Monday, February 15, 2010


John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill
by John Watkins, or by John & Charles Watkins
albumen print on card mount, 1865
© National Portrait Gallery, London

John Stuart Mill

Mill (the younger) was a social theorist, British philosopher and liberal member of Parliament from 1865 to 1868. As the son of James Mill, he was initially educated along the lines of his father's mechanical approach to associationism. John, however, suffered a nervous breakdown at age 20 which he attributed directly to his rigid education (J.S. Mill, Autobiography, 1873). He subsequently sought to emancipated himself both personally and intellectually from this influence.
His best known political work is On Liberty (1859). It argues for personal freedom because such freedom allows creative individuals to better contribute to society. Mill also suggests that since free-market capitalism tends to result in inequity and poverty, society would be better served by adopting some form of liberal socialism.
(Paul F. Ballantyne, Ph.D at

On Liberty
London: John W. Parker and Son, West Strand
First edition, 1859

Mill was anyway a notably precocious child, leaning Greek at the age of three. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop's "Fables", Xenophon's "Anabasis", and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato, as well as arithmetic and a great deal of history in English. At the age of eight he began learning Latin, algebra and Euclid and to teach the younger children of the family. By the age of ten he could read Plato and Demosthenes, and was familiar with all the Latin and Greek authors commonly read in the schools and universities at the time, such as Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tacitus, Homer, Dionysus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes and Thucydides. In his "spare time", he enjoyed reading about natural sciences and some popular novels (such as "Don Quixote" and "Robinson Crusoe"). One of Mill's earliest poetry compositions was a continuation of the "Iliad".
At about the age of twelve, Mill began a thorough study of scholastic Logic, reading Aristotle's logical treatises in the original language. In the following year he was introduced to political economy and studied the works Adam Smith and David Ricardo (a close friend of his father, who would often discuss economics with the young Mill).
At fourteen, Mill spent a year in the mountains of southern France with the family of Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy Bentham's brother), also attending the winter courses on chemistry, zoology and logic of the Faculté des Sciences in Montpellier, as well as taking a course of higher mathematics with a private tutor. He also spent some time in Paris with the renowned French economist Jean-Baptiste Say (1767 - 1832), who was a friend of Mill's father, and met several other notable Parisiens, including the utopian socialist thinker Henri Saint-Simon (1760 - 1825), all through his father's myriad connections.
In 1823, at the age of 17, Mill chose (rather than take Anglican orders from the "white devil" in order to study at Oxford University or Cambridge University) to follow his father to work for the British East India Company. He led a long and active career as an administrator there, rising through the ranks to become the chief of office in 1856, and retiring with a pension in 1858 when the Company's administrative functions in India were taken over by the British government following the Mutiny of 1857.
All his intensive study, however, had had injurious effects on Mill's mental health and state of mind and, in 1826, at the age of twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown, probably from the great physical and mental arduousness of his studies and the suppression of most normal childhood feelings. This depression eventually began to dissipate, however, with Mill taking solace in the Romantic poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Goethe. He was also introduced around this time to the Positivism of Auguste Comte, which had a strong influence on his future thinking.
He began having articles published in the "Westminster Review" (a journal founded by Bentham and James Mill to propagate Radical views) and in other newspapers and journals including the "Morning Chronicle" and the "Parliamentary History & Review. In 1834, Mill co-founded the Radical journal, the "London Review" with Sir William Molesworth (1810 -1855) and then, two years later, purchased the "Westminster Review" and merged the two journals, using it to support politicians who were advocating further reform of the House of Commons.

John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet's daughter
(JSM's stepdaughter Helen Tay)
Photograph in the Radio Times Hulton Picture Library
From Online Library of Liberty

