearts and intellects like hers / this earth would already become the hoped-for heaven.” That same month, Mill sent off to the publisher the finished manuscript of “On Liberty,” dedicating it to the memory of “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.” (Darwin was finishing “On the Origin of Species” that same year, and also saw it published the next; the two books remain the bedrock of the liberal age.)

Reeves rightly calls “On Liberty” “the greatest celebration of the value of human freedom ever written.” Mill has a principle of liberty, but far more important is that he starts a practice of liberal thought. The utility principle is installed, as one might install a piece of software, but is employed only fitfully. No shrewd new proof is proposed. It is the negative side of Mill’s claim that changes everything. He reverses figure and ground in the argument. When he asks us to think about liberty, he doesn’t want us to ask, Can this odd thing people are doing be deduced from some ethical axiom that lets me call it “good,” and permits them to go on doing it? He wants us to ask something simpler: Is this practice causing me any real harm? Not potential harm to my feelings, not social harm to my idea of right, not damage to the great precepts of religion or to my stuffy uncle’s sense of propriety. Unless the speaker is actually about to cut your throat, you have to let him work his jaw.

And, by really meaning it, this essentially conservative and tradition-loving man showed that all kinds of practices can stand scrutiny and not be damaged, and that the authoritarian position is not the strongest one but merely the most frightened. Nothing is worse for being looked at. No idea is good enough to exist unopposed. Fundamental differences lie even at the heart of religion and must be freely aired. Christianity is not against argument; it is an argument—should one follow the Greek morality of St. Paul (which includes slavery) or the Jewish morality of St. Mark (which implies the Seder)? The usual objection to Mill’s argument is that free societies will still differ radically about what they want to be free for: my idea of fun is not yours, or Genghis Khan’s. Mill knew this—he knew that you couldn’t prove that good things were good. But he also knew that questions not decidable by proof were still amenable to argument, and that he would rather have the side of the argument that suggested that health, prosperity, and pleasure were good things than the side that said they weren’t.

Mill’s theory of freedom does make an unwarranted assumption—that people want a rich life where knowledge increases, new discoveries are made, and new ideas found, where art flourishes and science advances. If you don’t want that kind of society, you don’t want liberty, in Mill’s sense. Part of what makes him as touching as he is great is that it scarcely occurred to him that anyone would not.

It’s also true that many things the Victorian Mill couldn’t even have imagined being asked to tolerate have come to be tolerated under the sway of the argument he began. The idea that people would demand the freedom to practice sodomy would, I think, have astonished Mill as much as anyone else in his day. (The topic isn’t mentioned anywhere in his writings, though Bentham did write a courageous essay against hanging men for it—and then thought better of publishing the piece.) Yet, demanded on Millian grounds—no harm; no foul—the freedom has been granted. In a sense, social conservatives like Rick Santorum are right: there is a slippery slope leading from one banned practice to the next. Give rights to blacks, and the next thing you know you are giving rights to women and sodomites and then the sodomites are renting formal wear and ordering flowers for their weddings. The slippery slope is what Mill called liberty. Every time we slide a little farther down, what we find is not a descent toward Hell but more air, and more people breathing free.

After Harriet’s death, Mill entered Parliament, in 1865, as a liberal backbencher, and did about as well as intellectuals usually do there. He was often hooted, and became notorious for having once described the Conservatives as “necessarily the stupidest party.” What he meant wasn’t that Conservatives were stupid; Disraeli, who was running the Tory Party then, was probably the cleverest man ever to run a political party, and Mill’s own influences from the right were immense and varied. He meant that, since true conservatism is a complicated position, demanding a good deal of restraint when action is what seems to be wanted, and a long view of history when an immediate call to arms is about, it tends to break down into tribal nationalism, which is stupidity incarnate. For Mill, intelligence is defined by sufficient detachment from one’s own case to consider it as one of many; a child becomes humanly intelligent the moment it realizes that there are other minds just like its own, working in the same way on the material available to them. The tribal nationalist is stupid because he fails to recognize that, given a slight change of location and accident of birth, he would have embraced the position of his adversary. Put him in another’s shoes and he would turn them into Army boots as well.