In 1851, Mill married Harriet Taylor (on the death of her husband) after over twenty years of intimate friendship. Brilliant in her own right, she was a significant influence on Mill's work and ideas during both friendship and marriage, including his advocacy of women's rights. After only seven years of marriage, though, she died on a trip to Avignon in the south of France in 1858 after developing severe lung congestion. Mill took a house in Avignon in order to be near her grave and thereafter divided his time between there and London.
He became involved with the abolitionist movement against the slave trade (as well as other contemporary reform movements on the prisons, poor laws, etc), and penned a famous rebuttal in 1850 (which came to be known under the title "The Negro Question") to Thomas Carlyle's anonymous letter in defence of slavery.
From 1865 to 1868, Mill served as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Westminster, as well as serving as Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. During his time as an MP, Mill became the first person in Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote, and advocated easing the burdens on Ireland, as well as working indefatigably for such political and social reforms as proportional representation, labour unions and farm cooperatives.
It was Mill's essay "On Liberty" of 1859 that aroused the greatest controversy and the most violent expressions of approval and disapproval. It addressed the nature and limits of the power that can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual, and he laid down his "one very simple principle" governing the use of coercion in society (whether it be by legal penalties or by the operation of public opinion), arguing that we may only coerce others in self-defence: either to defend ourselves, or to defend others from harm (the so-called "harm principle"). Thus, if an action is self-regarding (i.e. it only directly affects the person undertaking the action), then society has no right to intervene, even if it feels the actor is harming himself. Man is therefore free to do anything unless he harms others, he argued, and individuals are rational enough to make decisions about what is good and also to choose any religion they want.
"On Liberty" also contains an impassioned defence of free speech, arguing that free discourse is a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress, and that we can never be sure that a silenced opinion does not contain some element of the truth. It introduces the concepts of "social liberty" (limits on a ruler's power to prevent him from harming society, requiring that people should have the right to a say in a government’s decisions), and also the concept of the “tyranny of the majority” (where the majority oppresses the minority by decisions which could be harmful and wrong sometimes, and against which precautions are needed).
Absolute sovereignty of the majority, and therefore oppression of the minority, is said to be a natural tendency of democracy. John Stuart Mill, in his classic On Liberty, noted that democracies tend to believe that “too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power itself. That . . . was a response against rulers whose interests were opposed to those of the people. Once the people, this is no longer a problem. The nation did not need to be protected against its own will”.
A democracy is more than just the rule of the majority. There is no real democracy without the rule of law and protection for human rights, as it is described in previous posts. After all, a tyranny can also have the consent of a majority.
A democratic law is a limited law. Even in a perfect democracy, it is possible to limit the will of the people. The people or the majority of the people cannot exercise their power in an unlimited fashion, otherwise we would not have democracy but the tyranny of the majority. If my rights are violated by a tyrant or by the majority, it is just as bad. The majority can decide and can impose its will on the minority, but this does not mean that the minority has to accept everything, including rights violations. A minority is not entirely powerless in a democracy. It can use its rights and the laws that protect these rights in order to defend itself against certain decisions of the majority.
(From P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.)
The personal freedoms that Mill so eloquently defends are not however given to us forever. They need constant reaffirmation. The current resurgence of authoritarian government and religious intolerance should make us re-examine "On Liberty" with renewed interest. In Mills own words taken from the introduction to his essay "On Liberty":
"The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle to govern the dealings of society with the individual... That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted... 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 a sufficient warrant. … These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign".
The essay was sparked by the feeling that Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, constantly expressed in their letters to one another: that they lived in a society where bold and adventurous individuals were becoming all too rare. Critics have sometimes thought that Mill was frightened by the prospect of a mass democracy in which working-class opinion would be oppressive and perhaps violent. The truth is that Mill was frightened by middle-class conformism much more than by anything to be looked for from an enfranchised working class. It was a fear he had picked up from reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America 1836, 1840; America was a prosperous middle-class society, and Mill feared that it was also a society that cared nothing for individual liberty.
Mill lays down "one very simple principle" to govern the use of coercion in society - and by coercion he means both legal penalties and the operation of public opinion; it is that we may only coerce others in self-defence - either to defend ourselves, or to defend others from harm. Crucially, this rules out paternalistic interventions to save people from themselves, and ideal interventions to make people behave "better". It has long exercised critics to explain how a utilitarian can subscribe to such a principle of self-restraint. In essence, Mill argues that only by adopting the self-restraint principle can we seek out the truth, experience the truth as "our own", and fully develop individual selves.
(The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Thomas Mautner at

From P.A.P. Blog
– Human Rights Etc.
Mill argues that despotism is an acceptable form of government for those societies that are "backward", as long as the despot has the best interests of the people at heart, because of the barriers to spontaneous progress. Though this principle seems clear, there are a number of complications. For example, Mill explicitly states that "harms" may include acts of omission as well as acts of commission. Thus, failing to rescue a drowning child counts as a harmful act, as does failing to pay taxes, or failing to appear as a witness in court. All such harmful omissions may be regulated, according to Mill. By contrast, it does not count as harming someone if — without force or fraud — the affected individual consents to assume the risk: thus one may permissibly offer unsafe employment to others, provided there is no deception involved. (Mill does, however, recognize one limit to consent: society should not permit people to sell themselves into slavery). In these and other cases, it is important to keep in mind that the arguments in On Liberty are grounded on the principle of Utility, and not on appeals to natural rights.
The question of what counts as a self-regarding action and what actions, whether of omission or commission, constitute harmful actions subject to regulation, continues to exercise interpreters of Mill. It is important to emphasize that Mill did not consider giving offense to constitute "harm"; an action could not be restricted because it violated the conventions or morals of a given society. The idea of 'offense' causing harm and thus being restricted was later developed by Joel Feinberg in his 'offense principle' essentially an extension of J.S.Mill's 'harm principle'.
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.
Mill believed that “the struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history.” For him, liberty in antiquity was a “contest... between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government." Mill defined "social liberty" as protection from "the tyranny of political rulers." He introduces a number of different tyrannies, including social tyranny, and also the tyranny of the majority.
(Answers Corporation)

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