Though Mill’s parliamentary career was patchy, he had one great political triumph, just before he got elected to office: he helped to save the American Union. Few Americans learn that the cotton spinners of Lancashire were among the heroes of the Civil War. Out of work and starving, because of the Union blockade of cotton imports from the Confederacy, the workers nevertheless supported the Union out of pure anti-slavery principles. Had England recognized the South, and acted to end the blockade, as nearly happened several times, the Union would have lost, no matter what Grant or Lincoln did. It didn’t happen, because the Lancashire workers were so against it; when the great American historian John Jay Chapman listed the English liberals whose words were most responsible for the workers’ resistance to slavery, he placed first the name of John Stuart Mill.

There is a non-stupid conservative reproach to Mill. It is that his great success at changing minds has made a world in which there is not much of a role for people like him. Mill and Harriet, to a degree that they could hardly recognize, flourished within a whole set of social assumptions and shared beliefs. Respect for the mind, space for argument, the dispersal of that respect throughout the population, even the existence of a rentier class who could spend their time with ideas—all of these things were possible only in a society that was far more hierarchical and élitist than the society they dreamed of and helped to bring about.

You can also fault Mill for not grasping something that a crazy reactionary like his friend Carlyle recognized: the depths of violence and rage and hatred beneath the thin shell of civilization. Mill is like a man who has spent his life on one of those moving walkways you find in airports. He takes the forward movement so much for granted that he never makes it his subject. “Most of the great positive evils of the world are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced within narrow limits,” he wrote, a little too assuredly. Mill’s work, intellectually so thick, is psychologically thin. There is too little room for Rhinos in it—too little room for the irrational drives that he recognized in his own life but could not entirely blend into his philosophy. It is rich in arguments for freedom, but poor in insights into why so few people want freedom when they can have it. Though no one is more free from the taint of twentieth-century totalitarianism—among Mill’s London contemporaries, it was Carlyle whom Hitler adored, and Marx whom Stalin fetishized—Mill displayed no prescience about it, either. Enshrined popular reason was his goal; permanent popular rage beyond his ken.

Still, most philosophical projects die with the philosopher. Mill’s thought, as his biographer says, is alive right now on every page of the morning paper. When we debate gay marriage, or abortion rights, or due process for the Guantánamo detainees, we’re still working out the consequences of his thoughts and his practice.

And then Mill is so fine. In one of his noblest passages, he took on, in his manner—cautious, precise, throat-clearing, and exit-shutting—the lure of immortality, not to say that it couldn’t be so but that few would really want it so:

The mere cessation of existence is no evil to any one: the idea is only formidable through the illusion of imagination which makes one conceive oneself as if one were alive and feeling oneself dead. What is odious in death is not death itself, but the act of dying, and its lugubrious accompaniments: all of which must be equally undergone by the believer in immortality. Nor can I perceive that the skeptic loses by his skepticism any real and valuable consolation except one; the hope of reunion with those dear to him who have ended their earthly life before him. That loss, indeed, is neither to be denied nor extenuated.

When he died, in 1873, worn out by work, writers in the mainstream press in London mocked him for the beliefs that time has shown to be most utterly right. They sneered at his support for women’s equality, which had fallen into eclipse in that decade; he must himself have been “feminine” to have supported such a silly thing, and his opposition to slavery had been unrealistically “obstinate.” His working-class admirers helped raise a statue to him on the Thames Embankment. But Mill asked to be interred in a remote French town. Five people came to his burial. This was the one place he wanted to be, with Harriet, in the tiny cemetery outside Avignon, where he could rest beside the one love he had had. In the end, it was all he knew. ♦

0 thoughts on “Essay John Mill

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *